New York boasts 180 state parks, a dazzling collection of nature’s treasures that includes some of the country’s best crystal lakes, gurgling falls, and sprawling forests.
There’s plenty to see and do in New York’s state parks, whether you’re traveling solo, adventuring with friends, or bringing the family along for the ride.
Here are five parks worth putting on your bucket list.
Green Lakes State Park
The park’s two titular lakes, Green Lake and Round Lake, are both a striking blue-green. The unusual hues are caused by a phenomenon called whiting, in which the high amount of dissolved minerals in the water crystallize and are deposited underneath. The lakes are two of New York’s six meromictic lakes, meaning that their top and bottom waters do not mix, and there are only 36 such lakes in the world. You can inspect the emerald waters up close in a rowboat or atop a paddleboard, or admire them from afar on beaches and lakeside paths.
Watkins Glen State Park
Watkins Glen is a geological masterpiece, shaped by melting glaciers and coursing streams over thousands of years. A gurgling creek snakes through the gorge in winding paths, gathering in vaguely heart-shaped pools and forming 19 waterfalls along the way. On either side, thin layers of rock stack atop each other in towering 200-foot walls—rough and craggy, like petrified puff pastry—topped off with a cap of bright green foliage. The walls undulate in graceful curves where they touch the water, having been gently sculpted and smoothed by the stream cutting through them.
A gorge trail guides you through the glen, up and down stone steps, over bridges, and even behind a trickling waterfall. You can complete the loop in two hours, but it’s best enjoyed at a leisurely stroll, giving you plenty of time to marvel along the way. At one point, you emerge from a dark tunnel into a breathtaking emerald city: moss and grass paint the rocks, and sunlight filtering through the trees washes everything in pale green.
Letchworth State Park
Three roaring waterfalls, the Upper, Middle, and Lower Falls, are the crown jewels of Letchworth State Park, known as the “Grand Canyon of the East” for its towering gorge walls. White water cascades down these falls and as many as 50 more within the park.
The Middle Falls, at just over 100 feet high, is an especially breathtaking sight—so much so that the people of the Seneca tribe believed it made the sun stop at midday.
Letchworth has plenty to offer, from hiking and horseback riding to whitewater rafting and hot air ballooning. Stop by the newly opened Letchworth Nature Center for interactive exhibits and educational programs, or the historic Glen Iris Inn for a meal or overnight accommodations. You can dine at their indoor restaurant or out on the patio, just steps away from an overlook of Middle Falls.
Allegany State Park
There’s no shortage of things to do at this 65,000-square-acre park—an impressive acreage that makes it the largest state park in New York. Families flock to the campgrounds year after year, making reservations months in advance. Chances for wildlife encounters run high—the deer act tame, unperturbed by campers, and black bears and their cubs are known to hang around the grounds, with the more mischievous one- to two-year-olds often dragging off poorly protected coolers.
During the day, you can hike, bike, or horseback ride through the many trails or paved roads, hunt or fish in designated areas, or get out on the water at Red House or Quaker Lake. Lounge on the shore, take a dip in the shallows, or hop on a kayak or stand-up paddleboard. The farther out you drift, away from the busy beach and towards the rolling hills in the distance, the more peaceful it is.
Niagara Falls State Park
No list of New York state parks would be complete without Niagara Falls, the oldest state park in the United States and arguably one of the most iconic. Since the park’s establishment in 1885, the timeless falls have drawn in millions of visitors each year, all vying for an up close glimpse of their grandeur. Every second, 750,000 gallons of water tumble over the falls in glittering white torrents—a dizzying display of nature’s power and beauty.
Take a tour on the Maid of the Mist, which will carry you right into the foam of the iconic Horseshoe Falls, or slip on foam sandals and a bright yellow rain poncho and head for the Cave of the Winds, for a closer look at the American and Bridal Veil Falls. You’ll climb up wooden footbridges and stairs, among a sea of other bobbing yellow heads, until you’re within feet of the falls, surrounded on all sides by wild gusts of wind, sheets of spraying water, and the sounds of joyous whooping, hollering, and laughing over the river’s constant, thundering roar.
How to Get There
For those who prefer a short flight over driving, JetBlue services many destinations in New York state.