More Than Manhattan: 3 Gorgeous Upstate New York Attractions

Updated on September 20, 2017
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Holley Hyler is a freelance writer and has been published in Adelaide, Buck Off Magazine, Rebelle Society, and The Urban Howl.

I moved to Rochester, New York, a little over a year ago, with no friends or family, so I traversed most of the surrounding area on my own. If you find yourself in a similar boat, or you're a short-term visitor, these are the top three places I would suggest to those with a tendency toward introversion and an affinity for beauty and peace. If you have never visited anywhere in New York aside from The Big Apple, this article can provide valuable perspective. All three attractions below are within an hour's drive of Rochester. I will provide information about other areas of NY in a future article.

1. Watkins Glen State Park

Waterfalls in Watkins Glen State Park in the village of Watkins Glen, NY. Photo by Holley Hyler.
Waterfalls in Watkins Glen State Park in the village of Watkins Glen, NY. Photo by Holley Hyler.

Perfect for the Zen Enthusiast

Many people have heard of the Finger Lakes, known for its wine trails, but you can enjoy the lakes even if you aren't a wine enthusiast. Located in the village of Watkins Glen, at the bottom of Seneca Lake (the largest of the Finger Lakes), is a beautiful trail along a gorge. I went in the thick of summer and found myself entranced by this state park's lush greenery, and soothed by the sounds of its falls. Because I went in the summer (during a NASCAR event, no less), it was quite busy, particularly near the bottom of the trails where the caves and Rainbow Falls are. So you may want to check that no events are happening in the surrounding area before you head to the park, as I experienced quite a bit of traffic going in and out.

If you are looking to get your zen on, then I would suggest coming early in the day, before 10 AM. This way, you can take photos with less likelihood of people being in them and enjoy the peace and quiet. If you don't mind a crowd, you can come later in the day and enjoy some of the wineries along NY-14 while you're at it. I stopped at Branch by Bellangelo on my way down and had lunch on the patio. Fun sidenote: Many of the wine tastings in the area are reasonably priced (under seven dollars) - and some of them even let you keep your glass.

On arrival at the park, you do have to pay for parking, but it is under ten bucks. There are lots located at the bottom and top of the gorge trail. If you enjoy a cardio workout, I would suggest starting at the bottom, as there are plenty of stairs to ascend. Introverts, enjoy your earphones at low volume, else you may miss out on the roaring of the falls or be startled by people walking by if you go at a busy hour. There is a shuttle service if you find that you want to hike only one-way. For more information, you can check out the official website for the park, which I have included in the references at the bottom of this article.

2. Letchworth State Park

One look and you'll understand why it's called "The Grand Canyon of the East." Photo by Holley Hyler.
One look and you'll understand why it's called "The Grand Canyon of the East." Photo by Holley Hyler.

Hybrid of Niagara and the Grand Canyon

If the Grand Canyon made a baby with Niagara Falls, that baby would be Letchworth. This park also features a gorge, streams, waterfalls, and plenty of trees. One piece of advice that I wish I had, prior to going: expect to be overwhelmed on your first visit. This is not a small park and has several long, winding roads to navigate. Some people prefer just to drive through and soak in the views, but I opted to hike along the Lower Falls trail (the Upper Falls trail was closed when I went) and a few others. I felt like I was missing out on something, possibly because of the trail closure, but it was also a lot to take in.

I paid $10 to gain entry to the park. After passing the pay station, I drove several miles to reach the visitor's center. There wasn't much point in going there since they provided me with a map when I paid, but it was good to stop and find my bearings. There are twenty-eight trails of different lengths, ranging from half a mile to 21. You'll definitely want to bring water and some snacks, although I am sure they are for sale at the gift shop(s), but it's nice not to think about logistics when you're hungry.

If you're sensitive to energy, this is a wonderful place to go. The vastness and peace of this place made me feel like I was in a cocoon; it was a lovely escape from the outside world. As a bonus (if you enjoy that), cell phone reception wasn't very good out there. No need to lie if you don't feel like being easily reachable for a few hours!

This one feels slightly more daunting to do alone, unless you're savvy with maps and directions. I'm definitely not, but it didn't stop me from enjoying myself. I just wish I had paid more attention to the park descriptions online before going so that I could have allotted more time to be there and find my way.

3. Sonnenberg Gardens

After a rainstorm. Photo by Holley Hyler.
After a rainstorm. Photo by Holley Hyler.

History and Beauty

New York is rich with history, and the first two sites I mentioned are no exception to this. But the history at Sonnenberg ("sunny hill") is much more obvious. Here, you'll find a Victorian-era, Queen Anne-style mansion. Of course, as the name implies, most of the fun is outdoors - my favorite was the Japanese Garden, which is near the entrance of the park (one of the owners, the wife, was fond of Japanese art, and if I remember correctly, the objects in the mansion reflect this).

Admission is $14, unless you qualify for any discounts. Visitors are allowed inside the mansion. I didn't see anything about guided tours while I was there, but if you check their website (listed below), you can probably find audio for self-guided tours. I spent about two hours here, maybe less, because the day that I chose to go, there were surprise thunderstorms. In the event of inclement weather, they do have a winery that you can duck into. Within the winery is a stained glass window and a gift shop.

City or Country?

Which of these would you prefer to visit?

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If you are new to the Rochester area or looking to explore more of it, I hope I have inspired some excitement and curiosity within you. Please let me know in the comments if you ended up traveling to any of the areas mentioned above, especially if you went there because of my article. I would love to know your thoughts!

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