Adventure Is Calling

To help celebrate the 100th anniversary of New York’s State Parks (formed by the 1924 Bond Act), which allocated $15 million to build and improve the original network of state parks, Gov. Kathy Hochul’s office has introduced the Centennial Challenge, which serves as both an invitation to explore and an opportunity to win an impressive prize haul. 

This parks initiative encourages adventures, big and small, throughout 360,000 acres in 180 natural areas across the state, from forests to walking trails to beaches. Thirty-five historic sites are also part of the parks system, including Olana in Hudson and Clermont in Germantown. While you probably already know parks like Niagara Falls and Saratoga Spa, the Centennial Challenge emphasizes visiting some of New York’s lesser-known and new-to-you green spaces. There are plenty to choose from within an hour’s drive of the Capital Region. 

Hudson River Islands State Park

Coxsackie

Want to get away — far away — from it all? Hudson River Islands State Park, on the Hudson River, is for you. The catch: You’ll need a boat — of the human- or engine-powered variety — in order to visit.

You can hike, fish, picnic and relax at the park, which is spread over two islands: Stockport Middle Ground and Gay’s Point. Because the island ecosystems are fragile and contain rare and endangered plant and animal species, camping isn’t allowed, and you must take everything you bring in — including trash — with you when you leave. Four-footed besties are allowed, but they must be on a leash and can only visit day-use areas. Water view of Hudson Valley Island State Park

Cherry Plain State Park

Petersburg

I have a soft spot for Cherry Plain State Park, which is only 15 minutes from my home. The beach side, located along Black River Pond, can get crowded on summer weekends, but for most of the season, the park is blissfully tranquil. On weekday mornings, I’m often one of just a handful of visitors.

My favorite features of Cherry Plain State Park are its 6 miles of hiking and biking trails, which vary from a shady amble over packed ground to a waterfall, to moderate inclines and rocky paths along an active stream. The park also has a picnic area, boat launch, bridle paths and a dock that makes it easy to launch a kayak without jockeying for space with boaters. You can fish and camp in Cherry Plain, as well.

Cherry Plain State Park
Cherry Plain State Park. Photo courtesy New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.

Peebles Island State Park

Cohoes

Five miles north of Troy, where the Hudson and Mohawk rivers meet, you’ll find the small but mighty Peebles Island State Park. Walk the gently rolling 2-mile trail around the island’s perimeter, which overlooks portions of both rivers and their rapids, and the Erie Canal. Keep an eye out for the bald eagles, great blue herons, osprey, beavers, gray and red foxes, white-tailed deer and snapping turtles that call the island home.

City dwellers often flock to Peebles Island to beat the summer heat, but even on busy days the park isn’t overrun. Come for the woodland walks, hiking and fishing, or rent the picnic pavilion for larger gatherings.

Peebles Island State Park
Peebles Island State Park. Photo courtesy New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.

Schoharie Crossing State Historic Site

Fort Hunter

The development of the Erie Canal was central to 19th-century New York’s transformation into a commerce giant, giving rise to a number of delightful upstate communities. The waterway is now mostly used for recreation, and you don’t have to be an expert paddler to use it for exploring a plethora of underrated parks.

Among these, Schoharie Crossing State Historic Site has opportunities for paddling, boating, hiking, birding and exploring Erie Canal history. Stop at the visitor center to view historical exhibits or hop in your watercraft of choice to get up close with traces of the past, such as boat locks and the remains of the Schoharie Aqueduct, which once spanned more than 600 feet and carried the canal’s waters over the Schoharie Creek.

Schoharie Crossing State Historic Site
Schoharie Crossing State Historic Site. Photo: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Grafton Lakes State Park

Grafton

If you’re unfamiliar with Grafton Lakes State Park, on the eastern edge of Rensselaer County, you’re in for a treat. An underrated 2,500-acre gem with a sizable beach and six ponds for swimming, paddleboarding, kayaking and fishing, Grafton Lakes is large enough to provide plenty of interest for visitors of all ages, and small enough that it doesn’t feel overwhelming.

Hit one or more of Grafton Lakes’ 24 hiking trails or its ADA-accessible boardwalk trail, go geocaching, enjoy a picnic in its pavilions, or climb the historic 1924 fire tower for views of three states. The welcome center, added in 2018, has education spaces and a small menagerie of wildlife — including Patch, a barred owl that was rescued after being hit by a car. 

Grafton Lakes State Park
Grafton Lakes State Park. Photo courtesy New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.

John Boyd Thacher State Park

Voorheesville

Being one of the better-known Capital Region green spaces hasn’t translated to overcrowding at John Boyd Thacher State Park — and this is just one of the reasons why I love it. Not only is Thacher scenic, with dramatic limestone cliffs and open meadows, but it’s also located atop the Helderberg Escarpment, one of the richest fossil-bearing formations on the planet.  

Families flock to the park for its volleyball courts, ball fields, zip lines, picnic areas and playgrounds. The panoramic views, which include the rocky slopes of the Hudson-Mohawk Valleys and the jagged peaks of the Adirondack and Green Mountains, are stunning. Take a guided tour of Indian Ladder Trail to learn about the park’s geological importance and human history.

How to win centennial swag

While completing 24 “missions” at state parks might seem daunting, it’s actually pretty easy. Either download the Goosechase app or print out a paper checklist from the Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation website. Then visit the parks and participate in activities like hiking, wildflower sketching, camping, birding or even talking to a park ranger. Tally up your total and submit it by January 10, 2025, after which you’ll earn a commemorative centennial sticker, plus entry into a drawing for a centennial swag bag and a three-year Empire Pass, a $240 value that gains you free entry to all state parks. 

Top photo: View from the overlook at Thacher State Park. Photo by Matt H. Wade, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.


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