Driving from New York City to the Niagara Falls will take you through the beautifully scenic parts of the Catskills Mountains and the Eire Canal. If you are looking to get out of New York then a weekend trip to the Niagara Falls is something you should consider doing either in the spring or the autumn. During the summer it gets really busy with hikers and tourists at the Niagara Falls and in the Catskills Mountains, but even then you will have a great time.
What I did is break up the journey in two parts to make it an enjoyable ride without the need to rush. The first part took me from New York to Canadaigua via Phoenicia and the second from Canandaigua to the Niagara Falls, also visiting Rochester in the north.
The drive to Phoenicia in the Catskills Mountains takes under three hours non-stop but it is well worth stopping at the smaller towns. I also recommend driving on the highways and not the interstate to immerse yourself in the rural New England scenery. This is what I did and the road took me through some beautiful forests and towns on the way to Phoenicia.
Here is My New York City to Niagara Falls Road Trip Itinerary:
- Drive on I-87 until the junction with Highway 6.
- Drive on the narrower country roads after this, which are slower but far more scenic.
- Stop at Phoenicia for lunch at Alamo Cantina
- Drive to Ithaca to visit the famous Cornell University
- Arrive at Canandaigua for the night at the Econo Lodge
- Check out the Granger Homestead in Canandaigua
- Drive to Buffalo to visit the Niagara Falls
- Visit the George Eastman House in Rochester
- Drive Along the Eire Canal to Albany before driving back to New York City
I decided to drive almost non-stop out of New York until I reached Highway 6 where I turned left for a few miles then drove north towards Phoenicia. I did this because I wanted to have plenty of time to walk in the Catskill Mountain forests near Phoenicia, plus most of the places north of New York City are basically suburbs now with little to see. In contrast, the Catskills Mountains are an amazing mountain range and the autumn brings out the most beautiful colours in the forests (watch the video below to see it for yourself).
You might find that the roads are very quiet and it may tempt you to speed a bit but I would recommend against it! The police in New York State are very strict and they check everything with radar systems. Needless to say I got caught myself doing 85 in a 55 zone!
My Brief Run-in With A New York Ranger
There was a slow git in front of me and I decided to overtake him at a comfortable speed. The next thing I realized was that a police car was chasing me down the highway with the sirens on. I slowed down and looked at the policeman, sort of asking if he was after me. He told me to get off the road.
I pulled over to the side of the road and waited for him to come to the door.
– “I stopped you because you were doing 85 mph in a 55 mph zone…” said the policeman.
– “I am sorry but I think it was closer to 70,” said I…
He took my drivers license and the car documents and went back to his car. A few minutes later he came back, picked off a few leaves from my windscreen, checked the tyres and told me I could be on my way. What a nice guy! I honestly don’t understand why everyone is going on about police brutality and racism. I’ve never had a bad experience with police in the US and I have my thick foreign accent!
Arriving in Phoenicia – The Best Pizza in the Catskills
Soon after the encounter with the police I arrived in Phoenicia. The Catskill Mountaineer website provides a lot of useful data and maps, which is what I used to plan my trip. After the walk I went back to Phoenicia to have lunch. Phoenicia is a small town but it is crammed with good restaurants.
I picked the Sportsman Alamo Cantina as it was the busiest of them all. They have a wood burner oven to bake their own, freshly made pizzas! I had their specialty, the chicken and broccoli pizza – it was delicious!
Driving to Ithaca, NY
I left Phoenicia around 3 pm when it was still sunny but by the time I arrived in Ithaca it already turned dark. Ithaca is famous for its gorges and waterfalls and many tourists stop here due to its proximity to the Niagara Falls. It also happens to be a busy student town at the intersection of six major roads.
According to the American Institute of Economic Research Ithaca is the best destination for students in the US. It was certainly a very nice place and brought back many memories of my time as a student in the US. Ithaca is home to both Cornell University and Ithaca College and is full of rich kids. Unfortunately I couldn’t take any good photographs as it was already dark but when you visit you will find out how amazing it is.
Staying At The Econo Lodge in Canandaigua
Canandaigua is a small town south of Rochester in New York State. It is only a couple of hours from the Niagara Falls and just off I-90. Accommodation is far cheaper here than in Buffalo and it is a simple 2-hour drive there. The town also has various sights, including the Granger Homestead. By this time I left Ithaca is was quite late and I just couldn’t wait to check in to the motel. I accumulated enough points to book a night for free at the local Econo Lodge for 6,000 points, which was perfect for the night.
It was probably the best Econo Lodges I’ve stayed in with two large flat screen TVs and a separate living room. Since it was pouring rain outside and I had dinner at a Subway already I just stayed in watching TV.
Buying a Waterproof At The Local Walmart
The next morning it was still pouring down outside so I decided to buy a waterproof jacket at Walmart.
Tip: If you are heading to the Niagara Falls and want to do the Maid of the Mist tour you will get a free waterproof overcoat
Also, if you want to save some money on food and other things, I would just pop into the nearest Walmart and get all your groceries there – they are by far the cheapest! There is also the Dollar Mart and some other cheap shops, perfect to top up on nibbles and snacks for a road trip.
The Granger Homestead in Canandaigua
I spent over two hours at this historic home in Canandaigua, which used to be the home of the United States Postmaster General. The Granger Homestead Museum website says:
“You should expect to spend a minimum of two hours with us to get a complete tour. Tours are available Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday from 1-5 pm and Thursday to Saturday from 11-5 pm. The last full tour begins at 3pm. Admission is $6 for adults, $5 for seniors and $2 for students.”
Here is a bit of history: Gideon Granger was active in state politics during the years of the American Revolution and the Constitutional Convention. A staunch supporter of Thomas Jefferson, he became Postmaster General when Jefferson took office as President in 1800. Granger continued to serve under President Madison until 1813 and became the longest serving Postmaster General in US history. Conversely, his son was the shortest serving General, for only 40-odd days. The history of all the residents in the house is here.
Driving to the Niagara Falls
Following Canandaigua I would recommend taking the interstate to save some time. I arrived at the Niagara Falls just in time for the last Maiden of the Mist tour. The Maiden of the Mist is a small boat that takes tourists to the water fall, making everyone wet. It now provides a free waterproof jacket so it was pointless to buy one at the Walmart.
The boat trip was absolutely fascinating and the roaring of the waterfall was so loud. It doesn’t matter if the sun is shining, everyone will still get wet. There is so much mist everywhere that it is inevitable. The boat goes as close as it can, which is about 15 meters from the actual fall. It costs just under $20 but it’s worth it and takes about 20 minutes.
The George Eastman House in Rochester
I headed to Rochester from Buffalo after it got dark because there wasn’t much else to do there. Unless you like playing in the casino or buying tourist trash it’s not worth staying in Buffalo overnight. Rochester is a couple of hours away from Buffalo and like every other town, it has an Econo Lodge! This cost 8,000 points, leaving enough to stay at another place in Albany the following night.
Since it was only about 7.30 when I arrived in Rochester, I decided to go to the Regal Cinema to see a movie. The following morning I drove to the George Eastman House in Rochester, which is the former home of the founder of Kodak.
A bit of history: George Eastman was an entrepreneur, philanthropist and the pioneer of popular photography and motion picture film. He was born in 1854 in Waterville, New York. The family moved to Rochester in 1860 but his father died two years later, leaving them penniless. George Eastman left school at age 14 to support his mother and two sisters. He first worked at a local insurance company and then as a junior clerk by the Rochester Savings Bank.
In the late 1920s Eastman found out he had a progressive and irreversible spinal disease so he shot himself in the head. In a note to friends, he wrote, “My work is done. Why wait?” Read about the rest of his life on the Eastman site.
Inside The George Eastman House
One of the main attractions in Rochester is his house in a former leafy suburb. I have learned quite a lot about him in the house, for example that he was a megalomaniac and micro manager. He had his own organ with hundreds of pipes, which his private organist played in the morning for breakfast. He also enjoyed travelling to Africa to shoot now endangered or extinct animals, such as the white rhino. His office desk was covered with a white rhino’s skin, which he shot himself. There were also paintings of the other animals he killed on his hunting tours.
I imagine his pride and joy were the elephant and antelope, whose legs he stuffed and used as vases and ashtrays. In his breakfast room he had the stuffed head of an elephant above his table. Watch the video below to see what his house was like.
After Eastman’s house I drove around Rochester but it was so windy and cold I didn’t want to get out of the car. Instead, I drove up north to the shore of Lake Ontario. This is one of the five great lakes and really is massive. The waves were as big as the ocean and people were surfing on it. The plan was to drive along the coast but the bridge was closed so I had to drive along the Eire canal to Syracuse.
Driving Along The Eire Canal
The drive from Rochester to Albany is quite scenic along Highway 31, which follows the Eire Canal. The Eire Canal is a true engineering marvel: it cuts through hills and connects various cities at different elevations. It has various locks just like any English or Scottish canals, but it is far wider! In fact it would appear as a river to the untrained eye. The canal opened to the public in 1825, linking the waters of Lake Erie in the west to the Hudson River in the east. Watch the video below to see the drive for yourself.
According to the Eire Canal website, a canal was necessary to open the country West of the Appalachian Mountains. It was necessary to bring produce to markets in a cost effective and speedy way. In 1808 the state legislature funded a survey for a canal that would connect to Lake Erie. Finally, on July 4, 1817, workers broke ground for the construction of the canal. When completed, it included 18 aqueducts to carry the canal over ravines and rivers and 83 locks with a rise of 568 feet from the Hudson River to Lake Erie.
The canal was seven feet deep and 70 feet wide after an expansion in 1862 and floated boats carried 240 tonnes of freight. A ten foot wide towpath along the bank of the canal enabled horses and/or mules to pull the boats. The state further expanded the canal in 1903. The resulting Erie Barge Canal was 12 to 14 feet deep, 120-200 feet wide and 338 miles long from Waterford to Tonawanda.
Driving Options from Albany
If you live in New York City, then obviously you should start driving down towards home once you have reached Albany. However, if you are on holiday and are doing a longer road trip, I would recommend driving to Boston along Highway 2. There are plenty of pretty places to stop along the road to Boston which I detail in my other article.
And here are some more photos of the trip: