Travel

The Most Incredible Hikes in Upstate New York

The Middle Falls At Letchworth State Park
Letchworth State Park | Jim Vallee/Shutterstock
Letchworth State Park | Jim Vallee/Shutterstock

To truly enjoy living in NYC, you occasionally have to leave it. Fresh air and ample personal space are the perfect antidotes to a crowded subway, and with 180 state parks to choose from, New York has plenty of both. Whether you want to swim under a waterfall, climb to the highest point in New York State, or just avoid social media for a few hours, here are some of the best trails the Empire State has to offer.

Mt. Wittenberg Catskills
Wittenberg Mountain | rustinpc/Flickr

Wittenberg Mountain

Phoenicia
Distance: 7.8 miles
This is a trail for serious hikers, ascending 2,600 feet to the top of one of the Catskills’ 35 over 3,500’ peaks. It’s a rocky path and some sections are so steep they feel almost vertical, but there are also some pretty fun rock scrambles and an amazing view of the Ashokan Reservoir at the summit. If there’s enough time and you’ve still got some gas in the tank, it’s only about a mile further to the peak of Cornell Mountain along a narrow ridgeline. The view is nowhere near as good as Wittenberg, but there is a scary/fun section near the top called the Cornell Crack that requires actual rock climbing skills to navigate. Whether you bag one peak or two, expect your legs to feel wobblier than a dubstep bass line the next day.

Poet’s Ledge

Palenville
Distance: 6.2 miles
If anyone knows how this ledge got its name, let us know -- all we could figure out was that Sanford Robinson Gifford (one of the leading members of the Hudson River School) painted the view from this spot in 1861. But we wouldn’t be surprised if the vista had inspired verse at some point: It’s a spectacular lookout over the Palenville and Hudson valleys that your squished up panoramic photo will not do justice to later. Reaching this painterly point takes some sweat: You have to locate the trailhead hidden behind a house, huff up a seriously steep grade for two miles, and watch out for bears. But the views from Maeli’s lookout, Ella’s ledge, and Poet’s ledge; several waterfalls along the hike; and the fact that this is a low-traffic trail that you’ll likely have to yourself most of the time, more than make up for the earlier effort.

Watkins Glen State Park
Watkins Glen State Park | Flickr/Meghan Hess

Gorge and Indian Trail, Watkins Glen State Park

Watkins Glen
Distance: 2.4 miles
You’ll feel like Indiana Jones, winding through caves, across bridges, and over waterfalls -- 19 of them, to be exact. The wide stone pathway has been carved into the rock and makes for easy walking, so instead of looking down at your feet you can gawk at the dramatic rock formations and pools around you. This one of the more popular parks in the Finger Lakes region, so aim for off-peak hours if you don’t want too many randos in your pics.

Overlook Mountain House in NY
Overlook Mountain House | Flickr/Mitchell Joyce

Overlook Mountain

Woodstock
Distance: 4.8 miles
It’s not about the journey with this one: It’s about the destination. You’ll walk uphill along a gravel road with power lines the entire way -- not quite the bucolic getaway you traveled all the way from the city for. But you’ll hit the first cool landmark after about 2 miles -- the ruins of an old hotel from the area’s heyday as a resort destination (remember Dirty Dancing?). A climbable fire tower (which you should definitely scale) is a half mile further. Follow the trail a little bit longer for a jaw-dropping cliff edge view of the Catskill Mountains and Hudson Valley. Told you it was worth it.

Saranac Lake 6er

Saranac Lake
Distance: 31 miles
Love a challenge? Climb these six designated peaks in a single season to become an official 6er, which earns you the right to ring a special bell in the Saranac Lake town square. (Something called the Kiwassa Curse awaits those who chime without the climb.) Start with Baker Mountain, a 2-mile hike that’s the easiest of the bunch. The hardest of core can attempt to summit all six peaks in 24 hours, and snag the title of Ultra 6er, plus bragging rights for life.

Mount Marcy

Lake Placid
Distance: 14 miles
Reaching New York State’s highest point isn’t easy. The shortest route is along the Van Hoevenberg Trail, which is still a nearly 10-hour round trip. The last mile of the 5,344-foot summit is a real butt (and quads and calves) kicker, but once you’ve hauled yourself to the top you’ll be rewarded with a view of the rolling Adirondacks and, on a clear day, Montreal’s Mount Royal. Make sure you’ve got the theme from Rocky on your playlist.

Cascade and Porter Mountains

Lake Placid
Distance: 5.6 miles
Among the 46 mountains that make up the Adirondack High Peaks, these are two of the most accessible. Plus they can be tackled together in a single, not-too-challenging hike; once you’ve conquered Cascade, it’s only another mile or so to bag Porter. That and the proximity to downtown Lake Placid makes this an extremely popular hike. If you want the 360-degree views at the top of Mount Cascade to yourself, get up early and watch the sunrise from the summit -- no Insta filter needed.

hiking
Sleeping Beauty Mountain | jennandjon/Flickr

Sleeping Beauty Mountain

Fort Anne
Distance: 5 to 7.5 miles, depending on route
A great day hike near Lake George, this trail is big on scenery (think forests, lakes, and mountains) but won’t leave your legs feeling like Jell-O. That’s largely due to the switchbacks near the top; remember they don’t just make the incline less steep, they also protect the ground from erosion, so mind your trail etiquette and don’t cut the switchbacks! You can shorten the hike by driving the first 1.5 miles, so long as your vehicle can handle a rough dirt road and you don’t mind a bit of side-eye from the folks on foot.

gorgeous view
Robert H. Treman State Park | Matt Kremkau/Shutterstock

Rim and Gorge Trail, Robert H. Treman State Park

Ithaca
Distance: 4.7 miles
Forget TLC. This loop trail takes you along both sides of the stunning Treman Gorge -- home to a dozen waterfalls, including the impressive 115-foot Lucifer Falls. The path can indeed be devilish at times as you ascend from the bottom of the gorge to the rim, but you’ll be too busy ogling the vertical shale walls and natural stone steps. Work up a sweat and then cool off under the swimmable waterfall at the end of the trail.

Letchworth State Park
Letchworth State Park | Stef Ko/Shutterstock

Gorge Trail, Letchworth State Park

Silver Springs
Distance: 7.1 miles (one-way)
This easy trail is more of a long, scenic stroll than a true hike, but it shows off the park’s greatest hits: Letchworth Gorge (aka the Grand Canyon of the East) and its three major waterfalls. Note that it’s 7 miles from one end of the gorge to the other; to get back, you’ll either have to retrace that walk, or drop a second car at the endpoint. The path sticks pretty close to the road, so you can drive certain sections if you’re not keen on the distance. Make up the lost steps by exploring some of the smaller, less populated trails branching off the main one.

Giant Ledge and Panther Mountain

Oliverea
Distance: 6.3 miles
The eponymous ledge is actually a series of five ledges so perfectly situated it’s as if nature is inviting you to pull up a seat and admire its handiwork. The hike to the overlook is short but steep (a 3-4 mile round trip) and plenty of people choose to loiter there, soaking in the vista over a beer or even spending the night at the two nearby campsites. If you have the juice or you’re craving some space from the inevitable crowds at Giant Ledge, continue climbing for another mile or so through alpine forest until you each the top of Panther.

Kaaterskill Falls

Elka Park
Distance: 2.5 miles
These falls have inspired poems, paintings and even made a cameo in Washington Irving's “Rip Van Winkle.” It’s easy to see why they’re so famous: they’re tall (260 feet), dramatic, and require only a mild half-mile hike to reach them. Time your trip wisely, though -- in the summer, the falls can dry to a trickle, and in winter the mud and ice make the footing treacherous. Visit in late spring or right after a summer rainstorm for the best of both worlds.

waterfall
Verkeerderkill Falls | Sharon Cobo/Shutterstock

Sam's Point and Verkeerderkill Falls

Cragsmoor
Distance: 5.6 to 8.2 miles
There are two ways to tackle this hike -- a 5.6-mile out-and-back or an 8.2-mile loop through the spectacular Minnewaska State Park Preserve. Either way is an action-packed ramble past a lake, a lookout point where some guy named Sam apparently survived a jump off the cliffs, several ice caves where it’s so cold that there’s snow in them almost year-round, and a nearly 200-foot waterfall. Judge for yourself whether the sign proclaiming the cascade one of “Earth’s Last Great Places” is an exaggeration or not.

Labyrinth Trail

High Falls
Distance: 1 mile
This rock scramble from Mohonk Mountain House resort is short, intense, and seriously fun. Take the smallest backpack you own and make sure your hands are free; you’ll need them to crawl, climb, and contort yourself through impossibly tiny crevices in the rocks. With sections named “Fat Man’s Misery” and “Lemon Squeezer” (hint: you’re the citrus), this may not be the hike for you if you get claustrophobic or are scared of heights. For everyone else, it’s a total blast, and definitely worth the $15 hiking fee.

Anthony's Nose

Manitou
Distance: 2.6 miles
If you’ve ever been to Bear Mountain then you’ve probably seen Anthony’s Nose, the vaguely schnoz-shaped hill across the Hudson River. What you may not have realized is that the Nose boasts one of the nicest views in the lower Hudson Valley, and that to reach the viewpoint you’ll be walking a section of the Appalachian Trail. You’ll only be on it for about half a mile, but it packs a punch -- it’s the steepest, hardest section of an otherwise gentle trail. And yes, this basically makes you Reese Witherspoon in Wild.

Cornish Estate Trail

Cold Spring
Distance: 4.9 miles
This gentler alternative to neighboring Breakneck Ridge still involves a bit of a rock scramble and has those same awesome views of the Hudson River. Plus, you’ll have the chance to explore the ruins of a grand old estate built by Edward Cornish, the president of the National Lead Company until 1938. Back then there was a mansion, swimming pool, and formal gardens -- think The Great Gatsby goes upstate. The estate was destroyed by fire but you can still see intact fireplaces, arched windows, and staircases among the foliage, like a cautionary tale for renters insurance.

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Sarah Theeboom is a travel, food, and culture writer who wants you to always wear sunscreen. Follow her on Twitter or Instagram.