Race raging rivers, scale panoramic plateaus, fly through farmland and meander past mountain towns. It only takes two hours to drive from New York City’s traffic-packed streets to the Catskills’ bucolic backroads, and exploring these paths makes for an enchanting urban escape. 

Choose between state-designated scenic byways and short backwoods excursions to see the best of the Catskills through your windshield. Whether you’re peeping fall foliage, touring a vibrant village or taking a cinematic camper-van vacation, these Catskills road trips do not disappoint. 

Tip for driving in the Catskills: While you won’t contend with much traffic, it’s still important to remain alert. Animal crossings are common – particularly at dawn and dusk - and cops are known to set speed traps at the entrance to small towns. Roads are generally well-maintained and easy to navigate, but winter can create slick driving conditions; the best time to plan a road trip is between spring and autumn

Catskills getaway
The best of the Catskills includes bright foliage, farmlands, and quaint mountain towns © Boogich / Getty Images

Shawangunk Scenic Byway

Best for fall foliage

Start and end in New Paltz; Distance – 88 miles; allow half a day

The Shawangunk Scenic Byway links a collection of backroads together like a giant charm bracelet. Historic towns, expansive parks and sweeping vistas shine along the circuitous path as it slinks up the Shawangunk Ridge and descends into verdant valleys. The drive itself is best during autumn’s leaf-peeping season, but travelers can enjoy treasures hidden just beyond the byway year-round. 

There are four distinct sections of the byway: The Northern Loop, Route 44/55, the Southern Route and the Wallkill Valley Loop. Each section leads to unique experiences, but the Northern Loop offers the most action-packed drive. 

This loop starts in New Paltz, a hippie college haven, then snakes toward the Mohonk Preserve on Route 299, where outdoor adventures abound. Turn right on Route 55 and crawl around a tight hairpin turn before entering Minnewaska State Park’s chestnut oak forests.

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Expect to share the road with bikers in summer - cliff-top pull-outs make this an epic pedal-palooza. Upon reaching Route 209, take a right, and you’ll pass a series of local farms, including Kelder’s – a you-pick produce paradise that’s home to the third-largest gnome in the world. 

Make your way to Route 213 and drive along the Roundout Creek toward Rosendale, a 19th-century cement industry town, then follow the Wallkill River on Route 7 as it curls back to New Paltz. Without stops, the entire trip takes roughly one hour. 

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Upper Delaware Scenic Byway

Best for cinematic scenery

Start – Hancock, End – Port Jervis; Distance – 70 miles; allow half a day 

If cruising along the Upper Delaware Scenic Byway (Route 97) conjures images of fancy car commercials, you’re right on track: companies from BMW to Porsche often use a section of the road known as the Hawk’s Nest in their ads. 

Navigating the cement squiggle between the Poconos and the Catskills might be the stuff of motorcycle fantasies, but you don’t have to be a backroad desperado to enjoy the journey. Charming towns dot the byway as it traces the Delaware River, giving road trippers myriad reasons to hit the breaks and explore. 

Narrowsburg, with its chic boutiques and Americana Main Street allure, is a must-see. Grab a bite at the Tusten Cup and step outside to soak up the scenery. Callicoon, located 20 minutes north of Narrowsburg, is equally attractive thanks to its quirky shops, tasty restaurants and seasonal Sunday farmers’ market. 

Several points along the byway offer river access, but the most popular is Skinner’s Falls, where white rapids attract daring kayakers and tubers on summer’s hottest days. If you want unobstructed river views for the entire drive, start in Hancock and travel south to Port Jervis along the Delaware’s eastern banks. 

A winding country road in the Catskills mountains. The edges of the paved road are covered in snow.
Don't let the winter months stop you from enjoying a road trip to the Catskills Mountains © Boogich/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Catskill Mountains Scenic Byway

The quintessential Catskills experience

Start – Shokan; End – Andes; Distance – 52 miles; allow half a day

The Catskill Mountains Scenic Byway (Route 28) is the region’s “best of” list in road form: it breezes along babbling brooks, old-growth forests and mountain passes while gliding through cozy hamlets. Without stopping, the drive takes roughly one hour, but adventurous travelers should allow ample time to enjoy the hikes, farm-to-table dining and scenic photo-ops along the way. 

Start in Shokan, a tiny town north of the Ashokan Reservoir’s cobalt shoreline, and drive west. Keep your eyes peeled for quirky folk art tucked into the Brunel Sculpture Garden and the world’s largest kaleidoscope at Emerson Resort and Spa. 

Grab a bite at Phoenicia Diner, where hipster flavor meets greasy spoon favorites, before driving past Slide Mountain Wilderness, home to the Catskills’ highest peak. Stretch your legs on the Panther Mountain Trail, located close to the byway or plan a day trip to Belleayre Mountain for a snowy ski outing. As the road climbs north toward Andes, pause at the Palmer Hill Trail parking lot, and you’ll see the Catskill Mountains rolling toward the south like waves in the ocean. 

The Ultimate Catskills road trip itinerary 

Best for long weekend vacations 

Start and end in Kingston; Distance – 192 miles; allow 2-3 days

Make the most of a Catskills weekend by planning a road trip that rings the entire region. This itinerary connects three scenic byways with trendy towns and Edenic diversions. The drive takes roughly 4.5 hours without stops, but it’s best to break up the trip into two or three days. 

Start in Kingston – New York’s first capital city – and follow Route 28 as it heads past the Ashokan Reservoir and along the Catskill Mountains Scenic Byway. Pause in Big Indian, home to farm-to-table favorite Peekamoose and the bohemian Urban Cowboy Lodge

Next, follow Oliverea Road (Route 47) into the Big Indian Wilderness toward Livingston Manor – an ex-Brooklynite enclave with boutique hotels and breweries aplenty. Continue on Route 52 toward Narrowsburg, the artsy darling of the Delaware River, and follow the Upper Delaware Scenic Byway south toward Port Jervis. 

The rest of the road trip is a straight shot along Route 209, which skirts the Bashakill Wildlife Refuge and becomes the Shawangunk Scenic Byway before returning to Kingston. 

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A woman stands next to the Kaaterskill Falls on a fall day
The Kaaterskill Falls is a happy detour on the Mountain Cloves Scenic Byway © GabrielPevide / Getty Images

Mountain Cloves Scenic Byway 

Best for natural wonders and epic hikes

Start – Palenville; End – Hunter; Distance – 41 miles; allow half a day 

Cloves, a distinctive geographic feature of the Catskills, are clefts cut by waterfalls and rivers as they zigzag through mountains. Thomas Cole, the 19th-century landscape painter and founder of the Hudson River School, immortalized their sublime beauty in his artwork, beckoning future generations to follow in his footsteps. 

Today, the Mountain Cloves Scenic Byway follows the most dramatic of these clefts as they wind from creeks to peaks. Whiz past the byway’s earthly delights, and it’s easy to understand why Cole devoted his life’s work to the region.

Route 23A is the byway’s main artery, but it also veers onto State Route 214 and County Routes 16, 18, 23C, and 25. To make the most of the trip, consider the most exciting stops throughout the region and plan accordingly. 

For a tour of tiny mountain towns, start in Palenville, considered America’s first art colony, then head toward Tannersville – known as the Painted Village in the Sky for its colorful Main Street facades. Finish the trip in Hunter, a year-round outdoor recreation destination. Hike-happy travelers should consider detours to Kaaterskill Falls, New York’s highest two-tier cascade, and the Hunter Mountain Fire Tower, where it’s possible to see Vermont’s peaks on clear days. 

Swinging Bridge Reservoir Road Trip

Best backroad adventure with little traffic

Start – Mongaup Valley; End – Sparrow Bush; Distance – 20 miles; allow 1-2 hours

Find your inner Robert Frost by taking the road less traveled in Sullivan County. This trip, which links Mongaup Valley to Sparrow Bush, follows a chain of residential backroads that pass the Swinging Bridge Reservoir, the Rio Reservoir and the Mongaup River. 

Plan to drive the road in summer, when sun-dappled cement sparkles under leafy trees and you can roll down your windows to luxuriate in the country air. 

The journey begins on Starlight Road, near Papa Luke’s pizzeria. Head south toward Swinging Bridge, a lake lined with palatial summer homes and continue onto Plank Road until you spot the quilt of lily pads atop McAuley’s Lake. 

Bear right to stay on Plank Road, also labeled Route 44, and drive along an ambling stream for roughly four miles as it dives into the Rio Reservoir. Make a sharp right on Rio Dam Road and pause for a bird’s eye view of the reservoir tumbling into the Mongaup River. Take a left on Knight Road, another left on Upper Mongaup Road, and within minutes, you’ll run into the Upper Delaware Scenic Byway. 

Cap off the trip by hiking along Mongaup River Trail, a two-mile adventure through hemlock forests. In this neck of the woods, white-tailed deer outnumber people, and if you look up, you might see a bald eagle soaring above the landscape.

How to plan the perfect Catskills weekend getaway 

Farmer Stand in Catskills
The ultimate Catskills road trip should include a stop at a farm stand for fresh produce © Dan Hallman / Lonely Planet

Windham and the Durham Valley Scenic Byway

Best for visiting local farms

Start and end in Windham; Distance – 21 miles; alow 1-2 hours

If you ask a Catskills local for directions to the Irish Alps, they won’t send you to the Emerald Isle – they’ll send you to Durham. This pastoral region earned its nickname in the mid-20th century when folks with Erin-go-bragh gall started traveling here en masse for summer vacations. 

Today, the Durham Valley Scenic Byway explores the Irish Alps as they descend from Mount Pisgah into valleys with rolling farmland and a fair share of Irish flags.

The byway doesn’t make for a straightforward road trip, so instead, follow a loop that starts and ends in nearby Windham, a winter ski destination. This easy half-hour drive is most splendid between summer and autumn when farmers sell in-season produce from street-side stands.

Begin by heading north on Mitchell Hollow Road (Route 21) to Cunningham Farm. Make a right on Cunningham Road and pause at Hull-O Farms for a meet-and-greet with livestock worthy of an Old McDonald sing-along. 

Then, follow Route 20 as it carves its way to Cornwallville, a hamlet of Durham, and detour to the Five State Lookout, located off Route 23. When the sky is clear, it’s possible to see the Hudson River Valley, the Helderberg Mountains, New Hampshire’s White Mountains, Vermont’s Green Mountains, Massachusetts’ Berkshires and the Connecticut Valley. Head back to Windham via Route 23, and you’ll pass the Elm Ridge Wild Forest, a 1,355-acre preserve with over 25 miles of multi-use trails. 

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