My Top 5 Best Spots on the Road: Road Trip in Upstate NY

Labor Day Road Trip:
New York State

Since October 2019, I can now give my husband the title of “Insanely Good Road Trip Planner”. In this post, most of the credit goes to him, to be honest.
On our October 2019 Road Trip, his friend from Austria joined as well. He was part of the entire trip and contributed to selecting outdoor activities and hikes. I joined them for less than a week but their entire road trip took two weeks. 


This long weekend we decided to do another road trip but this time only the two of us. It took us less than a week, and I took two personal days for the occasion. So much needed time off, since my last real break was the Pacific Northwest road trip in October 2019.


Below is the map of our trip. We had a vague idea of what we wanted to see, then made decisions one or two days prior. My husband did great research though, and put everything on a google map. That map is quite amazing actually, as he put so many spots worth seeing.

Travel plan
the decisions made ahead of time:
  • the decision to dedicate an entire day for driving
  • packing and ordering healthy snacks! Best stuff I got was from Thrive
  • visit our friends, reach out to them in advance to make sure our schedules matched
  • the return to the city at a slower pace

Flexible points
the decisions while traveling:
  • the accommodations in Niagara Falls (Hotwire)
  • the accommodation near Watkins Glen State Park (Hotwire)
  • where to eat, based on our location (Yelp, Google)

It worked out so well, I would recommend similar planning if you’re coming from New York City. Driving this long to see the Niagara Falls only might feel tiring. If you stop and take the time to see more nature and state parks along the way, you would get a wholesome experience.

About the Car Rental:

We found a loophole in a search algorithm on travel websites, likely due to Covid, and got a deal for our car rental. We used a VNP, and tried mobile, desktop searches as if we were based in Europe.

About the Gear that made the difference:
  1. Car Mount for Phone: Ideal if like us you rely on Google Maps (Most car Navigation Systems aren’t great)
  2. Selfie-Stick / Tripod: Believe me this thing made a difference! (Also it’s not so trendy anymore, with the lockdown they were no tourists using it but us, win win win!)
  3. Macro lens for iPhone: I love plants, and when I take pictures of landscapes on a hike, I am tempted to take close ups of nature, just for the fun of adding a new dimension to the photo collection.
  4. Quality hiking shoes: This made such a huge difference for me, from the previous shoes I had, these were an upgrade. Gives a good grip when you’re rock scrambling. You go much faster at busy locations such as Watkins Glens during a Labor Day weekend. You can walk in the puddles and skip people where it’s slippery.
  5. Car Power Adapter: You usually are set with your iPhone chargers, but it’s good to have another one for the passenger. They cost nothing and you can get them anywhere.
  6. Mosquito and bug Repellent: got mine from Thrive. As people who are mosquito magnets, we need it!
  7. Foldable hat and sunglasses: I used to believe sunglasses were enough.
  8. Travel pillows: adds an extra level of comfort!
  9. A reusable container for liquids and more: I have a S’Well bottle in Milkyway (insulated for cold and hot drinks) and a tall mason jar (better buy them in bulk, they are overpriced otherwise) with a cuppow lid, a silicon protector and a divider cup in silicone that makes it super convenient on the road to store snacks as well as liquids.
  10. Hand Sanitizer: the less greasy and best smelling we got is from Honest Company.
  11. Organic Spray Sunscreen: got ours from Alba Botanica
  12. Headlamp: to enjoy hikes AND sunsets
  13. Opinel folding knife: even though, I usually take it everywhere with me, I forgot it on this trip.
  14. A LOT OF WATER! We took a pack of San Pellegrino for five days, only for drinking on the road.
Our Itinerary:
  • New York City

    Day 1

  • Niagara Falls

    Day 1

    We arrived on the first day and we stayed for 2 nights.

    We took a look at the American side of Niagara Falls. What we heard is that the Canadian side enjoys the most amazing view. Our impression is that on the U.S side, you can feel the pure energy of the water. They are several viewpoints where the water displays its full kinetic energy. The other advantage is that you can walk around on Goat Island. From the Goat Island, you can see the Bridal veil, the Horseshoe Falls, and the Cave of the Winds. It might not be the most impressive waterfall in the world, it is still legendary and a must-see. After seeing it for the first time there is hardly any waterfall that is that impressive in the West. The waterfalls that can wow you big time are in less touristic regions. I am thinking of the Angel Falls in Venezuela or the Victoria Falls in western Zimbabwe. In Niagara Falls, the paths, and facilities are top-notch, making it family-friendly. They light up the Falls and the river at night, which is nice.

  • Buffalo

    Day 3

    For our next stop, we drove by Buffalo, the second-largest city in New York State. They are world-famous for Buffalo Wings. We did have some on the road, but not in Buffalo. We did stop in front of Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site. Unfortunately, because of Covid, we had to book way in advance to be able to join the tour. I was a bit disappointed because I wanted to see the site. It was where Theodore Roosevelt took the oath of office as President of the United States on September 14, 1901. We stopped downtown to grab some coffee at Public Espresso. The coffee place is inside the gorgeous historical Hotel Lafayette.

  • Letchworth State Park

    Day 3

    In the afternoon we visited Letchworth State Park. The park extends for 27 km, with three waterfalls and many viewpoints. From each points you can marvel at the gorges along the Genesee River. Worth checking out!

  • Watkins Glen State Park

    Day 4

    Watkins Glen State Park was our first stop. The heart of the park is a gorge that runs up to 120 meters deep along the Glen Greek. The region of the Finger Lakes as well as the gorge originated when glaciers receded after the Ice Age. There are eleven Finger Lakes: Canadice, Canandaigua, Cayuga, Conesus, Hemlock, Honeoye, Keuka, Otisco, Owasco, Seneca, and Skaneateles. According to a Native American legend: “the Creator looked upon this land with special favor and reached down to bless it, leaving the imprint of His hand, hence, the Finger Lakes.”

    We did the following Trail: Gorge Trail and Indian Trail Loop.

    As you can see it in the picture, it was insanely busy! More crowded than New York City during summer 2020. As if the entire states of New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania all had the same idea to meet at Watkins Glen on that day. We were queuing hours because, at a narrow spot with a waterfall, people were lining up to take pictures. It was so narrow that only one or two people could make it through at a time. Gotta resent the existence of Instagram at times.

    We were cutting the line because we didn’t want to take selfies. People were arguing that they didn’t intend to take pictures with the waterfall. The issue is once they were near it, it was irresistible for them not to. Having hiking shoes gave us a huge advantage to move faster.


  • Bonticou Crag

    Day 4

    At sunset, we went on a hike with friends on the Bonticou Crag summit, located in the Mohonk Preserve. I recorded the trail we did via AllTrails, and it is available here. It included a rock scramble.

    On the last night of our journey, we got to spend the night at our friends’ house. It allowed us to catch up with very good friends and enjoy the idyllic New York life outside of the city. It was hard to leave.

Overall, we covered around 1,600 km (or approximately 1000 miles). This roughly corresponds to a Salzburg-Berlin round trip. We drove through half of it (800 km) on the first day. The rest was in three parts and a comfortable three-hour drive from stop to stop each day. We rented the car at JFK, which is only a few subway stops away from our house. For 5 days it cost $ 280. When it comes to gas, we used 90 liters for a price of $ 55. For European standards that was modest. They were tolls but we also drove on state roads.

In conclusion, in the United States, a road trip is cheap and uncomplicated.
We also realized that it isn’t easy for a Western European (an Austrian and a French) to imagine what “untouched nature” is like. You have to witness it for yourself. I could argue and pull my “Russian card” here, because wilderness IS Russia. But Russia is a world in itself.

For example last year, we were able to see the Hoh Rainforest in Washington State. The Hoh River valley was formed thousands of years ago by glaciers. It is something to witness, as they are less primordial forests left in Europe.
It is understandable why Americans are traveling to Europe. If you want to understand western civilisation and its legacy, there is nothing like it. Each country has exquisite architecture and historical sites worth seeing.
As Europeans, we are in awe of the nature of North America. They are many climates, countless types of landscapes and wilderness still exists here. We are planning on exploring more regions soon.

Eléonora & René