During peak fall foliage season, you can experience New York State’s autumn splendor on winding mountain drives through the Adirondacks and Catskills or on tours of the Hudson, Delaware, and Genesee River Valleys. These Empire State driving routes and tours (and handy maps) will add color to your autumn getaways.
Letchworth State Park
The scenery shifts from bucolic to dramatic on a drive inside Letchworth State Park, one of the top places to visit in New York State. The Genesee River snakes through a deep gorge here, earning the park its "Grand Canyon of the East" nickname. Drivers will find frequent pull-offs overlooking the 600-foot walls of 250-million-year-old sedimentary rock. Don't miss Inspiration Point, where you can view two of the major waterfalls within the park.
Shawangunk Wine Trail
Fall is the perfect season for discovering the vineyards along the Shawangunk Wine Trail, which begins 60 miles north of New York City in Ulster County. Tastings and tours are available at 15 member wineries, and you'll want to visit other attractions along your route, such as Minnewaska State Park Preserve. This 12,000-acre tract adjoining Mohonk Preserve is known for its rugged terrain, which challenges those skilled at technical rock climbing and rigorous hiking. The less adventurous can bike or walk along carriage roads. Be sure your itinerary includes Baldwin Vineyards. With its 1786 stone house and neat rows of grapes, Baldwin is the most photogenic of the region’s wineries.
Two hours north of Manhattan, one of the most striking autumn drives is this route through the Catskill Mountains. Along the way, you'll see iconic scenes depicted in Hudson River School paintings, such as Kaaterskill Creek, and there are plenty of opportunities to stretch your legs and even to soar high above the leaves on a Hunter Mountain Skyride.
An ideal drive to view fall foliage, US 9 is the longest north-south U.S. highway in New York. Take your time on this jaunt through Hudson Valley towns from Hyde Park to Saratoga Springs. Hyde Park is home to many historic sites including the Vanderbilt estate, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s home, and the surprisingly modest Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site. For lunch, head up to Hudson, where restaurants and boutique shops are clustered in the city's revitalized, walkable downtown. Afterward, take a short detour onto Route 23 west to Olana: former home of Frederic Edwin Church, a major Hudson River School painter. The Martin Van Buren National Historic Site in Kinderhook is worth a stop, too. And when you reach Saratoga Springs, you'll find plenty to do including celebrating the city's horseracing history at the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame.
Upper Delaware Scenic Byway
Route 97 parallels the sinuous Delaware River, which serves as the border between New York State and Pennsylvania. From the south, begin your trip along the Upper Delaware Scenic Byway in Sparrow Bush. Pause to pick up a picnic lunch at the River Market in Barryville. Thanks to its proximity to the water, there are opportunities there and in Narrowsburg to go rafting, canoeing, and kayaking. But the drive's enough of a thrill: The winding stretch known as the Hawk's Nest has been photographed and filmed for many car ads and commercials.
Great Lakes Seaway Trail National Scenic Byway
If it's designated a National Scenic Byway, it has to be good! New York State's 518-mile Great Lakes Seaway Trail traces the shores of the St. Lawrence River, Lake Ontario, the Niagara River, and Lake Erie. Alexandria Bay at the northernmost part is a perfect starting point for exploring a prime segment of the Seaway Trail that extends west to New York's border with Pennsylvania and Ohio. Take US 81 to Sackets Harbor and transfer to Route 3 for optimal leaf peeping until you reach Mexico (that’s Mexico, New York). Then, turn onto Route 104 to continue this scenic journey.
Don’t be surprised to find yourselves following a tractor or horse and buggy in this part of western New York. Head west from Cattaraugus on Route 353 and follow signs to Cherry Creek. Along the Amish Trail, you’ll pass farmsteads where life moves at a quieter pace, and so will you. Follow hand-painted signs to shop for quilts, furniture, and baked goods, and don’t miss dining at one of the bountiful buffets.
Finger Lakes Wine Trail
Add wine tasting to your day of autumn explorations by planning a driving route in the Finger Lakes. The Cayuga Lake Wine Trail stakes a claim for being the oldest trail of its kind in America. For an important bit of history, start in Seneca Falls and pay homage to those who operated stops on the Underground Railroad and paved the way for women’s rights. Then, travel south along Route 89, which leads to 14 wineries. Ithaca, home to Cornell University and renowned for its many waterfalls and gorges, lies at the southern tip of the lake.
If you're leaf peeping on two wheels or four, autumn is the best time of year to follow this scenic Hudson Valley route in Dutchess County. Start at Route 9 in Rhinebeck, home to the historic Beekman Arms inn and restaurant. Transfer to 9G to visit Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, where the Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts designed by Frank Gehry has become a landmark. The little town of Tivoli is 10 minutes away and home to Osaka, the best sushi restaurant this side of the Hudson. Route 78 to Route 199 leads to Milan, a rural town with some of the most beautiful roads and views anywhere. Route 308 circles back to Rhinebeck.