Upstate New York – the Budget Friendly Alternative to a Winter Trip Out West

Evergreen forest after a few inches of fresh snow

When many think of where to plan their winter trip, the popular destinations out west usually come to mind – Aspen, Lake Tahoe, Jackson Hole, Park City, etc. However, with this popularity, there also comes the high price – these trips can get expensive quickly! Between the flights, hotels, rental cars, lift tickets, food/drink and more, costs can quickly get out of hand for those looking to experience a Winter Wonderland on a budget.

A Hidden Gem in the Northeast

Fortunately, there’s a great alternative in the often overlooked upstate of New York, particularly in the Catskills State Park. With over 700,000 acres of park area, 35 mountains over 3500 feet, and countless waterfalls, the Catskills Park is one of those hidden gems rarely mentioned outside of New York. Often overshadowed by the Big Apple (Manhattan) down south, Upstate New York is home to multiple mountain ranges, waterfalls, state parks, charming towns, breweries and much more. While our mountains here top out at just over a mile high (Mount Marcy in the Adirondacks), they still soar over the surrounding landscape that is often quite close to sea level. And on top of all that – Upstate New York averages over 70 inches of annual snowfall across more than 60% of the land area.

Views from the top of Hunter Mountain – 3,200 ft. above sea level

Below, I’ve put together an example of a ski and hiking trip to Upstate New York for a group of 4 – you may be surprised at just how affordable (and exciting) it can be in this region.

How to Get Here

For most, the best option for accessing New York State’s ski regions and winter wonderlands, it is best to fly into Albany International Airport. Despite being closer in size to a regional airport, Albany still offers a lot of direct routes and affordable prices. Below you’ll see some examples of flights from popular locations to Albany – sometimes as low as $208 round trip – from Florida!

In addition, you can also take the Amtrak if you are already in New York City or Washington DC – round trip tickets are usually $100-200.

Getting Around

Once you get upstate, you will definitely want to rent a car to get around. While everything is fairly accessible, the mountain towns are still a good walk between them, and having a car will give you the ability to do more exploring on your own.

Unfortunately, New York still does not allow car sharing platforms such as Turo or Maven to operate here, and so you’ll have to stick with a traditional rental operator. Luckily, even in winter, the roads are well maintained, and so you don’t need to stress getting a 4WD vehicle, but you should ask the rental counter whether the car is equipped with snow tires. Below is an example of a rental quote from National Car Rental, for a Thursday – Monday booking in January.

Example quotes of a Thursday – Monday booking from National Car (Enterprise)

Where to Stay

A quiet town in the outskirts, with the Catskill Mountains in the distance

To get the most out of your trip to the Catskill Mountains in Upstate New York, you have a couple great options of villages and towns to stay in, with a wide variety of accommodation types in each. In addition to the suggestions below, there’s a healthy selection of AirBnB’s ranging from rustic and simple to downright luxurious.

TownProximity to Skiing/HikingTown VibesSuggested Stays
Hunter<1 MileMountain village surrounding the ski mountain and numerous hiking trailsScribners Lodge, Hunter Mountain Resort, Kaatskill Mountain Club
Hudson 25 minutesPicturesque Northeast town with quiet charm, great eats, and art district
Woodstock15 MinutesHistorical town within Catskill Park with vibrant art and music Woodstock Way Hotel, Morning Glory BnB, Village Green Bed and Breakfast
Catskill and Outskirts10 – 15 MinutesMore secluded, often with lots of land and scenic viewsThe Catskill Game Farm, Stewart House, Tiny House Retreat
Cairo/Oak Hill20-30 MinutesQuiet farmland and secluded areas with forest settings, creeks/streamsThe Dewitt, Big Jenny the Shuttle Bus, Field Stones Retreat

What to Do

Now that you’ve picked a town to serve as your base camp, you’re ready to start thinking of what you want to do during your stay. Browse below to see what all there is to do in the Catskills area during winter.

Skiing and Snowboarding

Every winter trip should include – you guessed it – skiing or snowboarding! Hunter Mountain has it all – with 13 lifts, 67 trails, and 45% of trails rated advanced (or harder), it has something for everyone – at a price for everyone too. Below you’ll see a comparison between the prices at Hunter Mountain in the Catkills, vs. popular destinations out west (Lake Tahoe and Breckenridge). I’ve skied at Hunter a handful of times, and the mix of regular terrain/obstacles makes for an exciting day, capped off with drinks and dinner at the Hunter Mountain Brewery.

Hiking

For those willing to head off the beaten path to immerse in nature – winter hiking is a truly unique experience – especially in the Catskill Mountains. With hundreds of miles of trails, numerous waterfalls, towering peaks, mountaintops, plane crashes and more – there’s a winter hiking adventure for everyone. With difficulties ranging from an easy walk in the park, to challenging summits, take your pick with just how hard you would like to work for some of the best views in the Northeast. If you’re new to hiking in the winter in the northeast, check out our winter hiking gear list to keep you warm and dry during any cold weather adventure.

Licensed Hiking Guide, Brian James, heading up an icy slope during a guided hike

If you’re not ready to take on a winter hike on your own yet – don’t worry! Roulette Travel offers fully guided winter hiking adventures – complete with all the gear you need, as well as a candid photographer throughout your hiking trip. You can enjoy the wonder and serenity of snow covered mountains and frozen waterfalls without having to sweat the little details – thats the job of our owner & licensed trail guide, Brian. Visit our Guided Hiking Section for more information or to schedule your tour – the cost is $80 per person, with a 2 person minimum required for booking.

Ice Climbing

Snowmobiling

If you have yet to experience the thrill of plowing through fresh snow at 40mph (without skis) – you need to try snowmobiling – and what better place than in the Catskill Mountains. Check out the Rip Van Winkle Ranch for an affordable option (usually around $40/hour), or talk to your hotel concierge about tours offered by the hotel.

Ziplining

Did you just read that twice since you typically picture tropical rainforests when you think of ziplining? Well, in the Catskills, you can zip over mountains and valleys year round with the Hunter Mountain Zip Line. Its a little pricey for an hour of fun – $119 per person – but if you’re adrenaline junkie – it might be worth it for you. Visit ZipLine New York for more information and available times/dates.

Caving

Another activity you might not have though of for a winter trip is caving – but you can do it here in the Catskills! There’s a few different options, depending on if you are up for hiking to the caves, or would rather drive to an underground system of expansive caves and caverns.

Caves uniquely stay the same temperature year round – around 52 degrees – and so, it will likely feel far warmer than the air outside. If you’re up to go underground, head over to Howe Caverns and start your adventure with a descent to 156 feet below the Earth’s surface. From there, you’ll continue on a guided tour to view expansive rooms and rock formations while learning all about the cave’s history.

Howe Caverns (photo from albany.org)

If you are even more adventurous (and not claustrophobic), consider making a reservation for the Howe Caverns Adventure Tour – where you’ll twist, crawl and shimmy your way through the caves into a 107 foot tall room at the end. They supply the headlamp and helmet, but you’ll need to bring the courage (not of the liquid variety, however). Prices range from $25 per person for the standard tour, or $125 per person for the adventure tour.

If you would rather hike to caves created by cascading boulders and rock faces – Roulette Travel has just the adventure for you. Over the course of approximately 6 hours and 6 miles, you will hike through frozen landscapes to icy caves, cracks and grottos – without having to ever go underground. In addition to the mystical settings of the caves, you’ll enjoy some incredible cliff-side views out over the Hudson Valley. Visit our Guided Hiking page for more information or to schedule a tour. Prices start at $300 (for up to 4 guests), with an additional charge for each guest thereafter.

Ice Climbing

Ice Climbing in the Catskills with Mountain Skills Climbing Guides

If you’re after even more adrenaline – you can book an introductory ice climbing tour. We recommend Mountain Skills Climbing Guides, as they have been active in the region for more than 20 years and have a great reputation. They were both fun and professional, and helped to teach the basics before attempting the larger climbs. For more information, you can visit their website, or watch the video we did with them in January! Tours start around $200 per person, but group rates should usually be available. Be sure to make a reservation well in advance, as they often book up quickly.

We hope to see you soon in Upstate New York!

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