The Empire State Road Trip is a fun-filled adventure designed to showcase three of New York’s most diverse and popular regions. Road trips are such a great way to explore a large country like the U.S., with the freedom to make as many stops as you’d like along the way! I recommend beginning the Empire State Road Trip in Chautauqua County and ending at the 1000 Islands (visiting Watkins Glen in between) which is a 6 hour total drive time with no stops.
But no matter where you start or end your vacation, each destination and the interesting stops in between offer beautiful landscapes, outdoor recreation, shopping, and cultural attractions that promise to surprise and delight with incredible experiences and lasting memories. Keep reading to discover my top recommendations on where to stop, including the best hotels to stay at…
CHAUTAUQUA COUNTY, NEW YORK: A Comedy & Cultural Hot Spot
Chautauqua County in western New York has been treasured by generations as a year-round destination for adventure-seekers, lovers of arts and entertainment, history buffs, and leisure learners who flock to the world-renowned Chautauqua Institution. Enriched by the beauty of five lakes, the region is enjoying added attention with the opening of the National Comedy Center and the newly available luxury accommodations of our Chautauqua Harbor Hotel.
What to see & do in Chautauqua County:
- Take a tour of the new National Comedy Center, in nearby Jamestown, the first state-of-the-art museum dedicated to telling the vital story of comedy in America. As a nonprofit cultural institution, the museum celebrates comedy’s great minds and unique voices, from Charlie Chaplin to Dave Chappelle. More than 50 immersive exhibits with cutting-edge personalization technology makes the entire experience unique and enjoyable for all ages!
- Honor the legacy of Lucille Ball and visit the Lucille Ball Desi Arnaz Museum in Jamestown, Lucy’s hometown. Enjoy the fun costumes, photographs, memorabilia and awards on display.
- Tour the grounds of the venerable Chautauqua Institution, dedicated to the exploration of the best in human values and the enrichment of life through a program that explores the important religious, social and political issues of our times.
- Visit Frank Lloyd Wright’s Graycliff Estate, nestled high on a bluff overlooking Lake Erie, the most significant summer home Wright ever designed and a realization of his ideal of organic architecture.
Some suggestions for road trip stops on the way to Watkins Glen:
- Allegany State Park in Salamanca, NY is definitely worth a stop, as this 65,000-acre gem offers scenic views, hiking trails, and restaurants. Located within the park is Red House Lake, where visitors can enjoy swimming, boat rentals, and the Red House Restaurant.
- About 20 miles before Watkins Glen is Mark Twain’s Study via NY-14 N, where he wrote some of his most famous stories: Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. Located in the middle of the Elmira College campus, visitors are allowed to visit and sit in the very same chair that Mark Twain used while writing his infamous stories.
- Definitely make a pit-stop in the charming town of Corning, NY, located just 20 miles from Watkins Glen. Visit the Corning Museum of Glass, where visitors can watch glass take shape during a live demonstration, learn the history, or even try glassmaking themselves. The Rockwell Museum showcases works of great American artists such as Andy Warhol, Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Moran and Frederic Remington.
FINGER LAKES WINE COUNTRY: Wine Trails & Scenic Adventures
Nestled on the shores of Seneca Lake, Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel is the perfect vantage point from which to explore this vibrant destination. Showcasing some of Mother Nature’s most spectacular work, New York’s Finger Lakes Region is known for its award-winning wineries, unmatched outdoor recreation, historic attractions, and more. It’s also home to two national treasures – Watkins Glen State Park and the legendary Watkins Glen International.
What to see & do in Finger Lakes Wine Country:
- Experience breathtaking natural beauty while exploring one of New York State’s treasures, Watkins Glen State Park, where the dramatic landscape features water sculpted rock and 19 cascading waterfalls. The park recently underwent a $6.5 million renovation that saw the creation of a new welcome center, small outdoor amphitheater, improved educational displays, and new viewing areas.
- Sample award winning wines by following the Seneca Lake Wine Trail. Comprised of 34 wineries situated around the glacially formed lake that provides an ideal climate for growing grapes, the area is filled with wineries offering tastings of locally produced wines such as Riesling, Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, and more. Also dotting the remarkable landscape are craft breweries and distilleries where the public may sip and savor the area’s local flavors.
- Quench the need for speed by visiting Watkins Glen International, home to automobile racing including NASCAR’s only appearance in New York State. Affectionately known as “The Glen,” this storied venue is also home to concerts and festivals.
- Explore the pristine waters of Seneca Lake, the largest of New York’s 11 Finger Lakes, by boat. Set sail with Schooner Excursions aboard the True Love or Remedy, travel under power with Captain Bill’s & Seneca Lake Cruises, troll for salmon and trout aboard a Reel Stories Fishing Charter, or practice fly fishing or rent a kayak through Summit to Stream.
- Visit rescued farm animals at the Farm Sanctuary, one of just three such unique properties in the United States. Drawing animal lovers from around the world, the sanctuary is a 271-acre shelter home to more than 500 rescued pigs, cows and other domesticated animals.
Some suggestions for road trip stops on the way to 1000 Islands:
- Syracuse is roughly mid-way in the drive no matter what route you take. Destiny USA with its outlet shops and attractions would make an easy mid-trip stop for a lunch break and some shopping. You could also visit Armory Square for a variety of restaurant options and a visit to the Museum of Science and Technology.
- Another option is to drive 40 miles north from Watkins Glen on 96 to Seneca Falls, home to the Women’s Rights National Historical Park. Stop for lunch along the way at a lakeside restaurant or pick up picnic items at a local market. The picturesque town claims to be the inspiration for Bedford Falls from “It’s a Wonderful Life”; it even has a museum with memorabilia!
- You could also go straight up 14 to Sodus Bay and Lake Ontario and then follow the Seaway Trail all the way into Clayton. It is about 40 miles and a half hour longer than taking Interstate 90/81. Stop by a local market to pick up some seasonal produce and park along the Lake Ontario shore for a picnic. It is all two-lane roads – a real drive in the country.
1000 ISLANDS: Remarkable Legends & Landscapes
Paradise for sightseers, outdoor enthusiasts, anglers, and history buffs, 1000 Islands is a stunningly beautiful archipelago region of the St. Lawrence River that stretches from the northern tip of the Empire State to southeastern Ontario, Canada. I’d recommend staying at the 1000 Islands Harbor Hotel where you will discover a region with a storied past shaped by trade on the mighty St. Lawrence, War of 1812, Gilded Age, and Prohibition.
What to see & do in 1000 Islands:
- Spend a relaxing day exploring the charming town of Clayton, home to shops, restaurants, and the Clayton Opera House.
- Explore Thousand Islands Seaway Wine Trail, which features eight unique wineries, or enjoy spirits at the Clayton Distillery.
- Tour the Antique Boat Museum, the premier freshwater nautical museum in North America with galleries overflowing with over 300 unique and beautifully-preserved boats and thousands of artifacts.
- Explore the secret passages within Singer Castle, located on Dark Island, or visit Rock Island Lighthouse, complete with keeper’s quarters and museum.
- Experience the majesty of Boldt Castle, a turn-of-the-century castle rivaling those of Europe, built on the St. Lawrence River, in the heart of the 1000 Islands.
- Soak up the scenery and fresh air with a cruise down the St. Lawrence River. Classic Island Cruises, Clayton Island Tours, and Uncle Sam Boat Tours offer outings with knowledgeable guides who make the area’s history come alive with tales of pirates and bootleggers.