So much of the beauty of New York State isn’t just in its landmark attractions, but rather in the in-betweens – like the foliage blanketing the rolling hills in the Catskills, the serene stillness of the waters in the Finger Lakes and the silent strength of the peaks of the Adirondacks.
While these five road trip itineraries showcase some of the Empire State’s best sites – from museums and beaches to art parks and nature centers – remember that here, the experience truly lies in the journey and the little gems you’ll witness outside your car window.
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1. Long Island gardens, museums, and beaches
Best for family fun
Start – Old Westbury; End – Wantagh; Distance – 72 miles
Jetting out 118 miles east of New York City, Long Island is a world apart from city life, filled with suburban delights, opulent mansions and beaches in every direction. This makes it an ideal road trip for kids of all ages when the “Are we there yet?”s will quickly turn into “Please, can we stop here too?”
Start at Old Westbury Gardens, a 1906 English home sitting on 200 acres of formal gardens, woods, ponds and lakes, featuring year-round programming for families and children. Just down the road is Garden City’s Long Island Children’s Museum, with imaginative displays on everything from bubbles to beasts. For kids with their eyes on the skies, opt for the Cradle of Aviation Museum, with fascinating exhibits on early biplanes and spaceflight and a new statue honoring Sally Ride.
From there, head to the Gatsby Gold Coast on the north side to gawk at the oversized mansions, stopping at Centerport’s Vanderbilt to explore the mansion, museum and planetarium. Then head to the southern shore for some playtime at Wantagh’s Jones Beach State Park with 6.5 miles of white sand.
Detour: For an elongated route, stretch out the distance to the east end of Long Island. On the North Fork, visit the spectacular purple fields of Lavender by the Bay at its locations in East Marion or Calverton. You can also go for a spin on the century-old carousel in Greenport before heading out to Montauk to climb the iconic Montauk Point Lighthouse.
Stop at Storm King Art Center in New Windsor to admire its impressive collection of more than 100 outdoor sculptures © Victoria Lipov / Shutterstock
2. Hudson Valley and Catskills romantic sampler
Best for couples
Start – New Windsor; End – Hudson; Distance – 141 miles
Immediately north of New York City, Mother Nature opens her arms to romance any time of year, emphasizing the cozy vibe of autumn, snowy magic of winter, floral beauty of spring or verdant calm of summer in the Hudson Valley and Catskills.
Kick off the getaway by walking hand-in-hand among the outdoor sculptures at Storm King Art Center, a 500-acre wonderland where art mingles with nature through meadows, forests and rolling hills. Then prove that your partner really can walk on water by taking a stroll over the Walkway Over the Hudson, the world’s largest pedestrian bridge stretching 1.28 miles between Poughkeepsie and Highland.
From there, get lost in the stunning splendor of the Mohonk Mountain House, whether indulging in an all-inclusive stay or opting for a hiking day pass to explore 85 miles of surrounding trails, including the famous Labyrinth rock scramble and upward Lemon Squeeze. All along the trails are idyllic wooden gazebos that will really up the romance factor.
Keep heading north to Opus 40, a mesmerizing 6.5-acre earthwork sculpture that will keep you both on your toes. Cap the day off by spending an evening at the charmingly cozy Shandaken Inn, warming up by its wood-burning fireplace or roasting marshmallows over the outdoor fire pit. Finally, work your way back over the river to Hudson, an artsy enclave where you can meander downtown and explore the antique shops, hip coffee spots and innovative eateries lining the street.
Detour: Reserve a table for two at Pocantico Hills’ Blue Hill at Stone Barns, where the meal of the day (there are no menus) promises to be the finest of dining, sourced right from its farm at the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture. For more casual fare, opt for the Cafeteria at Stone Barns, serving lunch trays filled with small plate delicacies and a community table dinner.
Check out the swimming hole, trails and campground at Buttermilk Falls State Park © Shutterstock / Amnon Hazan
3. Finger Lakes Highlights
Best for relaxation
Start – Ithaca; End – Watkins Glen; Distance – 59 miles
The moment you set your eyes on any of the 11 long narrow Finger Lakes is like a ginormous exhale. There’s just something about the calm waters here that can’t be replicated as the stress of daily life magically melts away.
Using Ithaca as your starting line, head over to Buttermilk Falls State Park, where the meditative cascades tumbling down from Cayuga Lake will lure you into a state of zen. Hold onto that state of mind as you head over to the Cornell Botanic Gardens to experience its peaceful gardens, such as a healing garden of medicinal plants or a literature-themed herb garden.
Trace the lakeside up to Interlaken, where you can sip at area wineries like Hosmer Winery in Ovid or Shepherdess Cellars on the Cayuga Wine Trail. Top it off with a cool dessert from Cayuga Lake Creamery (Seneca salt caramel, anyone?).
Next, hop over to the bottom of Seneca Lake to Watkins Glen, where you can continue the R&R with a stroll through Watkins Glen State Park or maybe counter it all by revving up at the Watkins Glen International raceway with some high-speed NASCAR racing.
Detour: While the Finger Lakes region is peppered with storybook villages, Skaneateles raises the bar, sitting right at the top of the 16-mile-long Skaneateles Lake. The bed and breakfasts here come with an extra dose of charm, and the restaurants come with a punctuated sense of flavor. The entire hamlet comes to life during the holidays for its famous Dickens Christmas that looks like a page ripped out of a classic novel.
The Adirondack Mountains are best for enjoying New York State’s beautiful lakes, such as Lake George © Marc Dufresne / Getty Images
4. The Adirondacks Lake Hopping
Best for water lovers
Start – Lake George; End – Lake Champlain; Distance – 160 miles
Majestic and wild, the Adirondacks mountain range, famous for its 46 High Peaks that all tower over 3820ft, rivals any of the nation’s wilderness areas for sheer awe-inspiring beauty. The 9375 sq miles of protected parklands and forest preserve, which climb from central New York State to the Canadian border, include towns, mountains, glacial lakes, rivers and more than 2000 miles of hiking trails.
While the area is named after the peaks, the lakes make waves in their own way and guide the way for an idyllic road trip. Start in Lake George, where thrills by day (like at the Six Flags Great Escape) are balanced with chill time at night (like at the dozens of waterfront restaurants, many of which are known for their craft beverages), or simply blend in with the locals by strolling around Lake George Village. Then drive over to Tupper Lake, where the natural world comes into full view at Wild Center and Adirondacks Sky Center.
Next, it’s time to chase those Olympic dreams at Lake Placid, host of the 1932 and 1980 Winter Games. Visit the Lake Placid Olympic Museum and Olympic Jumping Complex, where you can take a gondola and elevator up to the 128-meter ski jump. Finally, end your journey at Lake Champlain to step back into American history at Fort Ticonderoga and Crown Point Historic Site.
Detour: Between Tupper Lake and Lake Placid, stop off at Saranac Lake, a lesser-known stop that means fewer tourists. Connect with the outdoors by hiking, biking, kayaking, birding or golfing, or get to know the area’s history as a tuberculosis cure center at the Saranac Laboratory Museum.
5. Great Lakes Seaway Trail
Best for a weeklong trip
Start – Ripley; End – Rooseveltown; Distance – 428 miles
While the total length of the Great Lakes Seaway Trail stretches 512 miles (including a small portion in Pennsylvania), the New York section starts just across the border in Ripley and traces Lake Erie and Lake Ontario before ending at the St Lawrence River in Rooseveltown. The first Chautauqua/Niagara section arguably has some of the most headline attractions, including Buffalo and Niagara Falls, Lake Erie State Park and Thirty Mile Point Lighthouse, so it’s well worth a few days to properly see the highlights.
Next are two Lake Ontario sections. The western section includes the state’s fourth largest city, Rochester, as well as the Charlotte-Genesee and Sodus Point Lighthouses. The trail’s eastern section is rooted in the waterfront town of Oswego, known for its summer Harborfest, and Sackets Harbor, a village that’s a designated New York State Heritage Area.
As the lakes flow out into the river, the road travels up through Alexandria Bay – worth a stop to hop on Uncle Sam’s Boat Tours to experience the Thousand Islands and the once-abandoned Boldt Castle from 1900. Also, make time for the 2636-acre Wellesley Island State Park. Just before reaching the finish, enjoy some downtime at Coles Creek State Park, where you can camp right along the St Lawrence.
Detour: Venture off the byway for a stopover in Syracuse, home to the picturesque Syracuse University, with the postcard-perfect Hall of Languages and the Harry Potter-like Crouse Hall. While in town, visit the Erie Canal Museum and dine at Pastabilities, where you’re sure to walk out with a jar of their addictive Spicy Hot Tomato Oil.