Typically, the saying “it’s the journey, not the destination” doesn’t apply to vacations. But if you’re driving upstate to the Catskills anytime this summer, you might as well take advantage of all the cool stuff to do along the way. Other than booking a place to stay and a rental car with a random Texas license plate, we’ve got you covered with hiking plans, a stop featuring adorable farm animals, and more great things to do and eat once you actually arrive.
Pit-Stops On Your Drive Upstate
Bear Mountain State Park
You’re probably going to the Catskills to enjoy things like trees, fresh air, and unreliable cell phone service. So we see no reason to wait until you actually arrive at your destination to take advantage of the mountains a mere hour away from the city. Bear Mountain State Park has tons of hiking for all levels of intensity (including “hmm look at that nice lake, okay let’s go back to the car.”) If you’re looking for a hiking pit-stop that’ll take less than an hour, the Hessian Lake Loop has the best views for the least effort. It’s a 1.4 mile mostly-flat loop, and you can see the water the entire time. While there’s no swimming allowed in the lake, there is a pool at Bear Mountain. If hiking or swimming isn’t in the cards, you can still drive up to the summit of Bear Mountain and climb up the tower there for incredible views of the Hudson.
Storm King Art Center
About 25 minutes north of Bear Mountain, you’ll find what is objectively the best outdoor art experience in the entire state. If you’ve never been, think of Storm King as a 500-acre walking trail with abstract sculptures instead of places where strangers have inevitably squatted to pee. Our advice: don’t try to see all of Storm King in one go. (There’s a new Sarah Sze piece that opened in June 2021, and a bunch more limited-time exhibitions we’d suggest prioritizing listed here). If you insist on covering a lot of ground, rent a bike for two hours (which costs $30 per person) and glide around the grounds.
Jones Farm Country Store
A person can only investigate brutalist sculptures in a grassy knoll for so long before they mimic the behavior of an irritable toddler. That’s why we highly recommend heading straight from Storm King to Jones Farm, about 10 minutes away in Cornwall, NY. This family-owned farm doubles as a daytime cafe, serving excellent soups, sandwiches, breakfast, and salads that are mostly sourced from their own seasonal produce. After you eat (and buy a fresh blueberry pie and a carton of farm eggs), make sure to introduce yourself to the roaming chickens and thank them for their service.
Where To Eat Once You Arrive
You’ve probably heard of Woodstock or Phoenicia, but it’s worth noting that the Catskills span far beyond a retro diner and a peace sign sculpture you’ve possibly seen on Instagram. We’ve already written about our favorite places in seven different towns, but for the purposes of this guide, we’re suggesting you stay somewhere close to Livingston Manor. You’ll get better prices on rentals over here, and there’s still plenty to do, see, and eat.
The Walk In
This biscuit-focused bakery opened in 2021, making it the newest spot on the main stretch of Livingston Manor. They bake their own square-shaped, flaky biscuits and other breads across the street in the old Brandenburg Bakery space (which we loved and has sadly closed). Place your order at The Walk In’s counter on Pleasant Street and then grab a table outside with your dog, whom we presume will also be interested in your curry chicken salad sandwich and BEC on a biscuit. We like stopping here following a hike at Willowemoc Wild Forest or after a trip to Catskill Brewery for something quick and filling.
Upward Brewing Company
The best part about this brewery (aside from the short menu of highly-drinkable beer, like the Opiate IPA), is the fact that they have 120 acres of property called Beer Mountain for you to explore. They make their beer with the water from the natural springs at the base of the mountain, and you can even climb up to the top holding your drink. Take a 20-minute walk up Beer Mountain, and then come back to their massive lawn space for some crispy fried trout nuggets, kimchi- and cheese-covered fries, and a bunch of meat and vegan-based sausages. Even if you’re not staying in Livingston Manor, this is a great stop if you’re anywhere near the area.
Brushland Eating House
Brushland Eating House is on the far western side of the Catskills, and it’ll take you about an hour to drive there from Livingston Manor. But the seasonal food and classy-comforting atmosphere make it worth going out of your way for (even if that means navigating dark dirt roads without cell service). Brushland Eating House is located on the first floor of an old apothecary building, and the space has floor-to-ceiling windows, a giant bar, and nice wooden banquettes. Right now they’re offering set-menu tasting dinners featuring whatever seasonal produce they’re excited about (everyone is seated at the same time, the food comes out family-style, and the chef will probably make a welcome speech at the beginning of the meal). If you’re picking just one restaurant to visit while you’re in the Catskills, this is it.
A Closer Dinner
In case you don’t want to drive an hour for dinner, The Kaatskeller always comes in handy. This pizza place is about 85% outdoors (including their kitchen and most of the seating), and the patio space feels a little like a German beer garden, but with the addition of Neapolitan-style pizza, dogs, children, and a fire pit in the back. Make sure to order the “White Album” pizza - which is topped with ramp-kale pesto, chevre, broccoli shoots, bacon jam, and a sunnyside-up egg - and the trout rillettes to start.
Where To Pick Up Snacks
Main Street Farm
Main Street Farm operates as a part-grocery store and part-cafe. On the cafe side, you’ll find great sandwiches, salads, and soups. But you can also buy most of the ingredients from dishes on the menu in the store section on the left side, including cured meats, craft seltzer, trout, local tomatoes, and pickles. This is our favorite place in the area for a quick lunch to-go, and works well if you want to pick up a couple snacks before a hike. In the summertime, there’s often a farmer’s market set up in front with even more fresh produce.
A Fish Bonus
Beaverkill Trout Hatchery
Like how NYC is known for dollar slices and Elmo costumed-people wandering Times Square, the Catskills are known for delicious trout. The purest way to experience this is by picking up fresh-caught trout at Beaverkill Trout Hatchery. They sell rainbow, brook, and brown trout for about $8-12 per fish - which we highly recommend wrapping in tin foil with some lemon and herbs, and grilling wherever you’re staying. In addition to buying cleaned and gutted fish and smoked trout, you can walk the grounds and see all of the different trout pools. They’re open every day, and only accept cash. If you have questions about hours and availability, call Sherry (the owner of the farm) at 845-439-4947.