New York State Parks: 100 Years and Counting

The New York State Parks system will celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2024 and the New York League of Conservation Voters will devote several articles in the coming months to celebrate how lucky we are to have these beautiful and bountiful natural resources in our midst. 

New York State has one of the best public park systems in the world, with an historic tale of origin.

The story begins with one of the most influential figures in American history, President Teddy Roosevelt. A staunch conservationist and champion of the environment, he left a mark on our natural heritage that endures to this day.

Roosevelt’s passion for nature and conservation was instilled during his upbringing, with frequent family outings to the Adirondack Mountains. It was here that he would cement a lifelong love for the natural world and a commitment to preserving it for future generations.

His public legacy in the realm of conservation began when he was elected governor of New York in 1898. From then on, and into his presidency, he worked tirelessly to protect valuable natural resources. 

His passion for the outdoors and his belief in the importance of preserving our natural wonders set the stage for the birth of the New York State Parks system and, of course, the National Parks System.

Niagara Falls State Park, often referred to as the “oldest state park in the United States,” was established in 1885. The creation of this park was an extraordinary achievement. 

It marked the first time in American history that a state government set aside land for the express purpose of preservation and public enjoyment. 

The park’s founders recognized the immense value of Niagara Falls, not only as a spectacular natural wonder, but also as an important source of hydroelectric power, which could be harnessed to support the industries of the time.

Niagara Falls State Park laid the foundation for a new era of conservation in New York and across the nation. And its establishment inspired other states to follow suit, setting a precedent for state parks as an indispensable component of America’s natural heritage.

The state also acquired in the early days several other significant parklands, including the stunning Letchworth State Park. 

Often referred to as the “Grand Canyon of the East,” Letchworth encompasses the Genesee River Gorge in western New York. It is breathtakingly beautiful and it was a testament to the commitment of the state government to protect areas of unique natural and scenic value. 

The New York State Council of Parks, which was formed in 1924, was tasked with overseeing the planning, development, and management of state parks. This marked a significant shift, as it signaled a change from the one-off creation of parks to a more organized and systematic approach. 

As the state park system continued to grow, laws and regulations were enacted to ensure their preservation. 

The council was granted the authority to manage and control state parks, laying the legal foundation for the system. And in the years that followed, numerous state parks were established, each with its own distinct beauty and appeal.

Among the earliest state parks in the state were eight state parks established along the St. Lawrence River in Jefferson and St. Lawrence counties in 1897 and 1898; Watkins Glen State Park in 1906; Fire Island State Park, now known as Robert Moses State Park, in 1908; Saratoga Spa State Park in 1909; Harriman State Park in 1910; and Bear Mountain State Park in 1913.   

Parks were continuously being established through the years.

A boost came in the 1930s, with the birth of a unique and pioneering initiative created by Teddy’s cousin, President Franklin Roosevelt—the Civilian Conservation Corps. 

This was a federal work relief program that employed young men during the Great Depression and tasked them with various conservation and development projects within the state parks. 

The Civilian Conservation Corps played a vital role in shaping state parks across the country, including in New York, by constructing trails, bridges, and structures that are still in use today. And it is the model for the President’s new Civilian Climate Corps. 

And of course, we can’t talk about New York State Parks without talking about Robert Moses. There is no doubt that his methods were blunt and that his work left too many communities—particularly communities of color—split in two or left out. The Cross Bronx Expressway, one of his projects, is infamous for its disruptive impact on communities.

With limits on bus access to parks at the ends of the many parkways by those beautiful but low stone bridges and a refusal to consider a train to Jones Beach, to building inferior parks in communities of color like Harlem, there is much to be corrected to provide much needed equity in parks access. 

These are results we are still trying to undo to this day.

However, he also did tremendous good. Serving as the quote “Master Builder” of New York, Moses played a pivotal role in the development and expansion of the state park system.

His imprint extends beyond parks themselves to the infrastructure that connects them. The roads and bridges he constructed facilitated an accessibility to parks that had up until that point been unfathomable. 

One of Moses’ most iconic projects was Jones Beach State Park, which transformed a stretch of Long Island’s shoreline into a recreational haven and an oceanfront respite for countless New Yorkers.

There’s Randall’s Island, there’s Grafton Lakes State Park, there’s Bethpage State Park, there’s Heckscher State Park. 

Robert Moses State Park, in the southern part of Suffolk County on Long Island, was renamed in his honor. 

There’s also his initial vision of Riverside Park, one that began when he was still a young idealistic reformer. And now that parkland extends all the way up to the tip of Manhattan, around the battery and up the east side. 

That’s just the tip of the iceberg. 

When he stepped down after nearly a half century holding various influential offices—each made only more influential by the sheer force of his personality—New York had an unprecedented 2.5 million acres of parkland. He built 658 playgrounds in New York City alone! 

So we can look back on his tenure not through rose-colored glasses—there is no doubt that he left a trail of damage in his wake. But just the same, we cannot erase the indelible mark he left behind on our state parks system, one that millions of people reap the benefits of every year.  

It’s not just about building, though.

It’s about connecting. 

One of our favorite projects in recent years, one that shows the government is capable of big and creative projects, is the Empire State Trail. 

Running from Manhattan to Albany, then west to Buffalo and north to the Canadian border, the Empire State Trail connects hundreds of communities, parks, natural resources and the heritage of New York State over the course of 750 miles zig zagging the state. 

Now we just need to extend the trail to Montauk and interconnect more of New York City’s growing bike network.

And think of the history and the innovation: We started with the Niagara Falls State Park in 1885 and then in 2019 established the Shirley Chisholm State Park as part of the Revitalize Brooklyn initiative. The state turned a former superfund site into a community amenity, a remarkable tribute to how we can turn something that humans degraded back into a public good.

All told, New York’s 180 state parks, plus dozens of other historic sites, recreational trails, golf courses and boat launches, all administered by the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, had 80 million visits in 2022. The Catskills and Adirondacks, which are administered separately by the Department of Environmental Conservation, had millions more. Within the state park system, Niagara Falls leads the way, with 9.4 million visits, followed by Jones Beach, with 8.5 million; Robert Moses State Park, with 3.8 million; Saratoga Spa, 3.5 million; and Sunken Meadow State Park in Suffolk County, 3.1 million.

From hiking in Watkins Glen to kayaking in the Thousand Islands to picnicking in the Hudson Valley, there is literally something for everyone, regardless of the season. If you go to the New York State Parks website, and click on amenities, 34 activities pop up, from biking, boat rentals and camping, to sledding, snowshoeing and x-country-skiing, not to mention tennis, canoeing and ice fishing.  

See you in the park!