letchworth state park

6 Upstate NY State Parks for Your Must-Visit List

The Empire State boasts the second-highest number of state parks nationwide and delivers some real stunners with cinematic superlatives — a roaring river pouring over a 600-foot cliff, orange and peach hues of a beach sunset, and vast, blue waters crashing onto the shore. While there are many parks to see, we suggest you start with these six.

Story and 360 Videos by Huirong Wang   ·   8.1.2021

6 Upstate NY State Parks for Your Must-Visit List

The Empire State boasts the second-highest number of state parks nationwide and delivers some real stunners with cinematic superlatives — a roaring river pouring over a 600-foot cliff, orange and peach hues of a beach sunset, and vast, blue waters crashing onto the shore. While there are many parks to see, we suggest you start with these six.

When most people hear the words “New York,” they think of New York City and envision the dazzling lights of Broadway, the towering buildings in Times Square, the majestic Statue of Liberty, the honk of yellow cabs, and possibly a steaming hot dog from a streetside food cart. But despite the state’s showiest city often being the center of attention, New York possesses another notable feature that deserves travelers’ attention: parks. In fact, in classic New York bravado, the state possesses the second-greatest number of state parks — 180.

These parks feature glacial lakes, waterfalls, beaches, gorges, and forests. They also offer activities and amenities for outdoor enthusiasts who enjoy camping, hiking, swimming, kayaking, fishing, or picnicking. Nature and wildlife lovers will find hundreds of species of plants and wildlife: chipmunks climbing huge hardwood trees, deer drinking from clear, cool streams in the forest, and cottontail rabbits eating grasses.

In an entire state with a bounty of parks, upstate New York stands apart. “There are a lot of state parks surrounding Lake Ontario,” says Patrick Colangelo, a bonafide park lover, who explores many of them. He says Letchworth State Park “is one of the most beautiful.” And he never lets a summer pass without a trip to Verona Beach State Park to camp and enjoy the breathtaking scenery and sunsets.

Based on popularity, the rank and number of Google reviews, and interviews with travelers, we suggest you start with these.

Three things before you go:

1. During the peak spring and summer season, the New York State Parks, Recreation, and Historical Preservation office encourages visitors to check individual park webpages or historic site webpages, or download the free New York state Parks Explorer app for up-to-date information before visiting.

2. All state parks ask that visitors abide by their carry-in and carry-out rule to keep them clean, neat, and natural. Also, wear appropriate footwear and consider using insect repellents to protect yourself.

3. Most state parks charge a vehicle use fee for day use. If you anticipate multiple visits (and you should) all-season enjoyment at most facilities operated by the State Parks, try the easy-to-use 2021 Season Empire Pass card available for $80. See more about NYS Parks’ Admission Programs including the Empire Pass.

Letchworth State Park

A 2015 USA Today poll ranked Letchworth State Park the No. 1 state park in the country. Nicknamed the “Grand Canyon of the East,” it features a deep gorge, the roaring Genesee River, and three giant waterfalls. It also offers 66 miles of hiking trails, horseback riding, and biking. While you can certainly take in the entire park from the comfort of your car (not our recommendation), the park offers views of giant forest trees and several lookout points to stop at should you need a quick rest. Because the park is more than 14,000 acres along the Genesee River, the cell signal will be poor in some places. So bring a map or plan the route ahead of time.

The Upper Falls serves as the jaw-dropper of the entire park. The Genesee River roars and pours down a wide cliff, and you can overlook the falls and gorge from the top. Trails surrounding the falls allow you to scooch a little bit closer from different angles. If you’d like to include some bird-watching in your trip, use a telescope at the Letchworth Bird Conservation Area. In addition, many lookouts provide views of the deep gorge, the Gardeau Overlook, the winding creek, and the downstream of Genesee River.

“In Letchworth, there are three falls,” Colangelo says. “They are lower, upper, and middle falls. And there's a huge train trestle. Visitors can drive through and pull off to see all the falls.”

Location: 1 Letchworth State Park, Castile, NY 14427. Located in the Genesee Region.

Activities: Letchworth offers whitewater rafting, kayaking, a pool for swimming, hot air ballooning, biking, hiking, fishing, hunting, snow tubing, cross-country skiing, and snowmobiling. Campsites, inns, and shelter rentals also are available.

Access Details: Letchworth State Park is open daily from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. The swimming pool season runs from late June till Labor Day from 11 a.m. to 5:45 p.m. on weekdays and 11 a.m. to 6:45 p.m. on weekends or holidays. The 2021 camping season lasts from April 30 to October 17.

Entrance Fees: $10 per vehicle; nonprofit buses: $35; commercial buses: $75. Collection begins on May 7 and lasts till October 24 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Watkins Glen State Park

Ranked No. 3 in a 2015 USA Today poll of the best state parks nationwide, Watkins Glen State Park earns praise for its 19 various waterfalls along the two-mile-long Gorge Trail. The “glen” in its name comes from the Gaelic word meaning “small, narrow, secluded valley,” and at this park, visitors can see and hear the rush of water as it falls into the valley. Each waterfall differs in shape and scale and descends like a staircase step by step. The trail map states that “there is no wrong way to explore the natural beauty of Watkins Glen.”

There are eight officially suggested hikes. Before the visit, you can choose a route you like, but the Gorge Trail is a must-see. On this trail, you can view the Mile Point Bridge, Frowning Cliff, Rainbow Falls, Central Cascade, Glen Cathedral, Suspension Bridge, Cavern Cascade, and Sentry Bridge. At Cavern Cascade, the waters of the stream pour down through a deep cave where visitors can touch the water. At Minnehaha Falls, roaring waters splash into a deep, heart-shaped pool. And Central Cascade offers a stunning view of a wide and deep gorge.

“The best time to go in is the morning,” says Sam Thorsland, an employee at the Watkins Glen State Park office. “It’s less busy. Go down [from the Upper Entrance] and back about three miles, so it may take an hour or two depending on how long you look at the sites. The best entrance is the Main Entrance back in town. That will get you to the falls immediately.”

Location: 1009 N Franklin Street, Watkins Glen, NY 14891. Located in the Finger Lakes Region.

Activities: Watkins Glen offers picnicking, biking, hiking, hunting, playgrounds, a pool for swimming, fishing, and cross-country skiing. Campsites, cabins, showers, and shelter rentals also are available.

Access Details: The park is open year-round from dawn to dusk with three entrances: Main Entrance, South Entrance, and Upper Entrance. Trail shuttle runs from May 29 to July 4 only on weekends, July 5 through Labor Day daily, and from Labor Day to end of season only on weekends for $5 per person. The swimming pool season begins July 3 and lasts till September 6 from 12 p.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays and 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekends. The 2021 camping season begins May 20.

Entrance Fee: $10 per vehicle (includes pool); noncommercial bus: $35; commercial bus: $75; nonprofit seasonal bus pass: $75. Collection begins in mid-May and lasts till mid-October from sunrise to sunset.

Chittenango Falls State Park

A 167-foot waterfall serves as the main attraction of Chittenango Falls State Park. Chittenango is a Haudenosaunee word meaning, “where waters divide and flow north.” Over the years, the raging waters have pounded the 400-million-year-old bedrocks, forming this majestic waterfall. With exuberant forest, a winding creek, a gorgeous waterfall, and multiple streams, the park offers a resplendent natural experience.

Six hiking trails take visitors over the massive 194.61-acre park. The gorge trail takes visitors down stairs that overlook the waterfall through the pristine northern hardwood forest and offers a view of the waterfall at the bottom of the footbridge. And for the budding botanist or bird-watcher, visitors can return to the top to take in the scenery along the small trail opposite the gorge. Various plants and wildlife can be found on other trails, including the Chittenango ovate amber snail, which is only found under the rocks around the Chittenango falls and a very rare cliffside wildflower — the roseroot — on the gorge walls.

Ben Morse, the park manager at New York State Parks, recommends visitors include the 167-foot waterfall, a walk around the 2.5-mile hiking trails, and a visit to the picnic area and playgrounds, which offer picnicking and fishing, reservable picnic shelters and two pavilions.

Location: 2300 Rathbun Road, Cazenovia, NY 13035. Located in the Central Region.

Activities: Chittenango Falls offers hiking, fishing, playgrounds, and picnicking. Pavilions and shelter rentals are also available.

Access Details: The park is open year-round with restrictions. Shelter rentals begin in mid-May and last till Labor Day from 9 a.m. to sunset.

Entrance Fee: $5 per vehicle; noncommercial bus: $35; commercial bus: $75; seasonal bus permit: $75.

Chimney Bluffs State Park

As its name suggests, the magnificent bluffs on the Lake Ontario shore serve as the most notable feature of Chimney Bluffs State Park. The eternal clash of land and water along Lake Ontario at this point formed massive earthen spires and dramatic cliffs. While there are stunning views, visitors should be careful. As the billboard announces at the entrance to the park: “The view of Chimney Bluffs should take your breath away, not your life.” So safety precautions dictate that visitors view the bluffs from designated trails — not by approaching the cliff edge.

The park boasts five main well-designed trails. The bluff trail takes visitors along the lake shore first, providing an eye-level view of the waters clashing on the land at the shore. Then it takes you through the massive, old forest, which features giant hardwood trees, including many maples, and the occasional deer and scurrying chipmunks.

“It’s a beautiful park,” Colangelo says. “There's a nice walk through there. There [are] bluffs that plunge down and near the lake. So it's a pretty walk.” Plan on at least a 30-minute walk to see the bluffs. On the way, expect lookout points, two wooden bridges, and an overlook of the ochre bluffs and Lake Ontario.

Location: 7700 Garner Road, Wolcott, NY 14590. Located in the Finger Lakes Region.

Activities: Chimney Bluffs offers picnicking and grills with a large picnic area, hiking on nature trails, fishing, hunting, snowmobiling, and cross-country skiing.

Access Details: The park is open year-round from dawn to dusk. Chimney Bluffs is open for late season Canada geese hunting only.

Entrance Fees: $5 per vehicle. Collection begins on April 1 and lasts till October 31 all day.

Verona Beach State Park

Consider Verona Beach State Park to be the beach lover’s, sunset searcher’s, camp connoisseur’s, picknicker’s paradise. Verona Beach overlooks Oneida Lake, where visitors can relax while listening to the waves beating against the shore, stretch out under the shadow of hardwood trees, and marvel at the sunset, which many describe as glorious as the celebrated ones of Key West, Florida.

Together with a scenic beach for swimming, 47 campsites shaded by luxuriant hardwood trees, six reservable picnic shelters, ten natural trails, and a splash pad centrally in the park for kids, Verona Beach is an ideal family-friendly destination.

“Summer is for camping and picnicking,” says Ranee Mortis, who works at the Verona Beach State Park, “But year-around, there are a lot of walkers, and in the wintertime, [it’s for] ice-fishers, snowmobilers, cross-country skiers.” For Colangelo, who grew up near the park, one season stands out. “The fall by far is the best time,” he says. “It starts to cool down, and the trees start to change color.”

Location: 6541 Lakeshore Road South, Route 13, Verona Beach, NY 13162. Located in the Central Region.

Activities: Verona Beach offers picnicking, biking, hiking, horseback riding, hunting, fishing, a beach for swimming, playgrounds, boating, snowmobiling, and cross-country skiing. Campsites, cabins, showers, and shelter rentals also are available.

Access Details: The park is open year-round. The 2021 swimming pool season begins on Memorial Day and lasts till June 13 from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. only on weekends and June 19 through Labor day from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily. The 2021 camping season lasts from May 28 to September 6. The 2021 shelter rentals begin May 21 and last till September 6 from 8 a.m. to sunset.

Entrance Fees: $7 per vehicle. Collection begins June 14 and lasts till Labor Day from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays and 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekends or holidays. Swimming and beach use is included in the vehicle fee.

Clark Reservation State Park

Considered a geologic wonder from the last ice age, Clark Reservation State Park features layers of limestone formed over 400 million years that have preserved the fossils of many plants and animals, including honeycomb corals and brachiopods. But the glacial lake serves as one of the park’s biggest attractions. The glacial melting waters formed an ancient waterfall, which is believed to have been twice the volume of Niagara Falls and has formed over the cliff for more than 200 million years to create spectacular glacial features, including today’s glacial lake.

Clark Reservation offers more than 10 hiking trails. The cliff trail overlooks this meromictic glacial lake in which the surface waters and bottom waters do not mix, offering a view that highlights the two distinct colors of the lake. The steep stairs lead visitors to the swamp trail, which offers a view of the whole lake along the lake trail. On the Mildred Faust Trail, you will find the story about “a woman ahead of her time:” Dr. Mildred E. Faust, a scientist who completed the most comprehensive plant list for Onondaga County to date.

As a botanists’ paradise, Clark Reservation is botanically rich, allowing visitors to view a lush landscape including New England asters that bloom between late summer and early fall and the walking fern along limestone boulder surfaces. “I like the diversity of the area, different types of birds, squirrels, chipmunks,” says Dan Knox. “You're going to see something around somewhere, so, [animals are] always around you.” Such animals include the nocturnal gray fox, the eastern red-backed salamander, the wood frog, and others. Clark Reservation also offers educational activities. There is a nature play area in the center of the park where kids can crawl through logs like a salamander, slide like an otter, dig for fossils in the fossil finder, and so on. “This park is specifically warranted with nature,” says Ashley Garcia. “And I think there is more education.”

Location: 6105 East Seneca Turnpike, Jamesville, NY 13078. Located in the Central Region.

Activities: Clark Reservation offers picnicking, hiking, fishing, playgrounds, a nature play area, and a Nature Center providing interesting exhibits, various programs, and projects year-round to help visitors explore the botanically rich environment.

Access Details: The park is open year-round from sunrise to sunset. The Nature Center is open seasonally from mid-May through Labor Day. The 2021 shelter rentals begin in mid-May and last till Columbus Day from 9 a.m. to sunset.

Entrance Fees: $5 per vehicle; noncommercial bus: $35; commercial bus: $75; seasonal bus permit: $75.

Land Acknowledgement

Our pursuit of outdoor joy is remiss without the acknowledgement of the occupation of unceded Indigenous land. We are students and journalists working, writing, and living on the land of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, comprising the Six Nations made up of the Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora nations. However, acknowledgement is not enough. Read More.