Upstate New York Road Trip
One of my goals for my kids this summer was to take them on a bit of a road trip. In the back of my mind I had been thinking about taking them to Niagara Falls, and also to Animal Adventure Park, so I began to devise a route that would take us to both of those places (and more). Y’all….. New York state is huge. To drive straight across to Niagara Falls from NH is an 8-hour drive (which my husband and I did in 2005), but there is no way that I wanted to make that kind of hike with the kiddos, because that’s not fun for anybody to be stuck in the car for that long. So I sat down with the googles and came up with a route, with stops and activities. For this I had a few goals in mind:
- Create a route (preferably a loop) that would take us from New Hampshire, to Niagara Falls, and connect with Animal Adventure Park near Binghamton NY, and then home. And if I could avoid Massachusetts at all costs, that would be great too.
- Find enough overnight stops so that we would never be driving more than 3 hours per day (because I have a low tolerance of driving all day).
- Find fun kid activities to coincide with the overnight stops.
- Either use my points & miles to offset hotel costs, or earn lots of points if I had to pay cash. Since we stayed in Hilton hotels except for 1, I also used the Hilton app to do the mobile checkin and we were able to choose our own room that way too.
So here is our trip! Over 1,000 miles driven, 6 nights, 7 days, 5 hotels.
Day 1 : Six Flags Great Escape & Saratoga Springs NY
First thing I googled was “amusement parks in NY” to see if there were any I could pin as a destination. Turns out there is Six Flags Great Escape near Lake George, NY which had double appeal because:
- That meant we could head across Vermont to get there and avoid the Mass Pike (See Goal #1)
- We already have a Six Flags season pass! Our home park is Six Flags New England, but with our passes we can visit any park, and get free parking, and free food & drinks with our dining plan. Score!! Once we got ourselves there, all the expenses would already be taken care of.
The day started off with an early (and long) drive at 3 hours, 20 minutes. We were happy to arrive at Six Flags and spend the rest of the day having fun! We knew rain was in the forecast, but were hoping we could squeeze out a few hours before it started.
Our hotel that night was the Hilton Garden Inn Saratoga Springs, which was a 25 min drive south from Six Flags. Saratoga Springs was a great location for overnighting, because it was heading south putting us in a good position to hit the I-90W the next morning. I already have a decent bank of Hilton Honors points but I didn’t want to blow them all on random upstate NY hotels, so by staying in Hiltons on this trip I could maximize more points earnings with my Hilton Ascend card and included Gold status. Cost for this night was $95.39 + 18,000 points. This hotel was wonderful because of the staff. Every single employee I ran into was so friendly and welcoming.
We had a 2 queen bed room, which is what we had in all hotels for the whole trip.
As a Gold member, we got hot breakfast included. I had read on TripAdvisor that the breakfast there was good, and it was! Until Parker lived up to his legendary reputation (as one who spills a drink at every single restaurant) and of course spilled my coffee all over everything, at which point we had to leave.
Day 2 : Syracuse NY – Destiny USA
We headed over to Syracuse NY (2 hours, 15 min drive) which was a halfway point to Niagara Falls. I found a really cool place called Destiny USA which is the 6th largest mall in the United States, filled with shops, restaurants and activities like Wonderworks. I knew the kids would enjoy that. It also happens that there is a very nice Embassy Suites (Hilton) almost attached to it, so that is exactly where we stayed. The hotel is brand new, less than a year old. We could even walk over to the mall via pedestrian bridge which was great because we did not want to be in the car anymore. The kids were so psyched about the suite! They had never seen a hotel room with two rooms before (and come to think of it, I don’t think I have ever stayed in a suite either). For the rest of the trip they kept asking if we would be staying in any more Embassy Suites.
I booked the “Stay & Play” package with the hotel for only $40 more which included 2 Wonderworks VIP passes (that alone was a $52 value), bowling, a $10 arcade card, and some other coupons which ended up saving us money. Cost for this package was $207 with free breakfast and Evening Reception included.
We had a lot of fun in the mall, mostly on the 3rd floor where a lot of the activities are. We did Wonderworks, the ropes course, bowling, and lunch at Margaritaville. I felt like such a tourist because I’ve always wanted to go to one of those and never had a chance. Apparently Syracuse NY was my time.
Breakfast the next morning was quite nice, but it was an absolute zoo. I’m not sure if they were understaffed or what, but the lines for made to order eggs were crazy and it was mobbed in the dining area. They stop serving at 9:30 which is right when we were finishing up, and it was just packed.
Then we were off, heading west with a final destination of Niagara Falls, Ontario. More uneventful driving on the NY Thruway led us to an early lunch stop and the hometown of my friend Christina: Rochester! I’ve long been hearing about food in the ROC from Christina, and we took her advice and tried out Bill Gray’s which is a famous chain in the area. It is apparently home of the World’s Greatest Cheeseburger! I was actually torn between the equally famous garbage plate, but ended up doing a burger “with everything” anyway to assess the claim to fame. It was very good, I’ll admit, but I was also impressed by the small town friendliness of the folks at Bill Gray’s.
One last stop before we headed over the border, and that was Niagara State Park so that we could experience the Cave of the Winds. The lines to get in were quite long in the hot sun. I know I keep going on about it, but it was really miserably hot that week. Once we were inside we enjoyed a short film about the history of Niagara Falls which was absolutely fascinating. It talked about the quest for harassing the power of the water for manufacturing, and above all else: electricity. There was a good bit about Tesla and his invention of the world’s first hydro-electric plant to deliver electricity to the whole area. What was most impressive is how the falls have been cleaned up and mostly restored to a more natural state, removing all the old factory buildings that were built right into the face of the stone cliffs. Now the most obtrusive things in the gorge are boat docks for the tourists, and zip lines and other pretty minimal things. But the horizon around the falls on the Canadian side, that is a different story.
We moved into the changing area where we donned our yellow ponchos, disposable sandals, and stuffed all our things into a provided plastic bag. You have to carry everything with you as there are no lockers. The kids still weren’t entirely convinced of the merit of what we were doing, but I knew that would change.
The Hurricane Deck is, of course, everybody’s favorite part!
After that, we dried off in no time flat, and continued over the Rainbow Bridge into Canada. Easy!
Days 3 and 4: Niagara Falls, Canadian side
Turns out there is a great points redemption in Niagara Falls, and that is at the Four Points Sheraton Fallsview. It’s only 3000 SPG points on weekends (4000 for other days). These rooms go for about 300 CAD each, so it was an excellent redemption. We stayed 2 free nights (Friday and Saturday) for a total of 6,000 SPG points. The only thing I was charged for was parking at $38 USD for 2 days, because Niagara Falls.
This hotel was very large, very crowded, and constantly busy. There were only two elevators that went up to our floor, and there was always a long line for them. We did not have any kind of a view at all, and I wasn’t expecting one due using points for our stay. Our view was over Stanley Ave in the back, the lovely parking lot where we could see our car literally baking in the blazing sun for 2 days. It was not a big deal, as we weren’t in our room much anyway. If I had to actually pay money to stay in a hotel at Niagara, this would not be my choice, but for a freebie it was fine.
We got a WeGo bus pass which let us hop on and off around town, so the first morning (after waiting for about 40 minutes for the bus) we went over to the famous Flying Saucer diner for breakfast. It’s a totally bizarre little UFO-themed restaurant, but beats the hell out of any IHOP closer to the falls (of which there are many, and notorious for their sky high prices and poor food). Kind of a fun experience and certainly much cheaper than eating anywhere down in the tourist area (was still pricey, though).
The WeGo bus did not help us much on the way back. We kept missing it somehow, because we were walking in between the bus stops. I was getting really frustrated because it was SO hot already at like 9am. Finally somewhere along the way, we finally got on one and we went down to the Table Rock area at the edge of the Horseshoe Falls and had a look at everything.
We all look melted here because I badly miscalculated our water situation, so we were rationing a tiny water bottle between the 3 of us before we could find more. Niagara was in the middle of a heat wave and it was absolutely brutal, even in Canada (!) so we were moving slow whenever we could.
We also waited in an incredibly long line for the Hornblower which was tons of fun. The mist of the falls was a welcome relief in the relentless heat. They were telling people not to put on the plastic ponchos until right as the boat departed, to keep people from overheating inside the plastic. Once we were back on shore, any clothing or skin that had gotten wet under the poncho dried almost immediately. Like it never happened!
Many years ago, Dave and I did the Maid of the Mist on the American side (with the blue ponchos). It was a great idea to put one on the Canadian side as well. Very similar experience.
In Clifton Hill, we had lots of fun looking at everything. It’s like Vegas for kids! Drew has always had a fascination with weird facts and unusual trivia, so visiting the Ripley’s Believe it or Not was a big event for him. He’s been reading all the books since he was very little, and I was able to pick up the little souvenir booklet for him also. I enjoyed it because of the air conditioning!
We needed some food and refreshment at this point, so we headed into The WORKS Gourmet Burger Bistro which had a cool look to it. It’s a chain with locations around the Toronto/Ottowa area. Problem was, there was no air conditioning. And not because it was broken. They just didn’t have it, period. Holy hell it was not and stuffy in there. But we were all sort of breaking down and did not care to keep wandering around trying to find a place, so we stayed. This picture says it all:
They seemed to be famous for their milkshakes, so the kids tried them while I had a beer. I was also still on a crusade for poutine, and this place had a whole section of their menu dedicated to it. The “Poutini Martini” which had onion rings on top, looked like a good choice. I really wanted to like poutine! It’s not my thing, but I gave it an honest try. I don’t know why you would do that to fries. Also eating an entire platter of fries for a meal just didn’t work for me that day. Maybe because I was so hot.
Our Ripley’s pass (which I got on Groupon) also came with entry to the Louis Toussaud’s Wax Museum and that was fun also except I don’t think the kids knew who many of the figures were. James Dean? I don’t even know that one, really. There was a path with horror characters that Parker and I went through. It wasn’t too bad, but Drew did the bypass for it.
The next morning, after our second sleep in Niagara, it was time to pack up and head out. But first, breakfast! Once again, trying to avoid the tourist area overpriced restaurants, we walked half a mile to an uninteresting corner one street back from Fallsview Blvd to the Continental Pancake House. It was a Sunday, and the WeGo didn’t start going until 10:00 so we had to walk. (The WeGo was a pain in the butt most of the time, if you couldn’t tell) It was still early-ish in the morning, but it was getting hot. The Continental Pancake House is a delight. We were almost the only ones there, and the food was good. Can’t complain! On the way back, we walked on the shady side of the street.
Day 5 : Watkins Glen and Binghamton NY
This map is basically the Excessive Heat Warning that was in effect for our whole trip. All of that hot pink represents pretty much the I-90 corridor which we had been following all the way to Niagara Falls. It was brutal.
Leaving Niagara Falls and heading southeast via Buffalo, we had our longest driving day. There is just nothing to do in this stretch of NY, although it is full of beautiful farmland which I very much enjoyed. I broke it up by stopping for lunch in Watkins Glen after 3 hours (ugh), with a little nature hike around the Watkins Glen Gorge to loosen up our legs and burn some energy. We completely melted in the 94 degree heat. The Gorge Trail is absolutely gorgeous. What a beautiful oasis, even though we were all on the verge of heat exhaustion.
Then we continued on 1 hour 15 min to our final destination for the day: the DoubleTree in Binghamton which was very reasonable at $105 for the night. Still, it was a great place to stay. I loved how they have big posters of April the Giraffe and other Animal Adventure Park animals all around the lobby. They offer a “Giraffe Package” basket for four people that includes AAP admission, animal treats, breakfast and premium wifi but I couldn’t make the math work out in our favor, since we only had 3 people (and I get free breakfast anyway as a Gold member). It was cheaper to just pay hotel and AAP separately and there was still plenty left over for Cracker Barrel breakfast, with the price they were asking. Normally packages are a great deal, but you still have to itemize it all to make sure. I did see some of the Giraffe Baskets at the front desk, and they were really cute. Too bad!
We very much enjoyed this hotel with its westerly sunset river view, and the amazing cookies at check-in! The pool is a part of a fitness club, and the kids enjoyed their swim time very much. Overall this is one of my favorite hotels we stayed at during this week, even though we were there so briefly. The beds were super comfy. Our laundry situation was getting dismal, even though I had carefully counted out the correct number of outfits. It’s never enough.
Day 6: Animal Adventure Park and Howe Caverns
Breakfast was included at the DoubleTree since I’m a Gold member, but we wanted something really awesome so we just took that opportunity to hit up the Cracker Barrel in Binghamton. My kids had never been to the Cracker Barrel before! This is possibly a parenting fail on my part.
After breakfast, we headed over to Animal Adventure Park, only 20 minutes away. I was really excited because AAP was one of the whole reasons for this trip. April! Oliver! Tajiri!
This whole week was insufferably hot, including the day we were at AAP. Poor Drew was really showing signs of heat distress so we had to take it slow and I kept buying so many bottles of water and seeking out shade for him where ever we could find it. I was pouring water over his head and down the back of his shirt. Unfortunately I think the heat cut our visit a little bit short, but we had a wonderful time and it was a real treat to see this adorable park which is so well-run, and it’s clear that the animals are so well cared for here. I loved how the zookeepers kept spraying the tortoise shells with water to keep them from drying out. By the time we left, many of the animals were sprawled out flat on the ground. Too hot for everybody!
After a big morning at Animal Adventure Park, we drove 1.5 hours with air conditioning blasting to Howe Caverns and did the 90 minute Traditional Tour. They were open until 6:00 at this time of year so we had plenty of time to hit this one on our way to our hotel. The 52 degree temperature underground was a welcome relief from the scorching heat up above!
The Hilton Troy was definitely the least favorite of the hotels of the week. Nothing particularly wrong with it, but it was just older and uninspired. Troy is not exactly a hot destination, either. Luckily for us, it was just a stop for the night.
Day 7 : Driving Home
Free hot breakfast in the morning was wonderful! With nothing else planned for the day but driving, we indulged in a little more hotel swimming before we checked out.
And that was it! We drove the rest of the way home, a really empty and boring ride through Vermont and New Hampshire. We made it home with just over 1000 miles clocked.