Your Guide to a Road Trip Across New York State

When you think of an American road trip, you likely picture the rolling hills and open plains of Big Sky country out west, or maybe the winding coastline of California or the endless desert of portions of Texas, Arizona, or New Mexico. You probably don’t think of New York, a state more commonly associated with crippling traffic jams and smog than wide open roadways.

Watkins Glen State Park
Steven John/The Manual

But, once you leave that crowded little corner of New York hanging down into the Atlantic Ocean, you find a surprisingly large state that is in fact best enjoyed by car. A multi-day drive around the state of New York could have you behold famed Niagara Falls, pass through multiple mountain ranges, skirt deep glacial lakes, and visit multiple New York cities that are not New York City. And best of all, in most cases you can enjoy open roads with little traffic.

As the state is indeed large by East Coast standards — you can drive more than 320 miles south to north and around 280 miles west to east — it’s best to choose an itinerary that will focus on a few spots with a pleasant drive binding them together. Trying to see all New York has to offer in just one road trip? Why, you can forget about that! I mean … fuggedaboutit.

Starting In the East: The Great Lakes Region

Much of New York’s northeastern border is formed by two of the Great Lakes, Lake Ontario farther north and Lake Erie on the east. Starting off far to the east, you can begin a great drive across New York just a dozen miles from the shores of Lake Erie in a town nestled below a decidedly smaller lake Lake Chautauqua. Your starting point is the town of…

Celoron, NY

Celoron, New York is a village of fewer than 2,000 people tucked into the southwest corner of the state perched at the southern tip of Chautauqua Lake. While visiting, you can take in plenty of views or get out on the water. Celeron is home to the decidedly unique National Comedy Center and Lucille Ball Desi Arnaz Museum nearby in Jamestown. If you plan to spend a night, by all means stay at the Chatauqua Harbor Hotel, the newest and finest spot in town.

Celeron is home to Graycliff Estate, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright
Graycliff Estate, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright Lonely Planet/Getty Images

Leaving town headed east on Interstate 86 will take you toward the lovely Finger Lakes region, but after only about 30 miles, you should dip south to head into Allegany State Park, a great place for hiking, kayaking, and for camping out.

The Finger Lakes: Spend a Day or Two or Five

Leaving Allegany State Park heading due east, likely on I-86 (but get off on State Route 2 or 21 some for better scenery) you will head toward the Finger Lakes region. You have about a 140-mile drive to reach the heart of this area — a pit stop halfway there in Hornell is your best bet if you want a variety of restaurant options.

Once you reach the Finger Lakes region, a fine home base is the town of…

Watkins Glen, NY

Watkins Glen is large enough to have three ice cream shops, multiple restaurants, and decent shopping, but small enough to be completely walkable. There is a superb hike through a gorge in Watkins Glen State Park complete with waterfalls aplenty; there are world-class race events at Watkins Glen International racetrack (AKA The Glen); and of course you can paddle, sail, or cruise on big ol’ Seneca Lake, the deepest lake contained entirely within the borders of America.

road trip new york guide watkins glen state park canyon upstate
Steven John/The Manual

Right at the southern tip of this lake is the Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel, a AAA Four Diamond Property with a great bar and the best restaurant in town, including plenty of outdoor seating. Most of the hotel’s rooms feature a stunning lake view, with sunset not to be missed. There are also nearly three dozen wineries in the region, so that’s another fine reason to visit.

About 20 miles east, at the tip of Cayuga Lake, you will find…

Ithaca, NY

Best known for Cornell University, the eponymous Ithaca College, and for its famed gorges (as well as plenty of shirts that say ‘Ithaca is Gorges’), Ithaca is a city well worth your time if only to spend a moment gazing at the massive, magisterial Ithaca Falls, a truly impressive cascade of water. Also not to be missed is the Ithaca Farmers Market, a huge covered marketplace open most of the year where you can get everything from artisanal pies to handmade toys to Vietnamese food to craft beer to sushi (some of the best I had tried in years, at that).  In and around Ithaca, you’ll also find plenty of wineries to visit, if you want to take in the oenological side of the Finger Lakes region.

Finger Lakes
Finger Lakes Region Walter Bibikow/Getty Images

There are some great hikes around Ithaca, and if you want a superb glamping experience, check out Firelight Camps, a well-curated campground a short drive south of town.

New York’s North

Staying as far as we can from the dreaded traffic of NYC and the greater Tri-State area, leave the Finger Lakes headed northeast on State Route 13. You could pick up I-81, but staying on the state roads offers better views and some drives through lovely forestland. Take SR-13 all the way to and around Oneida Lake, a fine fishing spot in the summer and a great area for winter sports like snowshoeing and snowmobiling.

Staying on SR-13 north for a bit longer will take you to I-81, which you can hop on for a quick trip north to our final stop, but for scenery, take the road to its end on the shores of Lake Ontario. Pick up State Route 3 at Port Ontario and head north, skirting the mighty lake.

Clayton, New York

End your drive in Clayton, New York, on the banks of the St. Lawrence River, just a stone’s throw from Canada. Here you’ll find wineries, The Clayton Distillery — which produces gin, whisky, moonshine, and more — an opera house, and multiple historic buildings. Better yet, the area is perfect for outdoor recreation in three seasons, from boating to fishing to hiking and more. Hearty folks can head out in winter, too, for hiking, cross-country skiing, and  The 1000 Islands Harbor Hotel is your best choice for a weekend spent in the region. The hotel’s Seaway Grille alone is worth a visit.

Clayton Distillery
Clayton Distillery/Facebook

Also, the region’s many state parks, like the Five Ponds Wilderness and Black River Forest have gorgeous fall foliage.

There, now you only have six hours to drive back to NYC! If you drive super fast and get pretty lucky.

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