Last updated on October 31st, 2023 at 09:52 am

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With so much to do in the Empire State, from New York City to the famous beaches of the Hamptons, it’s easy to overlook Upstate, but this shouldn’t be the case!

Upstate is not only home to 6 million people — that’s more than you’ll find in most states — but it’s also got ample forests, rivers, mountains, lakes, and tons of waterfalls!

My husband and I spent 10 days exploring Upstate during a summer road trip and were fortunate enough to see 10 state parks during this time. I’ve listed out every park we visited plus a few we hope to explore another time!

Read on for the best state parks in Upstate New York!

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The best state parks in Upstate New York

New York State Parks

New York has nearly 200 state parks for the public’s enjoyment. Most parks are $8 – 10 per carload and a few are free!

Almost all parks will have services on site such as drinking water, restrooms, and parking. Many also have playgrounds, picnic areas, and concessions or gift shops.

If you visit a New York state park, its receipt grants you free entry to any other state park during that same day. We were able to take advantage of this a few times throughout our visit since many parks are small and close together.

My Favorite State Parks In Upstate New York 

Adirondack Park 

Location: Northeastern corner of New York

Spanning more than six million acres, the Adirondack Mountains are not only the largest park in the United States but also the largest protected natural area in the lower 48.

Did You Know? Adirondack Park covers one-fifth of New York State, is roughly the size of neighboring Vermont, and is nearly three times the size of Yellowstone National Park.

The region is comprised of massive lakes, popular for boating and swimming, rivers, ski resorts, and more hiking trails than you could possibly imagine.

It would take a lifetime to explore the entirety of this park!

Note: Adirondack Park isn’t technically a state park but a National Historic Landmark and Forest Preserve, entry to the park is always free.

Things To Do In Adirondack Park

There’s an infinite number of things to do in Adirondack Park! During our 2 day visit we did the following:

  • Went for a boat tour on Lake George and saw the incredible islands in the Narrows.
  • Hiked Mount Severance.
  • Drove to the summit of Whiteface Mountain.  
  • Saw Lake Champlain. 
  • Explored the towns of Lake Placid and Lake George.

Green Lakes State Park

Location: Finger Lakes Region near Syracuse  

This state park came recommended by my brother-in-law who went to Syracuse University. I’m so glad for his suggestion, it was one of my favorite state parks in Upstate!

To put it simply, Green Lakes State Park is known for two very green lakes. 

The reasoning behind the lake’s vibrant hue requires a thorough explanation, but to simplify, the bright, aquamarine color is achieved through a combination of depth, high calcium carbonate concentrations, and photosynthetic bacteria.

Additionally, both lakes are meromictic lakes meaning the layers of water do not mix. There’s only a handful of these lakes in North America and about 50 of them known across the globe. 

Green Lake is even home to a freshwater reef, which is an incredibly rare phenomenon. 

Things To Do In Green Lakes State Park

  • Go for a walk around Green and Round Lake, the park’s famous lakes — take lots of photos!
  • Swim or relax by the water in Green Lake (designated swim areas only).
  • Golf Robert Trent Jones’ 18-hole course. 

Taughannock Falls State Park

Location: Finger Lakes Region near Ithaca   

The star of Taughannock Falls State Park is of course, Taughannock Falls. Falling 215 feet, this is one of the tallest free-falling waterfalls east of the Rockies and the second tallest waterfall in all of New York. 

The picturesque falls cascade down a narrow gorge made of sandstone, shale, and limestone. The waterfall is visible from a roadside overlook or accessible by an easy 3/4 mile hike. 

Things To Do In Taughannock Falls State Park

  • Take a short hike to the famous Taughannock Falls.
  • Enjoy a picnic and watch the boats on Cayuga Lake. 
  • Kayak or swim in Cayuga Lake.
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Taughannock Falls State Park – one of the most popular state parks in Upstate New York

Watkins Glen State Park

Location: Finger Lakes Region near Watkins Glen

This is hands down the most beautiful state park I’ve ever seen. The centerpiece of the park is a 400 foot deep narrow gorge cut by Glen Creek. 

The gorge is made up of shale, limestone, and sandstone all of which erode at different rates. Leaving behind dramatic waterfalls, potholes, cascades, plunge pools, and more.

The gorge extends 2 miles in while the stream descends 400 feet, generating 19 waterfalls along its course. The trail includes 800 steps and a number of man-made bridges which blend effortlessly into the surrounding landscape. 

The park’s website describes the gorge as “spellbinding” and I couldn’t agree more. I would happily return to Watkins Glen State Park over and over again.

Tip: Be sure to arrive very early in the morning or in the late afternoon to avoid crowds at this very popular state park. 

Things To Do In Watkins Glen State Park 

  • Hike the famous Watkins Glen Gorge Trail. 
  • Walk the quiet Rim Trails. 
  • Enjoy the swimming pool and children’s splash park, located just a short drive from the gorge. 

Chimney Bluffs State Park

Location: Finger Lakes Region near Rochester

When I saw photos of Chimney Bluffs State Park I couldn’t believe this landscape could be found in New York. I knew I had to see it!

The park’s most famous features are, of course, the bluffs. These are formed from eroded drumlins which were deposited and shaped by glaciers during the most recent ice age. 

The spires have been here for thousands of years but are constantly changing due to the erosive power of waves, wind, rain, and snow.

Did You Know? Drumlins are a mound or small hill, typically one of a group, formed by glaciers of the past. 

These particular drumlins are quite large, rising up to 150 feet from the shores of Lake Ontario.

The pinnacles and cliffs of Chimney Bluffs State Park create one of the most dramatic landscapes on Lake Ontario and one of the best state parks in New York!

Tip: Visit at sunset when the sun makes the spires appear bright red, like something out of the parks of Utah and Arizona. 

Things To Do In Chimney Bluffs State Park

  • Hike the bluffs edge to see the park’s most famous features. 
  • Go for a picnic on the shores of Lake Ontario. 

As tempting as it may seem, do not climb the bluffs. It’s very dangerous for you and harmful for the fragile landscape.

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Chimney Bluffs State Park on Lake Ontario

Seneca Lake State Park

Location: Finger Lakes Region near Geneva 

Seneca Lake is the largest Finger Lake by volume and is the second largest by length. The lake is very deep, exceeding depths of 600 feet.

Sailing, boating, kayaking, and swimming are all popular activities at this much-loved lake. We spent a quiet morning here walking the lakefront near Geneva. This is where you’ll find a wide, paved path popular for bikers, runners, and walkers.

Before visiting the park be sure to Google the “Seneca Serpent.” Local folklore tells tales of a mysterious monster that occasionally makes its presence known here at Seneca Lake… spooky!

Things To Do In Seneca Lake State Park

  • Bike the lakefront near Geneva. 
  • Go swimming or kayaking on Seneca Lake.
  • Let the kids run loose on the playground or splash pad. 
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Early morning walks in Seneca Lake State Park

Letchworth State Park 

Location: Finger Lakes Region near Rochester

Dubbed the “Grand Canyon of the East,” Letchworth State Park is one of the most popular in all of New York. 

Having seen the Grand Canyon I’ll admit the title is a bit of a stretch, however, this is certainly a fantastic spot to see some stunning waterfalls!

Letchworth State Park follows the Genesee River for about 17 miles as it flows north through a deep gorge. The wide and very scenic gorge is home to three large waterfalls — Upper, Middle, and Lower Falls. 

Tip: This park is especially spectacular in fall!

Things To Do In Letchworth State Park

  • See the park from above on a hot air ballon ride.
  • Have lunch at historic Glen Iris Inn.
  • Go for a hike to see the park’s most popular waterfalls.

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Niagara Falls State Park

Location: Western edge of New York near Buffalo

Niagara Falls is comprised of three massive waterfalls at the southern end of Niagara Gorge, creating the border between Canada and the United States. 

The three falls — American, Bridal Veil, and Canadian Horseshoe — combined have the highest flow rate of any waterfall in North America. Not to mention a vertical drop of 160 feet… phew!

The powerful waterfalls draw around 10 million visitors a year, making it one of the most visited waterfalls in the entire world. 

Because of this, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. From the outside it seems the falls are way too crowded and touristy. However, after visiting I can understand why so many make the trek to Buffalo, New York and Niagara Falls, Ontario each year.

The falls are simply incredible. 

While here, consider booking the Maid of the Mist boat tour (Voyage to the Falls boat tour if visiting from the Canadian side). The boat takes you right up to the base of the falls and was one of the best things we did during our entire Upstate trip!

Things To Do In Niagara Falls State Park

  • See the falls from Goat Island.
  • Maid of the Mist boat tour.
  • Cave of the Winds tour.

Tip: Consider booking a tour such as this one with Over The Falls Tours. They provide transportation so you can avoid the hassle of traffic and parking. It also allows you to skip long lines at the park’s most popular attractions. 

Walkway Over The Hudson State Historic Park

Location: Hudson Valley near Poughkeepsie

Our trip concluded in the gorgeous Hudson Valley where my husband has family. We spent two days exploring the region including one (very hot) day spent at Walkway Over the Hudson State Historic Park!

The Walkway over the Hudson is a steel cantilever bridge spanning the Hudson River between the towns of Poughkeepsie and Highland. The former railroad bridge was once a major rail corridor connecting New York and New England to a nationwide railway network. 

Thanks to community demand, and lots of fundraising, it has since been repurposed for the public’s enjoyment.

This is the world’s longest elevated pedestrian bridge spanning 1.28 miles. Additionally, it’s a great way to enjoy sweeping views of the Hudson as it stands 212 feet over the river.

Things To Do In Walkway Over the Hudson State Historic Park 

  • Walk, bike, or jog across the bridge.
  • Join community walks and group exercise events in the park. 
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Views of the massive Hudson River from Walkway Over The Hudson State Historic Park

Additional Popular State Parks In Upstate New York

With just 10 days in Upstate it was impossible to see everything, with more time we would’ve loved to visit some of the following state parks: 

  • Buttermilk Falls State Park
  • Allegany State Park
  • Saratoga Spa State Park 
  • Catskill Park
  • Harriet Tubman National Historical Park
  • Bear Mountain State Park
  • Devil’s Hole State Park
  • Wellesley Island State Park
  • Hudson Highlands State Park
  • Chittenango Falls State Park
  • Minnewaska State Park Preserve 
  • Robert H. Treman State Park
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Adirondack Park – Whiteface Mountain

As you can see, there’s so many incredible state parks in Upstate New York! I hope this encourages you to see all that the state of New York has to offer.

For more information be sure to check out New York Parks & Recreation or Discover Upstate New York.

Any questions or additional ideas? Please leave a comment below!

If you wish to follow along with my travels in real time check out on Instagram!

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