U.S. Route 20 Scenic Byway Offers a Slice of True Americana

Looking down Park Row in Clinton, NY

Route 20 has a rich and well-documented history. This first east-west passageway helped grow New York into the Empire State.

Originally a Native American footpath, Route 20 became the main turnpike used by frontiersmen in covered wagons who were heading west to start new futures. Post-World War II leisure travelers took the highway on family vacations as America became increasingly mobile.

Once prosperous, Route 20 saw a decline in voyagers after the construction of the Erie Canal, and of course, after the opening of the New York State Thruway. More than a trace of that early tourism economy is still evident along the route today.

Some consider Route 20 to be the backbone of New York State, the sense of Americana that still holds strong in the area. The rolling hills, fertile farmland, quaint villages and small businesses that dot the countryside intermingle with the modern windmills of the Fenner Renewable Energy Education Center in Madison County to form an eclectic mix of old and new. The Route 20 Scenic Byway offers an educational, above all, enjoyable excursion for the entire family.

Upon entering Otsego County on Route 20, you’ll notice national art exhibitions, world-class opera, theater and concerts. From museums and historic sites to baseball and New York state’s first cuisine trail, you’ll see the mix of history and culture here.

Route 20 Scenic Byway passes through Richfield Springs and the villages of Cherry Valley and Cooperstown. A historic village turned active artists community, Cherry Valley features specialty shops, a museum, cafes, an art gallery, fine dining and numerous historical markers.

One place to stop includes The TePee, which has been around for 61 years and will always be a part of the area’s Americana with its wide variety of “Made in USA,” local and Native-made gifts. Home to three national historic districts, Richfield Springs was a resort community known for its mineral springs in the 19th century. Pull over to taste the famous sulphur water from the fountain in Spring Park. The second largest lake in the Susquehanna watershed, Canadarago Lake, is just south of the village offering great fishing and a public beach.

Once you reach Madison County along Route 20, you’ll stumble across Cazenovia on the lovely Cazenovia Lake, home to Cazenovia College, dozens of quaint boutiques, gourmet restaurants and historic inns as well as the Lorenzo State Historic Site where you can experience what life was like on a rural estate.

Nearby, Madison-Bouckville offers a year-round antique venue with more than 30 dealers plus the largest antique show in New York State every year in August. The Madison-Bouckville antique show draws more than 2,000 dealers for a weeklong show along one two-mile stretch of Route 20. When your stomach’s grumbling, stop by the historic Ye Olde Landmark Tavern, where you’ll find “colonial hospitality at its finest” and an overall exquisite meal.

People browsing an antique show

Two communities touched by Route 20 in southern Oneida County are Bridgewater and Sangerfield. Just north of Sangerfield on Route 12 is the charming Village of Waterville, through which the Sangerfield River flows. Waterville, known as the “Historic Hop Capital of the World” and settled in 1792 is the birthplace of George Eastman who founded the Eastman Kodak Company. It’s also known for the notorious family of outlaws, The Loomis Gang.

Visit the Village of Waterville’s Historic Triangle District, including The Waterville Hotel, built in the early 1800s, with a tavern currently operated as an English pub called The Red Lion. The Waterville Historical Society building was built in 1842 and maintains a large collection of original hop equipment in the barn behind the main structure. Other to-dos in the area include stopping by the “Cruise-in to Waterville” annual classic car event and savoring a meal at Michael’s Restaurant, located on Route 20 in Sangerfield.

As you re-enter the Route 20 Scenic Byway from Cherry Valley, you’ll see nothing but rolling pastures and fields brimming with nature’s bounty. Schoharie County is also known as “New York’s Land of Caves” and is home to the largest cave in the Northeast, Howe Caverns, as well as Secret Caverns. A few miles east is the historic village of Sharon Springs.

In its prime, Sharon Springs catered to thousands of people who came for the healing powers of its mineral waters. Many quaint shops and unique eateries line Main Street while the restored 1847 American Hotel also captures the uniqueness of this community. Sharon Springs can be explored while browsing antiques or visiting the Sharon Historical Museum and Schoolhouse. Travel south to the historically and agriculturally rich Schoharie Valley, along Schoharie Creek flowing north into the Mohawk River at Schoharie Crossing.

The trip along Route 20 through Herkimer County takes visitors through two southern communities: West Winfield and Warren. What fueled the development of large valley villages and good transport to the east and west in Herkimer County was the Erie Canal, which extended from Albany to Buffalo.

You’ll be able to experience the Erie Canal firsthand aboard Erie Canal Cruises, which will transport you back to a time when the Erie Canal was only a vision and the boats were pulled by mules and horses. In addition to hearing the history of the canal, you can travel through a lock, raised or lowered 20 feet inside the lock walls, for an unforgettable experience.

The county’s oldest industry, Remington Arms, is still a major player in the county’s economy as well. Home to a large section of the Erie Canal and world-famous Herkimer Diamonds found only at Herkimer Diamond Mines, Herkimer is a treasure trove of history and scenic beauty.

Traveling the Route 20 Scenic Byway through the Central New York Region offers a relaxing day trip including a mixture of classic, old-fashioned fun and modern entertainment. From the time Route 20 was first popular to now, what remains the same in the region is the appreciation of core American values, traditions and culture. You’ll recognize all three in your jaunt through the ultimate Americana.