new-york-state

Exploring New York State: A family road trip to Niagara Falls from New York City

Two kids, two adults and a huge stunning state to explore

Sophie Vokes-Dudgeon

The city of dreams. The city that never sleeps. Yellow taxi cabs, Central Park, sky scrapers, the Statue of Liberty. If these are the things that spring to mind when you hear the words New York, you won’t be alone. And they were certainly the things that sprang to mind for me, too, before I spent 10 days exploring the state which encompasses the city.

And while I’m a huge fan of NYC – the buzz, the excitement, the iconic monuments and ever-rushing people – I now know what it is that lies beyond the suburbs of one of the most exciting cities in the world. And the state is every bit as alluring a its namesake city.

I wasn't alone on this journey; I was accompanied by my husband and two sons, aged 13 and 11, and it was a truly family-friendly adventure from the moment we arrived. Here's our guide to the best kid-approved road trip through New York State ending up at the breathtaking Niagara Falls.

Day One: Leave NYC and Head to Albany

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The fall colours in New York State have to be seen to be believed

Our adventure through New York State began at Grand Central Station – one of NYC’s stunning buildings and an exciting place to start our journey. Having spent a couple of days racing around the city with a teenager and a tween, we were excited to see what treats Upstate New York had in store. We bought tickets to Poughkeepsie (where we would pick up a car) and jumped on the train. New York City’s suburbs quickly gave way to the first of New York State’s beautiful views – the train took us past lakes and trees, which, in mid-October, were showing off the most incredible display of fall colours. Our arrival in Poughkeepsie, less than two hours later, revealed an instant change of pace and way of life.

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Before we knew it, we had hired a car (we were flying out of Toronto which is possible via Enterprise car rental, but a pretty pricey option. Another possibility, if Niagara Falls is on the itinerary, is to drive to Buffalo and do the remaining part of the journey on public transport). After a morning spent travelling, our first teen-friendly stop off was just an hour away in the middle of the Thatcher National Park at WildPlay Thacher. This itinerary was well-researched in advance with the aim of keeping active teens amused while mum and dad managed the road trip of their dreams. This was a great first destination.

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Getting adventurous in the trees

Located between the Hudson-Mohawk Valleys and the Adirondack and Green Mountains, this is a fantastic Go-Ape-style treetop adventure – but being a New York version, it’s bigger, longer, higher, and better than anything you’ll have done in the UK. Zip wires and gravity jumps high up in the trees were enough to delight the boys from start to finish and even I had to admit that once I’d got past my slight vertigo, my pride at making it around the course had also turned to enjoyment. Actually being up there, in the trees that are so beautiful and full of colour, is quite an experience. Make sure you stop at the nearby viewpoint out across the national park to really get your bearings. No picture does it justice - the colours literally take your breath away.

Our first evening in Upstate New York was spent in a shopping mall. It might sound an unlikely destination, but nowhere does shopping malls quite like the US, and Crossgates Mall is an ultimate example. The on-site Homewood Suits and Tru by Hilton is made for the shopping crazy – and one evening isn’t enough to really make the most of it. But if you want some shopping time on your US roadtrip, this is the place for you! The family suites are enormous (we could have moved in to be honest – with bathrooms, a sitting area and a kitchen it really was big enough to be an apartment) and the shopping fantastic. There are all sorts of deals and discounts for people staying at the hotel – from money off in clothes shops, to free pretzels and cheap movies. We did our best to make the most of what was on offer and barely scraped the edges. With two boys, shopping is never high on a wishlist, but even they enjoyed this.

Day Two: Lake George

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A quick hour’s drive from the shopping mall is the breath-taking natural beauty of Lake George. The intensity and depth of the autumnal colours really need to be seen to be believed. We don’t have trees with the reds, oranges and yellows on display everywhere you look around Lake George. And while it’s certainly looking its best in the fall, there were hints of what a summer vacation would look like here too – and it seemed like a lot of a quaint old-fashioned fun. In fact, Lake George prides itself as being the birthplace of the American vacation, dating back to the 1800s, and you can feel it's true. 

Our cruise on the Lake George Steamboat Company’s sightseeing tour enthralled us all. Two hours of peace, tranquillity and the most stunning vistas – alongside a peek into some of the most expensive, waterfront gardens in the state, made this a real highlight of our trip. Every one of us spent at least half the journey trying to capture the magic of the scenery on our cameras, but nobody managed to do it justice.

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The incredible views on Lake George

Having grabbed a snack on the boat, we were free to pile back in the car for a drive to our second treetop adventure in as many days. This time our destination was the Adirondack Extreme High-Altitude course – along the same lines as our first day’s adventures but this was one of the original courses in New York State, and the opportunities were even more extensive. This time we zip wired over streams and raced each other to the bottom. We did three different adventures and there were more we couldn’t squeeze in. I was becoming quite an expert by this point – not even the swinging platforms in the trees fazed me now! I asked the boys to pick which adventure they preferred and they couldn’t choose. Both get you up close and personal with the all-important trees, with a side helping of adrenaline. “Do both!” they advise.

first-tree-top-adventure

Next stop on our busy itinerary was the Queensbury Hotel in the City of Glens Falls. A beautifully renovated hotel abundant with art deco style but stunningly updated – our family room had a kitchenette, two bathrooms and the most delicious plate of cookies we'd ever eaten. There's a pool, a piano bar and a feeling of olden-day elegance – in fact the whole city (it’s not big, despite its grand name) has an old-school charm. We grabbed dinner at Raul's Mexican and definitely recommend a visit. The margaritas were to die for, as were the chips and salsa, but more importantly, the welcome so hearty we felt instantly like locals. The nearby Hansen's laundromat is also a handy stop if you’ve packed light for your family road trip and are ready for a refresh after a few days in the city. An overnight service wash was a lifesaver for $10. 

Day Three: The Adirondacks and Lake Saranac

It’s the size of the United States that really makes the difference between a road trip here, and one at home. None of our car journeys spanned more than a couple of hours but the sheer space and lack of inhabitants on some of drives – especially the further north we went – really opened the kids' eyes. The further north we did go, the colder it got (from T-shirts in New York City we were now wearing puffa jackets and wishing we'd remembered to pack a scarf!). Our first stop on our road to Saranac was the Wild Centre in Tupper Lake, bang in the heart of the enormous Adirondack park - the biggest state park in the country spanning 24,000 square kilometers.

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The giant eagle's nest

This is a must-visit destination, full of educational opportunity but feeling entirely like fun. From learning the history of these forests and mountains, to the flora and fauna (fish, turtles and otters for starters) of this land of extremes, it was fascinating; the locals were preparing for the snow which would soon be falling - in the summer, the temperatures reach 25C. There’s a fantastic walk, which takes you on a raised walkway through the trees, allowing bird and chipmunk spotting – you can sit in a full-sized bald eagle’s nest and clamber over a giant spider’s web too. The café is also great and full of healthy options.

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The pretty town of Saranac Lake

Half an hour up the road is the fascinating town of Saranac Lake. A few days before Halloween as the frost starts to descend, this was a quiet place to visit – and it’s so off the beaten track I’m not sure it ever really gets busy. But it was full of American small-town charm and made me feel I’d walked onto the set of a TV drama series. Saranac Lake used to be a destination for hoards of visitors, due to the work conducted here by Dr Edward Livingston Trudeau into a cure for tuberculosis. The Saranac Laboratory Museum is fascinating – full of photos, stories and videos of this time, when TB sufferers poured into the town in a desperate search for a cure - the healthy mountain air and the immune boosting protocols Trudeau created offering them the promise of just that.

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The Saranac Laboratory Museum

Some were cured, but many died and their stories are told in the museum. The advent of antibiotics changed the whole raison d’etre for the town. But the Saranac Hotel, whose sign towers above the middle of the town, first opened in 1927 and recently purchased and renovated to all its former glory, is hoping to tempt the hoards back. It’s an intersting and alluring destination.

Day Four: Central New York State

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Our drive from Saranac through the fog of the lakes to the more temperate climes of the Central New York State was one of the most beautiful of our trip, peppered by lots of photo stops. As the morning mist rested on the water, it felt both eerie and mesmerising. Our first stop today was the Herkimer Diamond Mines – this one right up the street of my mineral-mad 13-year-old. Not true diamonds, the Herkimer Diamond is a quartz crystal, now even more in vogue thanks to Meghan Markle’s wearing of one of their rings at Princess Beatrice’s wedding. No better reason for a visit from HELLO! than that!

herkimer-diamond

The mines are above the surface so very easily accessible and given the opportunity, the children would have spent all day smashing rocks apart in the hope of discovering a cluster of diamonds within. As it was, they had about an hour (and came away with a few pretty gems). The opportunity to pan for previously-mined diamonds, minerals and fossils is a little less physical – and making jewellery out of our findings was my favourite part. The mine is on the edge of a river, and cabins can be rented to spend more time here – with tubing and all sorts of river fun on offer in warmer months.

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We grabbed lunch at Babe’s at Harbor Point in near-by Utica – a fun and very American experience surrounded by great American sports memorabilia and the food was great (the kids are still marvelling at the portion sizes!). Then we motored on to Rome, where it was time for a bit of history. Fort Stanwix is a beautiful star-shaped fort now standing in the middle of downtown Rome – reconstructed in the area it once originally stood, requiring the purchase and demolition of the buildings which had cropped up on the site in the meantime.

An important fortress in the history of the American Civil War, and the story was fantastically brought alive by our guide (we would highly recommend taking a tour) dressed in full historical regalia. Inside the fort, you can see the conditions soldiers lived in, barracks, cannons and ammunition stores. Living history at its best.

lakes

Having walked about as much as we could to build an appetite for dinner (our Babe's meal was taking some digesting!), we made our way to the Delta Lake Inn – a short drive, and we’d advise getting there before night falls to make the most of the view. The locally sourced, fresh ingredients made for a delicious meal, but it was the atmosphere and the very warm welcome that made this meal in a hugely-characterful setting very special. I’d recommend the crab-stuffed shrimp which was melt-in-the-mouth and the Italian greens.

Day Five: Time to play in Rochester

We breakfasted in our hotel – the Double Tree in Utica, and wished we’d had more time to explore the hotel with its stunning and imposing lobby. But this was a trip designed to see as much of the state as we could and despite the sudden downpour outside, Rochester was calling. In fact, the rainy day could not have been better scheduled as Rochester has some amazing museums and we’d been told the Strong Museum of Play required some serious attention. En route, we stopped off at North Star Orchards – a fantastic farmers-market-style indoor grocers full of home produce from apples and cider to the delectable baked goods made on-site. Sadly the rain made the hayride trip to pick pumpkins a no-go, but we spent a fascinating hour here and would happily have picked our own pumpkins, apples or tulips, depending on the season. And don’t even think about missing out on the cookies! north-star-orchards

The drive to Rochester is 2 hours but the promise of the ultimate play destination kept the kids intrigued – if a little concerned that they were too old for all that, I think. Turns out we’re never too old to play – and while the superhero exhibits enthralled the youngest, the teen and his dad had to be pulled out of the computer game zone where pretty much every retro game you can imagine is there to be tried. It’s New York’s largest year-round cultural attraction and there’s so much to explore – I’d forgotten quite how much fun pinball was. The indoor butterfly garden was a unexpected discovery and having the chance to sit on the steps of Sesame Street’s most famous house – right next to Oscar the Grouch – was instantly one for Instagram!

museum-of-play

Spiderman who?

Rochester also has an incredible Science Center which we had planned to visit too – with 200 hands-on exhibits, shows, and the opportunity to build robots. We simply didn’t have the time to do both on this trip – we couldn’t pull the kids out of the Museum of Play even though zap lasers and catapult launching would always be top of their list of things to do. A reason to return at least!

Day Six: Niagara Falls

It was with excitement and a bit of sadness that we got to day six – the final and certainly most anticipated destination of this New York State road trip was Niagara, but reaching this part of the itinerary meant our incredible road trip was almost over. Niagara Falls really takes your breath away. The power of the waterfalls, the sound, the spray – you cannot fail to be mesmerised by the three powerful cascades  separating the USA from Canada. There are of course two places to enjoy the view – from the Canadian side and from the Niagara Falls State Park on the New York side.

niagara-images

Despite what we’d been told by many on our journey, we were very pleased to be seeing the falls in their natural beauty from the side of the State Park. Entirely unspoilt, you can walk for miles along the Niagara river and you can get a sensational viewing spot of all of the waterfalls from the Observation Tower at Prospect Point. Without a doubt, boarding the famous Maid of the Mist boat for a trip literally into the path of the falling water was a highlight for all of us. Wearing pink ponchos and taking a spot on the crowded deck, we weren’t quite sure what lay ahead of us. But the experience of getting so upclose and personal with this huge force of nature is something we’ll never forget.

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The view from the Maid of the Mist tour boat

It is without a doubt true that the city of Niagara Falls has seen better days. Reliant now entirely on tourism, its population has fallen as local industry (once focused around harnessing the power of the falls) declined – as has happened across the entire so-called Rust Belt. It feels like an area with great potential – the natural beauty of the falls is unspoilt making it, at least from the perspective we had – greatly preferable to the Casinos and water-front hotels on the Canadian side (it looked like a mini Las Vegas from across the river). There are great hotels – we stayed at the Doubletree by Hilton which had huge family rooms, a swimming pool and a delicious buffet breakfast. We did a Gorge Walk, which starts by the old Niagara Power Project, and is yet again stunning, unspoilt and somewhere you could spend hours. And Old Fort Niagara is a fascinating place, right on the river, where much of this area’s history was made, and where the boys’ jaws dropped as a olden-day soldier showed them how he fired a musket.

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These are all great aspects, but there is certainly a feeling that the town has not fulfilled what must be an incredible tourism potential, and the drive out of town, via derelict buildings and boarded up shops and homes feels peculiar - and sad - considering this is one of America’s most famous tourist attractions. The highs, however, certainly outweigh the lows.

 Day Seven: Toronto

Driving across the boarder into Canada was far simpler than we imagined and the journey to Toronto a mere couple of hours. This was to be a quick visit to the Canadian city – a brisk one night stopover before our flight back to the UK, but we were determined to make it count. We checked into an AirBnB a short stroll from the CN Tower and decided that was as good a place as any to get our bearings. It was the perfect destination to let sun set across a city I instantly knew I would like, and the kids enjoyed the challenge of getting the perfect cityscape snap.

toronto-overview

Toronto is nestled on the shores of Lake Ontario, and we decided a boat trip the next morning was absolutely necessary, despite the frosty temperatures. As we pootled round private islands, some taken over by sailing clubs, others reserved for wildlife, we could tell what a lot of fun you could have in Toronto in warmer climes. And with only a few hours remaining and so much to do in this city that’s family friendly, in the end we just had to pull an option out of a hat.

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The Ripley's Aquarium won and was a fantastic wet-weather attraction, and very centrally located. We tried to make Casa Loma (an historic castle further north in the city) on the way to the airport but sadly some traffic diversions and Toronto’s rush hour made it impossible to get there in the end. We managed to eat poutine, grab a hot chocolate in Tim Hortons, and have certainly got a lot left on our to-do list for a return trip. It’s always good to leave somewhere wanting more and that's exactly how we felt about Toronto.

How to Pack for a Family Road Trip

When your kids get to an age when you can start really traveling with the family, it is a lot of fun, but there’s no getting around it – moving hotels every night with a family of four requires a bit of pre-planning. We discovered the great use of internal bags – whether proper packing blocks or just totes to divide up the interior of the packing cases, they make all the difference. We liked our new Osprey Fairview Wheels bag, which is very light and flexible (converting from a wheely bag to a backpack where required) and separated out our clothes into underwear, sleepwear, swimwear, and then split our outfits into ‘before the wash stop’ and ‘after the wash stop’.

This meant we could keep one suitcase at least unopened every day – so less packing in the morning! Wash bags were also split up into daily use (toothbrushes/toothpaste/daily toiletries) and less frequent, again meaning not all bags had to be opened every day. It was well worth the planning.

Getting there

We flew American Airlines to New York and then back again from Toronto (a BA partner so you benefit from points if you collect them). Economy was surprisingly roomy and the inflight entertainment got the thumbs up from the boys, as did the mid-flight ice creams. Having an American flight crew added a bit of extra excitement on the way out!

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