Manhattan’s concrete jungle may get New York’s marquee treatment, but the state’s natural beauty lies outside of the five boroughs. Many regions of the Empire State have picturesque natural wonders, ideal for stunning and memorable hikes.
Whether it’s pathways around famous bodies of water, like the 11 Finger Lakes or the 2173-acre Lake Placid, or through some of the most notable peaks, like the Adirondacks in the northeast and Catskills in the southeast, the Empire State’s trails offer everything from gorgeous waterfalls to dramatic gorges and beautiful scenery every step in between, stretching from Long Island’s east end to the Niagara region in the northwest.
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Here are the ten best hikes that New York State has to offer, including family-friendly paths and thrilling uphill climbs.
Montauk Point State Park’s lighthouse is popular, but make time to hike the trails around it too © Marcutti / Getty Images
1. Oyster Pond Trail at Montauk Point State Park
Best hike for shore views
5 miles round trip, 2 hours, easy
Though people tend to visit Montauk Point State Park for the Lighthouse Museum, the hiking trails are wonderful and worth sticking around for. Follow the path to hike down the large rocks by the water on the tip of South Shore to get some beautiful views of the lighthouse, or choose to explore one of the 11 hiking trails that traverse both Montauk Point State Park and the adjacent Camp Hero Military Area State Park. One of our favorites is the Oyster Pond Trail, which traces the shore northward along Block Island Sound to Oyster Pond. Afterward, grab some tasty treats at Loaves & Fishes to bring down to the water for a picnic.
2. Eternal Flame Falls Trail
Best hike for seeing a unique natural phenomenon
1.1 miles round trip, 1 hour, moderate
Chestnut Ridge Park in western New York’s village of Orchard Park is known for its tobogganing and sledding hills in the winter and amazing hiking in the summer. The hike to Eternal Flame Falls leads up to a 30ft waterfall with a natural gas leak where you can see a little flame roaring behind the waterfall. Bring a lighter – even though it’s called the eternal flame, it does go out from time to time.
The hike is fairly short, but it’s moderately challenging – stay alert because it does get a little steep at certain sections. Keep back from the ravine and waterfalls, and if it’s been raining or snowing, be careful and take your time – it can get slippery.
The hike to view the spectacular Taughannock Falls is worth it © Walter Bibikow / Getty Images
3. Gorge Trail at Taughannock Falls State Park
Best hike for gorge views
1.9 miles round trip, 1 hour, easy
“Ithaca is gorges,” as the saying goes and this place lives up to the hype. These steep rocky valleys and the water that carved them have resulted in the area becoming something of a hub for hiking enthusiasts, from Buttermilk Falls to Ithaca Falls. One of the best-known cascades, Taughannock Falls, plunges 215ft and attracts visitors year round.
The popular Gorge Trail – which offers a cell phone tour – goes from the parking lot behind the park office along Taughannock Creek and across a bridge to the falls. The hike is stunning all year, but it’s a little more challenging in the winter. It’s worth the extra effort for the views of the falls surrounded by icicles.
4. Devil’s Hole Trail
Best hike for an alternative to Niagara Falls
2.6 miles round trip, 1 hour, easy to moderate
While the journey starts with challenging stone steps that lead down to the bottom of the gorge, it’s worth it for incredible views of the Niagara River along the Canadian border. There, you’ll find the Devil’s Hole Trail, a 1.3-mile riverside route that goes down to Whirlpool State Park, passing by rapids and impressive rock layers.
At the trail’s end, you can relax and watch the Whirlpool Aero cable car that runs seasonally (April to November) from Canada and the jet boat tours on the river.
A challenging climb is required to reach Kaaterskill Falls © GabrielPevide / Getty Images
5. Kaaterskill Falls
Best for hikers that love a challenge
1.4 miles round trip, 1 hour, moderate to challenging
Located in the Catskill Mountains in Hunter, the Kaaterskill Falls are beautiful but quite challenging to reach. The first part of the path is paved pretty well, but then you hit a few long flights of steep stone stairs – enough to make your legs wobble – so be cautious on the narrow steps. These are the highest falls in the state (even higher than Niagara) and their breathtaking scale has inspired generations of artists and hikers.
If you’re going to see these waterfalls in the winter, which some more experienced hikers do, wear footwear that protects your ankle and has grips. Any time of year, veer on the side of safety while experiencing the two-tiered 260ft waterfall. Even if you just make it to the first upper waterfall, you can hang out there to feel the refreshing mist after a long, hot hike.
6. Secret Caverns
Best hike for getting off the beaten path
0.5 miles round trip, 1 hour, easy
For a fairly easy hike with a big payoff, go spelunking through this rare find about 40 miles west of Albany. Located in the hamlet of Howe Caves, the popular Howe Caverns are touristy (although still gorgeous and worth a visit), but the lesser-known Secret Caverns just a couple miles up the road have something Howes Cavern doesn’t: an underground waterfall.
The guided tour is a 45-minute fairly easy and level hike. You head down what’s affectionately called the “petrified escalator” (103 steps) to reach a 100ft waterfall that leaves you feeling like Indiana Jones by the end. The cave openings get a little snug at times, but they’re nothing too outrageous.
Hiking in Watkins Glen can be challenging, but its beauty is the reward for the effort © Matt Champlin / Getty Images
7. Watkins Glen State Park
Best hike for stunning waterfalls
3 miles round trip, 2 hours, challenging
Watkins Glen State Park has one of the most beautiful hikes in the Finger Lakes, but it’s also challenging and steep. The trails are stone and paved, and they can be slippery because of the number of waterfalls that spray mist onto the stone. With 19 waterfalls along the course, these hikes are especially gorgeous in the fall months. The natural sounds of the falls and the flowing creek will lift your spirits as you try to catch your breath.
No matter which entrance you start from, the park has hike suggestions for varying levels. One of the most comprehensive – though challenging – is the 3-mile loop trail from the main entrance, starting along the Gorge Trail and then going through Jacob’s Ladder to the upper entrance. To complete the circuit, follow the North Rim trail to the suspension bridge and make a left to the South Rim Trail to Couch’s Staircase and back to the main entrance.
This hike has a lot of steps, so bring a snack and plenty of water. What’s a little unusual about this state park is that it’s right off the main strip of Watkins Glen, lined with shops and restaurants. Grab a wood fire pizza at Atlas Brick Oven Pizzeria, ice cream at The Colonial Inn & Creamery or a glass of wine at Harbor Hotel.
8. Mt Marcy’s Van Hoevenberg Trail
Best hike for reaching New York State’s highest peak
14.8 miles round trip, 9 hours, moderate to challenging
The Adirondacks are home to 46 “high peaks,” ranging from the 3820ft-high Couchsachraga to the 5344ft-tall Marcy, the highest point in New York State. While it’s not technically challenging, don’t be fooled, because even the Van Hoevenberg Trail – the shortest of the four main paths to the cone-shaped summit – is for experienced hikers. It’s a steep climb with a final ascent on open rock.
The trail starts off simple for the first 2.3 miles when it reaches Marcy Dam, which was damaged by Hurricane Irene but is still a lovely viewpoint for the surrounding peaks. After a left turn to follow Phelps Brook, things start getting rocky and steep, particularly near Marcy Brook. The path ascends at a moderate pace to the treeline, where weather conditions can start getting rough, be it winds or temperatures. After a leveling off, the famous upward climb comes about 6.8 miles in, before reaching the top at 7.4 miles. The breathtaking views on top of Mt Marcy are some of the most rewarding.
9. Perimeter Trail at Green Lakes State Park
Best hike for brightly colored lakes
9.7 miles round trip, 5 hours, easy to moderate
Central New York is peppered with great hikes, and some of the best can be found at Green Lakes State Park. The park has a system of interconnected shorter trails, ranging from 0.1 of a mile to 2.9 miles, that can be strung together. For the most part, the hiking here is simple and level.
To experience the park at its best, go for a hike around its perimeter, a route that’s as popular with birders in the summer as it is with cross-country skiers in the winter, and hikers all year round. Take the time to notice the water colors here – the two glacial lakes, surrounded by a wooded area, are meromictic, which means the top of the lake doesn’t blend with the bottom leading to the bright teal-colored water with greenery and plant life.
10. Rocky Point Pine Barrens State Forest
Best accessible hike
2.12 miles of motorized-access trails, 0.5 miles of ADA-compliant trails
Once used as the Radio Corporation of America’s global communications center, this Long Island State Forest in Suffolk County covers nearly 6000 acres with 12.2 miles of hiking trails along two primary pathways: the 5.4-mile red hiking trail and the 4.8-mile blue hiking trail. It offers half a mile of fully ADA-compliant trails on the south side of the forest, as well as more than 2 miles along Firestone and Woods Rds that are accessible to those with motorized mobility devices.
Keep a lookout for the thriving wildlife, from opossums and woodchucks to great blue herons, great horned owls and painted turtles.