New York State is fortunate to have diverse picturesque landscapes -- many of which are within protected areas like state parks. From the tip of Long Island to the northern Adirondacks to Western New York, millions of acres of forests, lakes, rivers, and wetlands have been granted protective status. Each and everyone one of New York’s protected areas is equally important for environmental conservation purposes, however, there are some standouts when it comes to outdoor recreation and natural beauty. Check out our choices for 13 of the best parks below.
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1. Adirondack Park
Sometimes biggest does mean best. The Adirondack Park’s 6.1 million acres make it the largest government-protected park in the mainland United States, encompassing thousands of lakes and streams, wetlands, and New York’s highest peaks. The park incorporates a substantial portion of private land too, which is regulated under the Adirondack Park Agency. This includes the main towns: Lake Placid, Old Forge, Saranac Lake, Lake George, and Tupper Lake, which make excellent bases for exploring the various sections of the massive park.
Outdoor activities of all types abound in the Adirondacks. Lake Placid, which hosted the 1980 Winter Olympics, has superb skiing, ice skating, and ice climbing, not to mention great hiking once the snow melts. Lake Placid is also an ideal location for hiking any of the 46 High Peaks, a group of mountains ranging in elevation from 3,800 to 5,300 feet. The Adirondack’s waterways can be experienced by visitors comfortable with all adventure levels, notably, by rafting the Moose River, canoeing to a private island campsite on Indian Lake, cruising pontoon boats in the Fulton Lakes, or paddle boarding on Placid’s Mirror Lake. There’s simply too much to do for one, or even a dozen visits, with all seasons offering unique experiences.
2. Catskill Park
Covering the Catskill Mountains, the park totals approximately 700,000 acres. This substantial park is somewhat dwarfed by the Adirondacks, but these rugged mountains and woodlands are well worth a visit, especially for metro-area New Yorkers, who are only a few hours away by car. All types of outdoor activities are possible in the Catskills, with ski slopes at Belleayre and Hunter Mountains, fly-fishing on Willowemoc Creek and the Beaverkill, tubing in Phoenicia, and hiking trails to Kaaterskill Falls or Overlook Mountain, to name just a few. Throughout the park, there are plenty of drive-in or walk-through campsites available for solitude seekers.
An advantage the Catskills region has over the Adirondacks is the abundance of charming small towns. Favorites include Woodstock, Saugerties, Tannersville, and Phoenicia to the east, as well as Narrowsburg, Livingston Manor, Callicoon, and Delhi to the west. The farm-to-table, brewery, and distillery scenes are thriving here. Prohibition Distillery in Roscoe offers tastings (try the gin) and features a friendly outdoor bar; the nearby North Branch Inn serves up farm-fresh delights and houses two vintage bowling lanes; and Crossroads Brewing Company and Rip Van Winkle brew some of the finest craft beers in the region. There truly are too many places to list here, so it’s worth staying a while to explore them all.
3. Letchworth State Park
Known as the “Grand Canyon of the East,” the park straddles a 22-mile section of the Genesee River, which over many millennia has carved out a stunning gorge. There are three main waterfalls in the river, unimaginatively named Lower, Middle, and Upper Falls. Conveniently, they’re connected by a manageable hiking trail, with a lodge beside Middle Falls with parking. All three are impressive in their own right, the tallest being the Middle Falls at 107 feet. The Upper Falls is spanned by a railroad bridge, hundreds of feet overhead. The view from the falls and gorge above is remarkable. If that’s not high enough, consider taking it in from a hot air balloon. For an up-close view of the gorge, rafting is possible downriver, so there’s no fear of going over the 107-foot waterfall.
4. Robert H. Treman State Park
Located just south of the charming city of Ithaca, this park is just a short drive from downtown. Enfield Glen, a stunningly rugged gorge, is the main highlight at Treman Park. The park has a total of six trails, including the Gorge Trail, which meanders along the gorge’s twists and turns past 12 waterfalls, the tallest of which, Lucifer Falls, stands at 115 feet. Another popular trail, the Rim Trail, leads past further views of the gorge. There’s also a swimming area at the bottom of the park below a smaller, albeit still lovely waterfall.
5. Buttermilk Falls State Park
Just down the road from Robert H. Treman, Buttermilk Falls boasts a spectacular gorge and waterfalls of its own. As at Enfield Glen, the Buttermilk creek has eroded shale and limestone overtime with stunning results. The main attraction, Buttermilk Falls, tops out at 165 feet high, with impressive torrents cascading to the pool below. Upstream, hikers will find several smaller waterfalls and rock formations — the most famous being the 42-foot-tall Pinnacle Rock, standing upright in the middle of the creek bed. The trail forks into either the Rim Trail or Bear Trail, which leads back around the gorge’s rim or out to Lake Treman along a meadow path, respectively. Reward your efforts afterwards with a visit to one of Ithaca’s cafes or breweries. Keep in mind that Buttermilk falls can run nearly dry without adequate rainfall, whereas Treman is more reliable
6. Wellesley Island State Park
In the midst of the Thousand Islands, Wellesley Island’s spectacular scenery and isolation make for an excellent getaway. The island features the largest camping complex in the region, including wilderness sights only reachable by boat or hiking, standard tent and trailer sites, and a collection of furnished cabins. As the park is right on the St. Lawrence river, kayaking, boating, and swimming are excellent ways to explore the beautiful rocky coast and smaller offshore islands. The Minna Nature Center encompasses miles of trails along the most scenic stretches of coastline, wetlands, and forest. Additionally, it has a museum, and it organizes educational and nature programs for children and families.
7. Niagara Falls State Park
Many visitors flock to Niagara Falls for an up-close and personal encounter with the falls on the Maid of the Mist, but the stateside park grants fantastic views and experiences as well. An equally soaked viewpoint, the Cave of the Winds allows visitors to get within several feet of Bridal Veil Falls from the safety of a wooden platform. The park includes a few miles of trails that lead out to Goat Island, where the Cave of the Winds is located. Being situated right in the middle of the falls, it offers some of the best vantage points of Horseshoe Falls from Terrapin Point and of Bridal Veil Falls from Luna Island — you’ll be standing just feet away from the edge. Admittedly, perhaps the best view of Niagara Falls State Park is from the Canadian side, so as to take in the all of the sight’s beauty. The Rainbow Bridge can be crossed by foot for a 50-cent toll — and with a valid passport of course.
8. Minnewaska State Park Preserve
Straddling the Shawangunk Mountain ridge, Minnewaska is characterized by its rocky terrain, waterfalls, and cliffs across densely forested 22,257 acres. The park is best explored through the roughly 50 miles of hiking trails, letting both the adventurous and casual hiker experience these natural wonders. The Awosting Falls Trail is quite doable and leads hikers to a clear view of the 60-foot falls. The Orange Trail ventures onward to Lake Minnewaska (you can also drive there). The lake’s dramatic cliffs are viewable from the parking lot, but even better views await at Kempton Ledge. With such striking geology, it’s no wonder that the area is popular for rock climbing and bouldering, but it’s perfectly okay to just take it all in from a scenic overlook with your picnic basket.
9. Watkins Glen State Park
On the southern tip of Seneca Lake in the Finger Lakes region lies Glen Creek, which has slowly carved out a 400-foot-deep gorge into the area’s shale and limestone. The gorge is full of gorgeous waterfalls and rapids (pun intended), carrying water downstream to Seneca Lake. Fortunately, the gorge and waterfalls are easily accessible through three trails: Gorge Trail, Southern Rim, and Indian Trail. The Gorge Trail follows the gorge close to the creek’s level via stone bridges and staircases, passing 19 waterfalls. The others trace the gorge’s upper rim, providing an overlook. For the very intrepid, these trails connect to the greater Finger Lakes Trail, which totals 800-miles of interconnected routes crisscrossing the region. There’s plenty of camping in the park, but be sure to book ahead if you’re coming in the summer months. Outside the park, the village of Watkins Glen and surrounding area’s numerous wineries and breweries, are worth checking out.
10. Harriman State Park, Orange and Rockland Counties.
New York’s second largest state park contains over 200 miles of hiking trails, winding past numerous lakes, streams, and excellent vantage points. Harriman is a great option for New Yorkers who don’t have a car. Shortline buses out of Port Authority head to Southfield in just one hour, dropping hikers right on the Appalachian Trail. From here, pick up the trail for a two-day hike past Bear Mountain to the Peekskill Metro North station, which can bring you right back to the city. There’s an abundance of shorter and more manageable hikes too, with many capitalizing on views of the surrounding valleys and mountains. Even hiking just a portion of the Ramapo-Dunderberg will reward hikers with ridgetop views.
11. Hither Hills State Park
All the way out on Long Island’s eastern tip, Hither Hills makes for a great camping experience close to creature comforts — and the beach, of course. Beyond the excellent sand beach, there are hiking and bridle paths, forests, cycling trails, and the walking dunes — massive sand dunes right on Napeague Harbor. The park has nearly 200 campsites, which is certainly an affordable option for staying in the Hamptons. After a day of hiking, swimming, or idling on the beach, head to nearby Montauket for drinks or dinner overlooking Hither Hills across Fort Pond Bay.
12. Moreau Lake State Park
Due north of Saratoga Springs, Moreau Lake draws visitors for its seclusion, water activities, extensive trails, and camping opportunities. The lake is ideal for swimming and fishing, while paddlers will want to head for the Hudson, located on the park’s western edges. Multi-use trails allow for horseback riding and hiking from spring through fall and cross-country skiing and snowshoeing during the winter. Despite having over 100 campsites, it’s still easy to find solitude in this densely wooded 4,500-acre park. Located halfway between Saratoga Springs and Lake George, Moreau Lake is an excellent base for exploring both areas, or can serve as an active day trip from either location.
13. Point au Roche State Park, Clinton County
All the way upstate, Point au Roche lies on the northwestern shores of Lake Champlain, less than 20 miles south of the Canadian border. Point au Roche makes for an excellent family destination with miles of hiking and cycling trails through the largely undeveloped park (they become ski and snowshoe trails in the winter). The park’s nature center puts on educational activities for kids on Saturdays, and also grants free parking and access to the trails. The protected sand beach provides a calm swimming area on beautiful Lake Champlain, with adjacent boat launch access for leisurely sunset cruises and fishing. Nearby, the underrated city of Plattsburgh has a quality restaurant scene, with some standouts being Latitude 44, Ireses Café and Wine Bar, Aleka’s, and Anthony’s Restaurant & Bistro, which serves superb cuisine in a renovated 19th-century farmhouse. Plattsburgh is where you’ll find most hotels, with some campsites and lodges outside of town.
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