The beauty of New York State lies not just in its landmark attractions, but also in the places in between – the foliage-blanket hills of the Catskills, the serene stillness of the waters in the Finger Lakes and the silent strength of the peaks of the Adirondacks.

The following five road trip itineraries showcase some of the Empire State’s best sites – from museums and beaches to art parks and nature reserves. However, remember that here, the experience truly lies in the journey and the little gems you’ll witness outside your car window.

Montauk Point Lighthouse on Long Island's eastern tip
Montauk's historic lighthouse is a Long Island icon © Dan Hallman / Lonely Planet

1. Long Island's gardens, museums and beaches

Best for family fun
Old Westbury–Wantagh; 72 miles
; allow 1–2 days

Jutting out from the eastern coastline, 118 miles east of New York City, Long Island is a world away from the fast-paced state capital. It's filled with suburban delights, opulent mansions and beaches in every direction, which makes it an ideal road trip for kids of all ages. The “Are we there yet?”s will quickly turn into “Please, can we stop here too?”

Start at Old Westbury Gardens, an English-style country home from 1906 ringed by 200 acres of formal gardens, woods, ponds and lakes (check out their year-round program of activities 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 mini-beasts. If your kids have 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 American astronaut, Sally Ride. 

From there, head to the Gatsby Gold Coast on the north side of the island to gawk at the oversized mansions, stopping at Centerport’s Vanderbilt estate to explore the shipping magnate's mansion and a fine museum and planetarium. Then head to the southern shore for some playtime at Wantagh’s Jones Beach State Park to frolic on 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 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.

Visitors relaxing near huge artworks at the Storm King Art Center, New Windsor, NY
Stop at Storm King Art Center in New Windsor to admire an impressive collection of more than 100 outdoor sculptures © Victoria Lipov / Shutterstock

2. A Hudson Valley and Catskills romantic sampler

Best for couples
New Windsor–Hudson; 141 miles
; allow 2–3 days

Immediately north of New York City, Mother Nature opens her arms to romantics at any time of year, emphasizing the cozy vibe of autumn, the snowy magic of winter, the floral beauty of spring and the 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 amidst 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 for 1.28 miles between Poughkeepsie and Highland.

From here, get lost in the stunning splendor of the Mohonk Mountain House, whether that means enjoying a luxurious, all-inclusive stay or just buying a hiking day pass to explore 85 miles of surrounding trails, including the famous Labyrinth rock scramble and the narrow crevice known as the Lemon Squeeze. All along the trails are cute wooden gazebos that 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 main streets.

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 the finest of dining, with ingredients sourced right from its farm at the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture. For more casual fare, opt for the Blue Hill Cafeteria at Stone Barns, a calm stop for lunch trays filled with small delicacies and community table dinners.

Water splashes over rocks at Buttermilk Falls State Park, New York State
Check out the swimming hole, trails and campground at Buttermilk Falls State Park © Amnon Hazan / Shutterstock

3. Finger Lakes Highlights

Best for relaxation
Ithaca–Watkins Glen; 59 miles
; allow 1–2 days

The moment you set your eyes on any of the 11 long, narrow Finger Lakes is like a ginormous exhale. There’s something about the calm waters here that can’t be replicated; expect the stress of daily life to just magically melt 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 grounds, including a healing garden of medicinal plants and a literature-themed herb garden.

Trace the lakeside up to Interlaken, where you can sip at area wineries such as 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, poised 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" – an event that looks like a page ripped out of a classic novel.  

Crowd of swimmers on beach of Lake George (NY) during day of springtime
The Adirondack Mountains form a beautiful backdrop to scenic lakes such as Lake George © Marc Dufresne / Getty Images

4. Adirondacks Lake Hopping

Best for water lovers
Lake George–Lake Champlain; 160 miles
; allow 3–5 days

Majestic and wild, the Adirondacks mountain range – famous for the 46 high peaks that tower above 3820ft – rivals any of the nation's wilderness areas for sheer awe-inspiring beauty. Around 9375 sq miles of protected parklands and forest preserves sprawl from central New York State to the Canadian border, taking in 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 (such as the roller coasters at Six Flags Great Escape) are balanced with chill time at night (at dozens of waterfront restaurants, many of which are known for their craft beverages).

Alternatively, you can simply blend in with the locals and stroll around Lake George Village. Then drive over to Tupper Lake, where the natural world comes into full view at the Wild Center outdoor museum and the astronomy-focused Adirondacks Sky Center.

Next, it’s time to chase those Olympic dreams at Lake Placid, the setting for 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 128m 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 sees 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

People walking near Niagara Falls in New York State
Niagara Falls is an essential stop on the Great Lakes Seaway Trail © Tony Shi Photography / Getty Images

5. Great Lakes Seaway Trail

Best for a weeklong trip
Ripley–Rooseveltown; 428 miles; allow one week

While the total length of the Great Lakes Seaway Trail covers 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 the Thirty Mile Point Lighthouse, so it’s well worth taking several 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 (July), 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 with its swimming beach. 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

This article was first published Oct 15, 2020 and updated Sep 18, 2023.

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