Special acknowledgments: Andrew N. Dupuy, RTC’s director of state-level policy, and Parks & Trails New York
New York is famed for the vibrancy and culture of New York City, the Statue of Liberty, breathtaking Niagara Falls and the natural beauty of the Catskills, Adirondacks, two Great Lakes and the Finger Lakes. Another wonderful thing the state has going for it is its expansive trail system, including more than 100 rail-trails and the 750-mile Empire State Trail, which connects trails from New York City to Canada, and Buffalo to Albany, creating the longest multiuse state trail in the country. Here are just a few of our favorites from the plethora of New York trails to explore.
County: New York
Perched 30 feet over the bustling streets and sidewalks of Manhattan’s West Side is the spectacular High Line. The world-renowned tourist attraction and Rail-Trail Hall of Famer, constructed on a former elevated freight rail line, spans 1.5 miles from Gansevoort Street in the Meatpacking District to the Hudson Yards. Although bikes are not permitted here, this is a trail best appreciated at a slow pace. Serving as a public park, the space is tucked amid brick buildings and glass-and-concrete skyscrapers with views of the Hudson River. Throughout the route, visitors will see a wide variety of gardens and plantings, as well as nods to the corridor’s railroad past, such as sections of track.
Counties: Albany, Cayuga, Erie, Herkimer, Madison, Monroe, Montgomery, Niagara, Oneida, Onondaga, Orleans, Schenectady, Wayne
When complete, the Erie Canalway Trail will span a whopping 365 miles in Upstate New York—from Buffalo in the west to Albany in the east—linking many communities along the way, including Rochester, Syracuse, Rome, Utica and Schenectady. More than 300 miles are already open, and the trail is a key component of the vast Empire State Trail. The primarily crushed-stone pathway follows an early-19th-century canal, and along the way, travelers will find numerous historical museums, canal locks and lift bridges. Other highlights of the route are the parks it connects, including Rochester’s Genesee Valley Park designed by famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Camillus Erie Canal Park with its stunning Nine Mile Creek Aqueduct (listed on the National Register of Historic Places), and the 2,000-acre Green Lakes State Park centered around two glacial lakes surrounded by forest. Near trail’s end, downtown Buffalo’s Exchange Street Station provides an easy train connection to reach Albany and points beyond.
The Heritage Trail, also known as the Orange Heritage Trail after the county it’s in, offers pastoral scenes of corn and wheat fields, wooded hillsides and a marshland that’s home to more than 200 species of birds. Other interesting sights along the way include an old Saber fighter jet at Airplane Park and the Chester Depot Museum, housed in a 1915 Arts and Crafts-style passenger rail station. Located in southeastern New York, not far from the New Jersey border, the trail meanders 15 miles with a mix of surfaces: asphalt, crushed stone and dirt. It currently connects four small towns—Goshen, Chester, Monroe and Harriman—and is anticipated to extend farther north into Middletown by spring 2021.
Just north of New York City, the paved, 22-mile North County Trailway provides an easy outdoor escape for city slickers and is part of the southern leg of the Empire State Trail. The trail begins near the suburb of Tarrytown and heads north, traversing rock cuts, wooded hills, fruit orchards and lake shorelines. Photo-worthy stops along the way include the charming Briarcliff Manor Library, originally one of 23 railroad depots that served commuters in Westchester County; the Kitchawan Preserve, which offers miles of hiking trails to explore and opportunities for birders; and the beautiful truss bridge (circa 1931) spanning the New Croton Reservoir.
Counties: Columbia, Dutchess
In eastern New York, the Harlem Valley Rail Trail offers a bucolic ride through woodlands, wetlands, open meadows and fields—even Christmas tree farms. The trail’s southern end begins at Wassaic Station, a stop on a Metro-North Railroad commuter line to New York City, and unfurls northward for 23 continuous paved miles as of late 2020. Along the way, visitors will find several welcoming communities with quaint downtowns where shopping and dining are readily available. A short additional segment of trail, disconnected from the rest, is open in Hillsdale. Eventually, the trail will span 46 miles across Dutchess and Columbia counties.
The Putnam Trailway begins in Brewster, not far from New York’s border with Connecticut, and winds its way east and south, skirting a handful of lakes and other waterways. One standout is Lake Casse with its recreational beach and Middle Branch Reservoir, which travelers will traverse along a 1,000-foot causeway. Paved and just shy of 12 miles, the rail-trail offers an easy foray into nature as much of the trail is enveloped by hardwood forest. Excitingly, the trail is also a jumping-off point for other trail adventures, as it’s part of the Empire State Trail.
In the heart of New York’s Finger Lakes region, the Keuka Outlet Trail spans nearly 7 miles between Keuka Lake and Seneca Lake, and is bookended by the charming villages of Penn Yan and Dresden. The peaceful pathway rolls along produce farms and vineyards, and features remnants of 19th-century mills, dams and stone walls. Lush vegetation, cascading waterfalls and rocky ravines complete the pretty picture. A short section on the western end of the trail is paved, but the majority of the pathway is crushed stone and dirt.
The Shoreline Trail skirts two famous waterways: Lake Erie, one of the country’s Great Lakes, and the Niagara River, which forms part of the border between New York and Canada. Along nearly 22 miles, the paved pathway offers gorgeous views of both waterways, and connects Buffalo and Tonawanda. Other highlights include passage through the 264-acre Tifft Nature Preserve and several parks. The Shoreline Trail also ties into two larger projects: the state-spanning Empire State Trail, and the Niagara River Greenway, a developing network of trails, parks and river access points that will follow the river from Lake Erie, past Niagara Falls, to Lake Ontario.
Counties: Allegany, Cattaraugus, Livingston, Monroe, Wyoming
The Genesee Valley Greenway offers a get-away-from-it-all experience in western New York, running through hardwood forests, wetlands and rural landscapes, sometimes with long stretches beside the Genesee River. Beginning in Rochester, the trail meanders nearly 70 miles southwest, though there are two gaps in the corridor toward its southern end. The unpaved pathway—which, as of 2020, is being resurfaced in sections—is best suited for mountain biking, hiking or horseback riding. The route is dotted with old stone locks and culverts—remnants of the former Genesee Valley Canal—and features an impressive gorge and waterfalls in Letchworth State Park.
Counties: Dutchess, Ulster
Tucked into New York’s picturesque Hudson Valley, a trio of connected rail-trails—the Hudson Valley Rail Trail, Walkway Over the Hudson and William R. Steinhaus Dutchess Rail Trail—form a seamless paved pathway spanning nearly 22 miles. Beginning on its west end, the Hudson Valley Rail Trail connects the towns of New Paltz, Lloyd and Highland as it travels through a mixture of commercial areas and wooded canopy. Scenic sights along the way include two magnificent arched bridges and a rock cut where springtime wildflowers bloom in the crevices. At its eastern end, the trail connects to the Walkway, one of the longest pedestrian bridges in the world. From the bridge, the views of the Hudson River, 212 feet below, are simply breathtaking. In Poughkeepsie, the Walkway meets the Dutchess Rail Trail, which continues east through a green landscape of dense tree cover, and then south through a smattering of communities and along the Veterans Memorial Mile to the Hopewell Depot, built in 1873. Modern-day train riders can access the trail system via Poughkeepsie Station, serving both Amtrak and Metro-North Railroad. These three trails—collectively entered into the Rail-Trail Hall of Fame—are also part of the network of trails forming the Empire State Trail.
Beginning just a handful of miles inland from the shores of Lake Erie, the developing Erie Cattaraugus Rail Trail (ECRT) in western New York will delight travelers with views of pristine woodlands, beautiful ponds, farmlands, wetlands and quaint villages along its planned 27 miles. Named for the two counties it connects, the pathway will follow the former Buffalo and Pittsburgh Railroad corridor linking five communities in the South Towns region, which encompasses the southern suburbs of Buffalo. On the southern end of the route, its first section—Springville's Pop Warner Trail—opened in 2016 and spans 1.8 miles. More recently, another few miles of the trail opened heading north from Springville up to East Concord. The eventual northern end of the ECRT will be Orchard Park, where a 2-mile unimproved section of the trail opened in fall 2020. Trail enthusiasts can follow the progress of the ECRT on the trail's website.