New York State has preserved many of its most pristine and remarkable landscapes within more than 200 state parks and historic sites. Fortunately, much of this stunning scenery is open for public access and recreation in line with conservation efforts. From Long Island to the Great Lakes, these 11 New York State parks show the Empire State at its most beautiful.
Letchworth State Park
Dubbed the “Grand Canyon of the East,” Letchworth is defined by a deep gorge carved out by the roaring Genesee River. Besides its scenic cliffs and vistas, the park boasts three massive waterfalls, simply known as the lower, middle, and upper falls. The choppy waters are off-limits for swimming here, but white water rafting and inflatable kayak trips let visitors brave a stretch of the lower rapids. More than 60 miles of hiking trails navigate forested areas and lead to all three waterfalls and other scenic lookouts. For an even higher vantage point, hot air balloon rides give a bird’s-eye view. Letchworth offers a range of accommodation, including campsites, cabins, and a handful of fully-equipped lodges.
Watkins Glen State Park
Perched at the southern end of Seneca Lake in the Finger Lakes region, Watkins Glen State Park features an extraordinary gorge along Glen Creek. The eroded limestone and shale has formed striking rock formations and a whopping 19 waterfalls along the two-mile Gorge Trail. The trail includes multiple staircases and bridges, helping visitors safely traverse the deep gorge and travel behind several waterfalls. Mist from the falls provides refreshing relief on a summer hike, but can also create slippery conditions in places. Two additional trails trace the upper rim of the gorge, granting exceptional vantage points. The park’s facilities include cabins and campsites, some of which have electric hookups.
Niagara Falls State Park
America’s oldest state park has been drawing millions of visitors for years. Besides the famous Maid of the Mist tour, visitors can access exceptional views of the falls and get a dose of history at Niagara Falls State Park. The park includes a promenade along the Niagara River, as well as a collection of islands interconnected by bridges between the American Falls, Bridal Veil Falls, and Horseshoe Falls. The largest island, Goat Island, features paved trails leading between scenic viewpoints, including Terrapin Point and Cave of the Winds, a wooden walkway that lets visitors admire Bridal Falls from below. The parking lots nearest the falls can be a frenzy and charge a hefty price. Fortunately, there are free parking garages and spots heading into town.
Chimney Bluffs State Park
Located east of Rochester on Lake Ontario’s southern shores, Chimney Bluffs State Park stands out for its unique topography and beachfront setting. The park’s dramatic rock formations and 150-foot spires were formed by glaciers and severe Upstate New York weather conditions. Erosion helped create this stunning landscape, but it’s also taken its toll on the stability of the Bluff Trail, which had to close in 2018 for safety concerns. Since then, the trail takes hikers atop the bluffs for spectacular views. Afterwards, the narrow beach is a scenic spot for a picnic and cooling off in Lake Ontario. Families with young children should take note that there are no guard rails along sections of the cliffs.
Minnewaska State Park
Spanning the Shawangunk Mountain Range just below Catskill Park, Minnewaska is packed with natural wonders and activities. More than 50 miles of trails let hikers and mountain bikers take in the park’s dense forest, waterfalls, sky lakes, and rocky peaks. For or an easy day-hike, the one-mile Awosting Falls Trail leads to a stunning 60-foot waterfall and serene pool below. To stretch your legs further and reach sweeping views of the 22,000-acre park, the Rainbow Falls Trail won’t disappoint. Two of the park's pristine lakes—Lake Minnewaska and Lake Awosting—have designated beach areas for swimming. Lake Minnewaska’s surrounding cliffs and rocky outcrops can be explored further on Gertrude’s Nose Trail. There are 50 tent-only campsites nearby at the Samuel F. Pryor III Shawangunk Gateway Campground.
Robert H. Treman State Park
Situated just southwest of downtown Ithaca, Robert H. Treman State Park comprises a gorge along Enfield Creek with a dozen gushing waterfalls. The Lower Falls are less than a half-mile from the parking area, and feature a sizable swimming hole below the falls. There are nine hiking trails through the park. If you only have time for one, the trek upstream on the 4.3-mile Rim Trail and Gorge Trail Loop is a must-see for stunning gorge views and 115-foot Lucifer Falls. If you have time, continuing on to the park’s upper entrance is worth it for Old Mill Falls and Enfield Falls, both of which are usually less crowded. The Lower Falls area has tent and RV campsites, as well as small cabins for rent.
Hudson Highlands State Park
Situated on the Hudson River’s east bank between the charming towns of Beacon and Cold Spring, Hudson Highlands State Park is an accessible refuge in nature by car or train from Westchester and New York City. The steep terrain is a hiker’s paradise. The 5.5-mile Breakneck Ridge trail climbs a startling 1,250 feet in a three-quarter-mile portion near the top. Another route, the Bull Hill Trail, can be completed in a few hours and offers views across to Storm King Mountain. On the north end at Dennings Point, a more leisurely trail takes in waterfront views and abandoned brick buildings, which are slowly being reclaimed by nature. Another abandoned site, Bannerman Castle, can be toured from the Hudson by kayak, canoe, or chartered boat.
Buttermilk Falls State Park
Buttermilk Falls State Park is also located just outside Ithaca and a mere mile from Robert H. Treman State Park. The park derives its name from the stunning Buttermilk Falls, which plunge down shale rock to a natural pool where visitors can swim in the summer months. Heading upstream, hikers will encounter numerous smaller waterfalls along the gorge that collectively descend around 600 feet within the park’s borders. The 4.5-mile Lake Treman Loop takes in the park’s main highlights, including waterfalls, Pinnacle Rock, the upper rim overlooking the gorge, and wetlands area around Lake Treman. Treat yourself afterwards with a cold draft beer across the street at Ithaca Beer Co.
Bear Mountain State Park
Encompassing rocky peaks and forest rising from the Hudson River’s west bank, Bear Mountain State Park delivers beautiful scenery and ample outdoor activities. Numerous brooks, rivers, and lakes are great for fishing and swimming in the case of Hessian Lake. The 5.7-mile Doodletown Bride Path Loop Trail traces historic revolutionary roads past abandoned mining areas, Split Rock Falls, and Doodletown Reservoir with extraordinary views of the Hudson along the way. Climbing up to the Perkins Memorial Tower promises sweeping views over the Hudson River Valley. Come winter, Bear Mountain’s trails are popular with cross-country skiers. Staying at the Bear Mountain Inn is ideal for spending plenty of time in the park, though camping is available at neighboring Harriman State Park.
Hither Hills State Park
Located all the way out in Montauk, Hither Hills State Park features beaches, recreation areas, and affordable camping in the heart of the Hamptons. The Atlantic side has expansive golden sand beaches with facilities, as well as a 190-site campground. Meanwhile, the narrower beaches on the bay can be reached via hiking trails or one access road. A network of trails through the park are accessible to hikers and horseback riders. The park’s topography is largely forested, but the west side has rolling sand dunes along Napeague Harbor.
Allegany State Park
At nearly 65,000 acres, Allegany State Park is the largest state park in New York (not counting the Adirondacks and Catskills). Beyond its size, Allegany is most distinguished by an abundance of massive boulders and bedrock scattered throughout its thick, mature forest. The quick quarter-mile Thunder Rocks trail winds through towering rocks, perfect for climbing and exploring hidden alcoves. More trailheads lead from Red House Lake, where there’s also a beach for swimming. Kayakers and canoers can enjoy the calmer waters of Quaker Lake or take on the Allegany River. Accommodation at Allegany covers everything from tent and RV campsites to cabins, yurts, and cottages for rent.