From mountain ranges to gorges full of cascading waterfalls, the Atlantic coast, caverns, home to two of the Great Lakes, and sharing North America’s largest waterfall with Canada, the state of New York is full of natural wonders and attractions to behold.
Well-known natural attractions in New York like Niagara Falls should definitely be on your bucket list, but did you know that there are thousands of waterfalls in New York? Or that there are nearly 8,000 freshwater lakes throughout the state? Or that three different mountain ranges run through the state?
Whether you’re planning a New York road trip or looking for a few additions to an unforgettable trip to New York City, these are the top natural wonders of New York state that you have to add to your radar of beautiful places to visit in this diverse and stunning state.
Natural Attractions in New York You Have To See
Among the natural wonders of New York, Niagara Falls is by far the most popular. It’s made pop culture history with movies, including Niagara featuring Marilyn Monroe. And it’s been the sight of daring stunts by barrel riders and tightrope walkers, as well as magicians like David Copperfield.
Just 17 miles north of Buffalo, you can visit Niagara Falls State Park in the city of the same name. The falls straddle the border between Canada and the United States, and there’s another park and twin city in Ontario.
The famous natural area is part of the Niagara River Gorge, connecting Lake Ontario to Lake Erie. When people think of Niagara, they think of the iconic Horseshoe Falls that’s on the Canada/US border. But there’s also the American Falls and Bridal Veil Falls on the American side.
Horseshoe Falls is the most powerful waterfall in the United States. You may notice that the water of the falls has a calm green color to it, made up of rock powder. This is from rocks along the riverbed being pummeled by the roaring falls!
At the end of the 19th century, efforts were made to preserve the falls on both sides of the border with parks established as part of that effort. Today, you can visit the New York state park year-round, and it’s a beautiful place to visit in every season.
Across the length of the 400-acre park, there are several places for different views of the falls, including Goat Island, Luna Island, and 3 Sisters Island. There’s also a Visitor’s Center and the Niagara Falls Observation Tower.
You’ll find paved, accessible trails across the entire park, with educational signs and viewing areas along the way. Go inside the Cave of the Winds for a tour that leaves you in the mist zone of American Falls for an up-close look.
There are also boat tours, helicopter tours (which are a must-do in the fall!), bus tours, and walking tours. You can visit the park’s aquarium, tour power plant ruins, or enjoy a cliffside restaurant on Goat Island. And from late May through the beginning of October, you can see fireworks over the falls every night at 10 PM from Prospect Point.
Howe Caverns in Schoharie County, New York is one of those New York natural attractions that you have to see to appreciate. There’s just something about being almost 200 feet under the earth in ancient caverns that feel forbidden and otherworldly!
Howe Caverns is a series of large and small caves made that maintain a damp 52 degrees all year round. It’s completely dark with no source of natural light, and there’s an underground lake, called the Lake of Venus. As you wind through the caves, you’ll see unique geological formations. They’re formed over centuries from mineral runoff, creating form waves, spikes, and other unique and oddly soft-looking shapes made of rock!
You can take a 90-minute tour through portions of the caverns that have been made accessible to humans. Descend 156 feet underground along paved pathways and stairwells. You’ll wind through cave passageways, among naturally-formed underground cathedrals and fascinating geological formations.
After about a mile you’ll reach an underground lake. Take the boat tour to the far end of the explored cavern. From the end of the lake, you’ll walk back the way you came. You could continue but you’d have to crawl through wet, narrow tunnels and caves into parts of the caverns that few people have ever laid eye on!
There are also longer adventure tours where anyone can go spelunking in parts of the cave not open to the public. Or go on lantern tours where you carry lanterns for the ultimate experience in a place that has never seen sunlight.
Imagine following the coastline along the St. Lawrence River, through area towns like Alexandria Bay, Watertown, and Rochester. With Lake Ontario to your right, you’d pass by Niagara Falls, and continue on with Lake Erie now along your passenger side. Eventually, you’ll reach the New York/Pennsylvania border.
This roughly 450 miles of coastline makes up the portion of the Great Lakes Basin that’s in New York State. Whether you plan a getaway for one city like Irondequoit or dream of a road trip to New York’s Great Lake region, you won’t run short of things to do!
The Great Lakes, including Ontario and Erie, are freshwater lakes and home to 250 different species of fish. You can book a fishing charter in Thousand Islands or explore Alexandria Bay with its Gilded Age summer homes and breathtaking island castles.
You could simply follow the nature preserves, beaches, beachfront cabins, and historic lighthouses along the coast of Lake Ontario all the way to Niagara Falls State Park. Or spend some time in Rochester with the beautiful Genesee River running through the middle of it.
At the mouth of the Niagara River, make sure to stop at the almost 350-year-old Old Fort Niagara, a fascinating living museum and state park. Then on to Lake Erie, with its long stretches of serene beaches and beachside camping like at Lake Erie State Park.
While you’re in the Great Lakes region of New York, we highly recommend doing a Lake Erie wine trail! You could simply drive down the NY State Thruway from Buffalo to Ripley and find about a dozen different local wineries.
The Finger Lakes is a group of 11 lakes in a glacial valley south of Lake Ontario in western New York. They’re among the finest and most interesting natural wonders of New York, also shaping the natural areas around them. There are natural areas with miles of hiking trails and campsites. Between the lakes, the land rises in bluffs covered in trees that are stunning during the fall in New York with red, orange, and yellow foliage.
One of the top things to do on Finger Lakes is boat and fish. On every lake, you can find public access boat launches as well as boat charter companies. Try your hand on Seneca Lake where there’s an abundance of trout, salmon, and large-mouth bass. Or visit one of the many lakeside beach parks.
Around the lakes, you’ll find important pieces of American history, quaint and beautiful towns, and a rich wine and food culture. If you’re a waterfall lover like we are, you’ll want to plan a visit to Ithaca or Watkins Glen which are home to some of the most beautiful waterfalls in the Finger Lakes by the hundreds!
In Auburn, north of Owasco Lake, there’s Harriette Tubman’s residence. Seneca Falls, between Seneca and Cayuga Lakes, also has many historic sites. Most notably, you can learn about the city’s role as the birthplace of the women’s suffragette movement.
The Finger Lakes region provides the perfect environment for vineyards. It has a thriving wine and beer industry, visit Naples, south of Canandaigua Lake, for their annual Grape Festival (and make sure to try their famous grape pie!).
Letchworth State Park
Letchworth State Park is a particularly incredible place in the Finger Lakes region that’s worth mentioning on its own for impressive natural wonders in New York. It’s only about 17 miles long with the Genesee River running the length of it. From trails and overlooks, you can see all the beauty of the river framed by tall rock walls and tumbling waterfalls.
Called the “Grand Canyon of the East,” people have always been drawn to Letchworth for the breathtaking gorge that runs through it. Through the exposed bedrock you can see layers of shale, limestone, and sandstone. The rock walls reach as high as 550 feet in some places with extension bridges across the top adding to the majesty.
There are 3 main waterfalls in the park, called the Upper, Middle, and Lower Falls, but there are others throughout. You can hike, bike, or drive to overlook points for the best views. At the northeast end, the impressive Mount Morris Dam is another attraction.
At Letchworth, you can enjoy paved nature trails that are popular not only for hikers but also cyclists. There are also several tent, cabin, and RV campsites in the park. If you want to get on the water, you can book a seasonal rafting trip with Adventure Calls Outfitters. Other seasonal activities include hunting, snowmobiling, and cross-country skiing.
Ithaca’s Gorges & Waterfalls
The city slogan is “Ithaca is GORGES,” and they aren’t joking. With 150 waterfalls in a 10-mile radius, you could do nothing else but see waterfalls during a visit and be satisfied! If you’re staying close to the city, you’ll find plenty of falls inside the city limits.
We suggest taking the Cascadilla Gorge Trail, a short, scenic nature walk that runs through the heart of Ithaca and along Cascadilla Creek. Along the way, you’ll see 8 individually stunning waterfalls.
But perhaps some of the best New York natural attractions around Ithaca are the falls and gorges at the many local state parks. One of our favorites to visit was Robert H Treman State Park, which has 12 different waterfalls alone.
Nearby, you can visit Buttermilk Falls State Park. Hike along Gorge Trail, where you can see the park’s namesake, Buttermilk Falls. It has a thundering fall of 165 feet over a wide cascade of rock into a pool below, and during the summer you can swim there! Keep in mind when there’s little rainfall or the fall season this waterfall could be dried up!
Or you can see the impressive Taughannock Falls at Taughannock Falls State Park. It has an impressive 215-foot drop (taller than Niagara Falls!). You can also hike down a little way and see more cascade falls at the base.
Check out all of our favorites of the amazing waterfalls in Ithaca plus how to visit them!
Watkins Glen State Park
Literally next to the small town of Watkins Glen at the southern end of Seneca Lake is Watkins Glen State Park. This is one of our favorite natural wonders of New York and it feels like something out of a fairytale! It’s a deep, winding gorge set inside a state park and natural area.
It’s convenient if you’re in Watkins Glen because the entrance is really close to downtown. There are 3 different trails on both the lower and upper sides of the park. For a treat, do what we did and start at the southern entrance and follow the gorge trail (this trail is open seasonally – closes in winter due to ice).
There’s a parking lot with a trailhead and you just follow it along the narrow gorge. You’ll see several different waterfalls. The best one is Rainbow Falls, which you can go under and behind. But truly this walk is the best way to see the park. It’s just a passageway cut through shale. All around are mossy rock walls, dripping, misty falls, cobblestone bridges and stairways, and the rushing, babbling water below you.
And while you’re in the area, head next door to the village of Montour Falls with its own pretty waterfalls. Two easy ones to check out without leaving your car are Aunt Sarah’s Falls on N Catherine Street as you come into town and She-qua-ga Falls just off Main Street in the historic district.
The Adirondack Mountains cover around 5,000 square miles in northcentral New York and border Vermont to the east. The massive area is made up of hundreds of mountains and lakes that are popular for hiking, camping, skiing, and fishing. There are so many beautiful places to visit in the Adirondacks as well as charming towns in the Adirondacks to stop by.
At least 1,200 years ago, the Adirondacks were occupied by both the Mohawk and Oneida peoples, both Iroquois tribes. Along with the Mohicans who occupied the southern part of the region, they were the ones who met the first English explorers. They were wiped out by diseases brought by these settlers as early as the 17th century. After that, the region became important for its lumber until the 19th century when it was made into a natural area.
Today it’s a favorite outdoor destination for New Yorkers for fishing and boating. You can enjoy small towns nestled between mountains, like the popular Saranac Lake with its lakeside inns and rental cabins. Or there’s Lake Placid, which got the spotlight when the city hosted the Winter Olympics, not once but twice and is home to the best skiing in Upstate New York.
Whiteface Mountain near Wilmington is one of the tallest mountains in New York at almost 5,000 feet. You can visit the Whiteface Mountain Ski Resort there that’s perfect for skiers of all experience levels. And if you want to see some waterfalls in the Adirondacks, nearby is High Falls Gorge. This nature park offers accessible walking paths along the gorge that follows the AuSable River with different waterfalls along the way.
Or visit the majestic Lake George, which is beautiful any season where you can find hiking trails, scenic boat cruises, and spot wildlife like bald eagles along the shores of the lake.
The Catskill Mountains are 700,000 protected acres at the northeastern end of the Appalachian Mountains, though they’re not part of that mountain range. It’s one of the most beloved natural wonders of New York, and a popular escape from the chaos of New York City located around 100 miles north of the city.
You can explore historic sites, hiking trails, and ski resorts. The Catskills were also part of the famous Borscht Belt that attracted prominent Jewish families from New York during the mid-20th century. The summer resorts of the period largely shaped and supported the region and you can still enjoy remnants of these resorts today. Think of the setting in Dirty Dancing, that’s the famous Borscht Belt era Catskills getaway!
The beauty of the Catskill Mountains, with its lush forests, wandering hiking trails, iconic wildlife, and rolling hills have inspired creatives for generations. Washington Irving set his short story, “Rip Van Winkle” in the Catskills, and even Woodstock Music Festival was held in the region, which are just a few of the unique places to visit in the Catskills.
You can find paintings of the Catskills landscapes by the likes of Thomas Cole. He painted the stunning 2-tier Kaaterskill Falls, as well as Sunset Rock, which you can visit today at North/South Lake. There are so many pretty lakes to hike around in the area, but this lake near Palenville is stunning.
And don’t miss visiting all the charming towns in the Catskills too!
You’ll find Ausable Chasm near Keeseville, close to Lake Champlain and the Vermont/New York border in the Adirondack region. It’s a hidden gem on our list of natural attractions in New York, featuring a beautiful sandstone chasm and tons to do.
For 150 years, Ausable Chasm has been a local point of interest, often called the “Grand Canyon of the Adirondacks.” The 2-mile-long gorge is beautiful with waterfalls, ridged rock walls, and historic bridges and buildings. The most popular thing to do there is walk different hiking trails, some of which line the gorge. Others crisscross the chasm with suspension bridges!
You can also do ropes courses along the chasm or take a nighttime lantern hike deep at the bottom of the river for a different perspective. There’s also rappelling and rock climbing, as well as rafting on the river. In the summer you can take the Rainbow Falls trail to the cascading falls at the southern end of the chasm. Or in the dead of winter, you can still see Ausable Chasm, asleep in the snow, on the Rim Trail.
Chimney Bluffs State Park
Back along the southern shores of Lake Ontario, a New York must-see is Chimney Bluffs State Park. The park gets its name from the razor-sharp clay formations towering over the water’s edge for about half a mile, looking like something out of a dystopian novel!
The bluffs have been a well-known landmark in the area for generations, but it remained undeveloped until 1999 when it was made into a park. It’s been a popular place to visit year-round since then. There’s a long, peaceful beach to the east of the bluff, with lush forests full of hiking trails to the west.
There are 5-miles of trails that are accessible all year long (though you’ll only pay for parking from April through October). Some are easier than others, but they’re all dirt paths. A few take you up an incline for a great overhead look at the Chimney Bluffs, plus great views of the water. It’s especially gorgeous at sunset! Just be aware that you can’t swim at this beach However, you can walk along the beach for a different up-close look at the bluffs.
Is an archipelago made up of 1,864 islands in the waters of the St. Lawrence River just before the waters merge with Lake Ontario. It’s a stretch of about 50 miles with islands on both the Canadian and US sides of the river. When it comes to the natural wonders of New York, what’s fascinating about this one is the development alongside the preserved natural areas.
On the United State side of the St. Lawrence River, the main attraction is the town of Alexandria Bay and Wellesley Island. This is the largest island on the American side, and some islands are so small they simply contain a single residence and look like floating homes!
These island homes originate from the turn of the 20th century when wealthy families came from all over, making Thousand Islands their summer retreat. Castles were built as summer homes and steamboats brought the rich in droves to the region. Massive, extravagant resort hotels marked the coast of Alexandria and Wellesley Island. Today you can still tour or even book a room in many of these mansions.
In modern times, the region is still a popular vacation destination, with boating, fishing, and other watersports as a big draw. You can find guides to take you scuba diving in the river, as well as places to rent canoes and kayaks. Enjoy a row out to the smaller islands and explore the hiking trails or isolated beaches along the St. Lawrence River!
In the summer you can enjoy nighttime fireworks shows on the water, and in the winter it’s still a great time to warm up at local breweries!
If you’re looking for natural attractions in New York close to Manhattan, consider The Palisades along the Hudson Valley. From Jersey City, head north, and this natural region stretches on for about 20 miles until you reach Nyack, New York. It’s a stunning region that’s trademarked by its steep, dark ridgeline that reaches heights of 540 feet at its highest!
Because of shifting state lines, you’ll pass through New Jersey and then New York along the western coast of the Hudson River as you go north. Make sure to stop at the State Line Lookout. This is a small nature area that’s been around for close to a century. You’ll enjoy great views of the river far below with Yonkers on the other side.
It’s fun to see the train along the water across the way, and you can walk different trails that are popular with hikers, runners, cyclists, and horseback riders. The cliffs are a popular resting place for red-tailed hawks. It’s exciting to spot them, and you’ll often see serious birdwatchers gathering at the cliffs to see them with their special cameras!
A little further north, there’s Tallman Mountain State Park. You can explore marshes along the waters of the Hudson, and higher up there are forests. They’re popular with cross-country skiers in the winter and hikers the rest of the year. On the northern side of Nyack, you can visit Nyack Beach State Park and Hook Mountain State Park. Both offer acres of undeveloped land full of rocky hills, forests, beaches, hiking trails, and vast scenic cliffside overlooks.
Another cool way to see this natural wonder of New York is by taking a helicopter tour from White Plains in Westchester over the Hudson Valley, Palisades, and parts of New York City!
Chittenango Falls State Park
East of Syracuse, the Chittenango Falls State Park is a 193-acre state park with a handful of hiking trails of varying levels of difficulty, but none more than .85-miles-long. They wind along a gorge and you’ll love the overhead views of Chittenango Creek from overhead! The park also has picnic tables under pavilions and a playground and is a popular fish spot all year.
The big draw of this state park is the 167-foot Chittenango Falls with its multiple tiers, cascading stones, and a babbling brook at the bottom. It’s picture-worthy as the brook runs below a wooden bridge, all of it framed by trees that make for a stunning fall hike!
You can also take a challenging hike up around the backside of the falls for a different view. Just be aware that the area is largely undeveloped and some spots can be difficult to navigate. Plus, it buttes up to private property, so stay alert about where you are.
On our list of natural wonders of New York, Montauk Point is probably the most dramatic. It’s a state park on the easternmost tip of Long Island in New York State, outside of the town of Montauk. You’ll find a few historic buildings and markers, and then almost 900 acres of natural area.
It’s an interesting place to be. When the surf is calm and the sky is clear, you can see the tides of the Atlantic off the Long Island Coast converging with the tides of the Block Island Sound 5 miles away. It’s something you don’t get to witness most of the time! And when the surfs not calm, the power of the waves shakes you to the bone. It’s thunderous, and it feels like you’re on the very edge of the world. The entire area is usually misty, bleak, and moody, in the most romantic way.
The area is historic because it’s where the Amistad, a slave ship, was taken over by slaves in 1839 and the ship disembarked at Montauk Point. The event put a spotlight on slavery and abolition. And you can visit the Montauk Lighthouse, built in 1792, making it the oldest lighthouse in New York State commissioned under George Washington and it’s one of the most famous lighthouses on the East Coast.
People come to Montauk Point to walk nature trails and catch a glimpse of seals sunning on the rocks near the water. Surf fishing is popular in the winter when there are lots of striped bass. And you can enjoy sunrises with unobstructed views of the water all the way to the horizon.
Also, be sure to check out Camp Hero State Park and walk along the bluffs at this former military base with plenty of spooky folklore and urban legends surrounding it.
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