The Best Things to Do in Upstate NY: Hidden Gems and Bucket List Must-Sees

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Things to do in upstate NY include checking out the trees, mountains, lakes and open space.
Upstate New York: trees, mountains, lakes and plenty of open space. Photo credit: Judy Antell

When you live in Brooklyn, everything north of the Bronx is considered upstate New York. New York State sprawls over 300 square miles, bordering Canada, Connecticut, Vermont, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

The year-round activities in upstate New York can include hiking, biking, visiting wineries and breweries (some of which have live music) and museums. Seasonal activities include kayaking and canoeing in summer, skiing or snowshoeing in winter, maple sugaring in spring and apple picking in fall.

You can see the Hudson River through much of upstate New York. It starts more than 300 miles away from New York City and travels through small towns throughout much of its run.

Read More: Where to Find the best Catskills NY restaurants.

Things to do in upstate NY include waterfront dining on the Hudson River.
Waterfront dining in upstate New York – the Hudson River, of course! Photo credit: Judy Antell

Day Trips from NYC

Beacon NY

Beacon is an ideal day trip to upstate NY. You can drive to Beacon in about two hours or take the MetroNorth Hudson Line from Grand Central to Beacon, NY. This is a wonderfully scenic train ride along the Hudson River.

Once you arrive, there’s an easy one-mile hiking trail that starts right at the MetroNorth Station. The Klara Sauer Trail takes you to Denning’s Point, where you can pick up a 3-mile loop trail. This is a great hiking trail for young kids, as it is relatively flat and stroller friendly.

The town of Beacon is a short cab ride (or long walk) from the train station. There, you’ll find cafes, restaurants and shops. The Dia Beacon Art Museum is a must-see. Art lovers take pilgrimages here. If this is on your bucket list, keep in mind that the museum is closed Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.

Things to do in upstate NY include checking out or biking along the Hudson River at Untermyer Gardens.
The Hudson River from Untermyer Gardens. Note the biker in red. Photo credit: Judy Antell

Yonkers NY

Spend the day at Untermyer Park and Gardens, the ruins of an estate from the 1800s. Untermyer overlooks the Hudson River and Old Croton Aqueduct. There are woodland trails and remnants of the gardens and staircases around the 43 acres.

You can even bike here from New York City, following the Empire State Trailway and Hudson River Greenway.

Untermyer Park and Gardens has a live music concert series in the summer.

Things to do in upstate NY include seeing the sculptures at the Storm King Art Center.
Sculpture at Storm King Art Center. Photo credit: Judy Antell

Hudson Valley: Hiking and Art

Storm King Art Center, an outdoor sculpture museum, has 500 acres of forest, hills, meadows and streams. It also has one of the largest sculpture gardens in the United States. It is both a contemporary art museum and hiking or biking destination. There are bike rentals if you want to cycle around the 500-acre sculpture garden; you can’t bring your own bike. 

Eat lunch at the cafe or bring food to eat at picnic tables. On the 3rd Friday in June, July and August, Storm King, in New Windsor, NY  is open late, and food truck vendors provide dinner options.

SheBuysTravel Tip: An outdoor museum is a great way to introduce children to art and museums. Once they think of museums as fun, indoor art museums are an easier sell.

Things to do in upstate NY include checking out historic sites like the Boring Mill Black Shot Water Wheel (sign).
This historic site in the Hudson Valley has hiking trails and an outdoor museum. Photo credit: Judy Antell

The historic West Point Foundry Preserve in Cold Spring is also both an outdoor museum and a place to go hiking.

The Putnam County preserve has abandoned building ruins and waterfalls, along with a few short hiking trails. The 19th century foundry produced guns and cannons during the Civil War.

A giant waterwheel and information panels about the history of the Foundry spice up the trees and views expected on a hike. 

Things to do in upstate NY include hiking in the winter (dog standing by boulder with leaves and snow on the ground).
We go hiking in upstate New York even when there is snow on the ground. Photo credit: Judy Antell

Another Hike, with Apples, not Art

Anthony’s Nose, near Cold Spring, offers spectacular views of the Hudson River. But you have to work for it. The 500-foot rock staircase has a half-mile vertical climb. This short hike, just past the Bear Mountain Bridge in Garrison, is actually part of the Appalachian Trail.

Combine this hike with a trip to Fishkill Farms. The family-owned apple orchard and vegetable farm in East Fishkill, New York, grows organic vegetables and eco-certified fruit. You can pick your own apples, blueberries, blackberries, peaches, nectarines, tomatoes and pumpkins, depending on the time of year. There are special weekend events like yoga and live music so you can make a day of it.

Things to do in upstate NY include dog-friendly hiking in Harriman (family posting with dog on the trail).
Dog-friendly hiking in Harriman. Photo credit: Judy Antell

Harriman State Park: Rockland County

Harriman State Park has more than 200 miles of trails with limited parking. Get here early and enjoy uncrowded hiking trails.

Things to do in upstate NY include checking out the rocks and view of the Hudson River at Rockland Lake State Park.
The rocks in Rockland Lake State Park, and the view of the Hudson River. Photo credit: Judy Antell

Rockland Lake State Park

There is a lake somewhere in Rockland Lake State Park, but the six-mile hike we take brings us up to a scenic Hudson River view, then down for a stroll along the river.

The part of the trail along the river even has bathrooms and drinking fountains.

Things to do in upstate NY include visiting the Rockefeller State Park Preserve.
Rockefeller State Park Preserve, in upstate NY. Photo credit: Judy Antell

Best Easy Hiking: Rockefeller Preserve

With its stunning views and easy hiking trails, this Hudson Valley masterpiece is no hidden gem. It gets very crowded. Rockefeller State Park Preserve, 30 miles north of Rockefeller Center in Manhattan, charges $6 to park, which does deter bargain hunters. I consider $6 a small price to pay for clean flush toilets.

The crushed stone carriage roads have been turned into 45 miles of wide, flat hiking trails. This makes the hiking trails family and stroller friendly. You may even see cross-country teams training here.

You can bring a dog, but the rules about keeping dogs on leash are strictly enforced.

Breakneck Ridge: Leave the Dog at Home

Breakneck Ridge offers the most difficult hiking near NYC. Take MetroNorth to Breakneck, near Cold Spring. The steep hike can be treacherous when slippery and is so challenging that dogs are not allowed on the trail.

You get great views of the Hudson Valley and even Storm King Mountain. If you and your [older] kids are up to it, it is one of the best hikes near NYC.

Short Getaways from New York City to Upstate NY

The Catskills

The Catskills is where my parents used to go on vacation, and it has become a popular second-home destination for New Yorkers. If you don’t want to go all the way to Niagara Falls, hike to Kaaterskill Falls. The waterfalls here are over 260 feet high. Here are our favorite things to do in the Catskills.

SheBuysTravel Tip: This is a rigorous hike with lots of loose rocks. You have to stay on marked hiking trails and stay at least six feet from cliff edges. Don’t bring dogs or small children.

Things to do in upstate NY include skating at the open air pavilion in Mohonk (boy and girl holding hands on the skating rink).
The open air pavilion for ice skating in winter at Mohonk. You warm up by the fire, and with hot chocolate. Photo credit: Judy Antell

Mohonk Mountain House

A National Historic Landmark, the Mohonk Mountain House is one of the grand resorts where you can spend a few days, using all the facilities and eating the delicious meals and afternoon tea served daily. 

There’s a spa, indoor pool, lake swimming, boating, tennis, golf and horseback riding in summer. In winter, there is outdoor ice skating, snowshoeing and cross country skiing and snow tubing. 

But if you don’t have the time, or the money, to stay here, you can buy a day pass to use the hiking trails. Passes are $35 a person for ages 13 and up and $30 for children ages 4-12. Yes, it’s expensive, but you have access to more than 85 miles of trails, with both easy and difficult terrain. There are carriage paths, rock scrambles and steep hiking trails. Day passes include parking and bathrooms.

For a full-day getaway, a summer sports pass, for $99, includes hiking, an hour of tennis, a half hour of a boat and afternoon tea.

Dogs are not allowed on Mohonk property.

Things to do in upstate NY include visiting the small town of Hudson (historic downtown buildings).
The small town of Hudson, in upstate New York. Photo credit: Judy Antell

Hudson – Brooklyn in Upstate NY

Hudson, New York, is one of those small upstate towns where Brooklynites go to find other former Brooklynites. The quaint downtown is lined with cafes and boutiques.

Hudson Brewing Company is a dog-friendly brewery that often has live music. And always has tasty beer.

If ice cream upsets your stomach, check out Culture Cream, “living ice cream” that has probiotics and is good for your gut (if not your waistline).

Things to do in upstate NY include winter walking (with or without snowshoes) on the Harlem Valley Rail Trail (dog on trail bridge).
Winter walk on the Harlem Valley Rail Trail; we planned to snowshoe but pivoted when there was no snow. Photo credit: Judy Antell

Harlem Valley Rail Trail

This rail trail, under construction since 1996, goes for more than 26 miles through Dutchess and Columbia Counties. We have walked and biked through another adorable small town, Millerton. The paved rail trail is great for families with strollers.

Longer Getaways to Upstate New York

You can take a road trip to many upstate New York destinations. The Adirondack Mountains, Niagara Falls and Thousand Islands are all better with multi-day trips from New York City.

Things to do in upstate NY include canoeing (with or without a dog) in the Adirondacks (two women in canoe with dog).
Canoeing in the Adirondacks with a dog. She refused to paddle. Photo credit: Judy Antell

The Adirondacks

The Adirondacks is a vast region encompassing small towns, 6 million acres of Forever Wild Forest Preserves and the largest National Historic Landmark in the United States. According to Visit Adirondacks, it covers “an area larger than Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Glacier, and the Great Smokies National Parks combined.”

From New York City, and depending on where you are going in the Adirondacks, it takes between five and seven hours to drive here. You want to spend several days exploring outdoor adventures.

Our friends have an off-the-grid house, powered by solar panels and heated by a wood stove. In summer, this is a wonderful, remote escape from the heat of Manhattan, and in winter, you are pretty much guaranteed snow for cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling and downhill skiing.

We recently spent three days hiking and canoeing. Our dog had never been on a boat before, but she took to it like a champ. Her favorite activity was splashing through the marshy path to a boathouse, which reached mid-thigh on adults and past the shoulders of a Labrador Retriever. Canine heaven.

But also, nirvana for adults. The Hudson River starts here and feeds the lakes. You can go fishing, swim in the many lakes, or just enjoy the spectacular scenery.

We had to be intentional about what we ate and the electricity we consumed. The house, called a camp in Adirondacks parlance, is 45 minutes down a dirt road and more than two hours from a supermarket, so you want to make sure not to run out of oat milk or shallots before you commit to the long bumpy drive.

You also have to wait to run the dishwasher until the sun comes out.

If you aren’t lucky enough to have friends with a private Adirondacks camp, you can pitch a tent in the millions of acres owned by New York State. There is no fee to enter, and the park never closes, so you are free to pitch a tent in the forest and commune with nature.

There’s Culture Too

When you tire of all the outdoor adventures, you can go to 2 museums in the area, The Museum at Blue Mountain Lake and The Wild Center Natural History Museum in Tupper Lake.

The Finger Lakes Region

Culture and Food in Ithaca

Ithaca’s hidden gem is Cornell University’s art museum, designed by I.M. Pei. The Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, free to visit, includes a Japanese garden and an outdoor Sculpture Court.

The Corning Museum of Glass has glassblowing and flame-throwing demonstrations throughout the day. The galleries feature glass collections from ancient to contemporary. You can make your own glass project or design something for the glass blowers to make.

 If you are traveling with children, kids 17 and under are free. 

Ithaca is also home to Moosewood Restaurant, a bucket list destination for vegans and vegetarians. As the owner of every Moosewood cookbook, this is a true mecca.

Ithaca Beer, home to the justly famed Flower Power IPA, has a huge beer garden and its own farm. The restaurant serves its homegrown produce alongside beer-friendly food for all kinds of eaters.

Things to do in upstate NY include checking out the hiking trails and waterfalls in Watkins Glen State Park (waterfall on rocks).
Watkins Glen State Park has waterfalls and easy hiking trails.. Photo credit: Judy Antell

Watkins Glen and Watkins Glen State Park

There are plenty of fun things to do in Watkins Glen, but you definitely don’t want to miss Watkins Glen State Park with its dramatic waterfalls and easy hiking trails. There are slippery rocks (from those waterfalls) and steps, so it’s really more like a rigorous walk. Go early when it’s empty – you can even run through the state park then.

The wine trail goes through Watkins Glen. Lakewood Vineyards has a Vineyard Hike and Tasting, where you walk through the vineyard and sample wine in the gazebo. 

You can take a boat tour of Seneca Lake. Captain Bill’s has sightseeing tours and lunch or dinner cruises. We took a 50-minute sightseeing cruise in the heat of the summer and the water offered a cool (ish) breeze. I’d love to return for the longer sunset cruise.

Chautauqua County – Really Far from New York City

Chautauqua, which many people in New York City have never even heard of, is a seven-hour drive. In fact, it is closer to Cleveland, Ohio. During the pandemic, my oldest daughter moved to Cleveland, and we rendezvoused in Chautauqua.

National Comedy Center

Laughter is currency in our family, so the National Comedy Center in Jamestown was on our bucket list. You could spend all day here, learning about different comics through the ages, watching clips of your favorite TV shows and movies, and even performing stand-up. This incredible paean to humor opened in 2018 in Lucille Ball’s hometown.

You complete a comedy profile on a big screen, using a personal stylus to select shows and movies you like. You get a personalized bracelet embedded with a chip to identify yourself at different interactive stations around the museum (the better to find the snarky or political, broad or dirty humor you prefer). 

Jamestown also has the Lucille Ball Desi Arnaz Museum, showcasing costumes and sets from different Lucy shows. The museum hosts an annual comedy festival.

Things to do in upstate NY include checking out Panama Rocks Scenic Park (woman balancing between two rock walls).
Just hanging out in Panama Rocks Scenic Park. Photo credit: Judy Antell

Panama Rocks Scenic Park

The privately owned park Panama Rocks Scenic Park in Chautauqua County has easy hiking trails. But you can also climb giant rock formations and explore caves and crevices. 

Note that strollers are not allowed in the park.

Things to do in upstate NY include visiting Thousand Islands State Park (lighthouse on the water).
Thousand Islands Park, waaay upstate New York. Photo credit: Judy Antell

Thousand Islands Region

The Thousand Island Region, on the northern edge of upstate New York, is modestly named. There are actually more than 1,800 islands, and Lake Ontario. Some of the islands are in Canada, along the St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario. 

The Thousand Islands region is more than a six-hour drive from New York City (and three hours from Montreal). Once a summer vacation area for wealthy Americans (and Canadians) in the late 18th and early 19th century, it has a number of great things to see related to water.

Clayton: the Heart of the Thousand Islands Region

The small town of Clayton, mostly built in the 19th century, has beautiful historic buildings, art galleries, boutiques and restaurants.

If you like boats, go to the Antique Boat Museum. This hidden gem has hundreds of boats on display inside and out. Included with admission, you can row a traditional St. Lawrence Skiff. For an extra fee, take a sightseeing boat tour in an antique wooden boat.

SheBuysTravel Tip: Boaters who go out on their own have to be careful not to stray into Canada. Even if you go by accident, you will face a heavy fine.

For a touch of grandeur, tour Boldt Castle on Heart Island. Several tour boat operators take you to the fabulous castle and grounds, which are accessible only by water. Be sure to look at the Boldt Yacht House, with its collection of antique boats and a gatekeeper’s cottage that tells the story of the building of the castle.

It’s a very sad story. George Boldt, the proprietor of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in NYC, bought Hart Island, which he renamed ‘Heart Island’ to honor his wife, Louise. Four years after the home was finished, Louise died suddenly and George never returned to his island.

You can also take a boat ride to tour Singer Castle on Dark Island. If being royalty is on your bucket list, you can stay in the royal suite at the castle and have the castle and island to yourself for the night.

More Things to Do in Upstate New York

  • Visit the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.
  • See the best waterfalls and national wonders in North America at Niagara Falls and ride on Maid of the Mist.
  • Hike or drive through another natural wonder, Letchworth State Park, aka the Grand Canyon of the East
  • Travel back to 19th century New York at the Genesee Country Village and Museum.
  • Celebrate the cold at the annual Lake George Winter Carnival.
  • See where the Olympics took place twice in the northeast in Lake Placid.
  • Tour Saranac Brewery in Utica. Founded in the 19th century, Saranac has live music in its beer garden.
  • Check out the LEGOLAND amusement park in the Hudson Valley. 
  • Get wet year-round. The Kartrite Resort & Indoor Waterpark, the biggest waterpark in New York State, is in the Catskills.
Judy Antell Avatar
Judy Antell is an empty-nester mother of 3 who spends a lot of time visiting her daughters. Why don’t they live in Brooklyn? Judy and her husband love to travel, by bike, car, or plane, whether to see their kids or have friend or couple adventures, mostly centered around vegetarian food.
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