5 Great NY State Parks: Empire Pass

Thacher Park,  Brad Wenskoski
Last summer, like many avid explorers, I reluctantly respected new travel restrictions.  Temporarily bound to New York State, I needed to make alternative vacation plans. 

Thus arose the perfect opportunity to buy an Empire Pass Card and become acquainted with the natural wonders of the Capital Region. 

The Empire Pass

Thacher Park,  Brad Wenskoski

Open the gates to the pleasures of the great NY State parks with the amazing Empire Pass! The shareable, wallet-sized card is a full-season parking pass to New York’s 180 state parks. Empire Passes cost $80 and can be purchased online, in-person (limited), or by mail.  The Empire Pass is a great option for a single adventurer and their dog, a fun-seeking family, or a boisterous group of friends looking for low-cost outdoor activities.

What started as a money-saver quickly became an exploratory tool and recreation motivator for me.  Purchasing an Empire Pass encouraged me to learn more about the Capital Region and the local beauty that I would otherwise drive by.  Here I share 5 great NY State parks you can visit with your Empire Pass. Plus, there are ideas about what you can do at the park, and attractions in the surrounding areas.

Saratoga Spa State Park

Impressive architecture, glittering pools, and amazing history are hallmarks of Saratoga Spa State. Plus, you’ll find museums, SPAC, a golf course, a historic hotel, an amazing day spa, restaurants, walking trails, and more. This state park offers something to everyone. 

My visit started with a slow, outdoor, self-guided walking tour of the Hall of Springs and Avenue of the Pines. These are both perfect spots for a photo shoot or an Instagram shot.  At noon I ate lunch and caught some sun on the grounds outside of the Roosevelt Baths and Spa, a luxury spa that specializes in natural mineral baths.  If the sun is too much, retreat to the refuge of the shady forest trails nearby. This is a great place to bring your dog, just be sure to follow park guidelines.

Four Season Fun at Spa State Park

The park offers several options to those who want to swim or cool off.  I like to wander along Geyser Creek, because it is quiet and shady.  The Peerless Pool is great for families with kids. Want to glam it up? Then Victoria Pool is for you. It’s perfect for lounging and leisurely dips. 

A unique feature of this park are the 12 mineral springs that are scattered throughout.  Searching for the springs is a good way to tour the park with young children — click here for a map. Following one of the park’s eleven trails is another great way to see the land.  The Geyser Trail is the longest trail and reaches almost every corner of the park.  Trails are open all year, weather permitting. In winter, you can cross country ski and snowshoe on these trails!

If you visit on a Sunday, go to the Spa City Farmers’ Market and peruse seasonal vegetables and crafts.  Need coffee?  Stop by Wired Coffee for a cold brew.  Both the market and the café are conveniently located in the park, so you don’t have to give up that parking spot if you’re hungry or want to shop! You can also rent CDTA bikes at several locations throughout the Park, which will allow you to see all the sites, and then peddle to downtown Saratoga Springs via the bike trail.

Moreau Lake State Park 

Moreau State Park

Nestled in the dense woods of Saratoga County, Moreau Lake State Park offers walking trails, camping in the summer, and snowshoeing in the winter.  What I love most about Moreau is the stunning view of the lake from the beach area.  The large, sandy beach on the west shore of the lake is great for kids and fishing; the smaller north shore is better for pets.  After a swim at noon, my partner and I took our dog on the Nature Trail and the Wetland Walk around Mud Pond.  I enjoyed the variety of ecosystems on the Nature Trail.  Some trails are flat and quite easy, so they are a good hiking option for novices or hikers of different abilities. There are also some more challenging scrambles, for those seeking amazing views of the southern Adirondacks.

More great options:

Rent cabins at Moreau!

Grafton Lakes State Park

Grafton State Park
Photo: Malaney Young

Grafton Lakes State Park, located in the lush forests of Grafton,  is one of the most popular parks in CapNY.  There’s a great beach on Long Pond, plus five other ponds for fishing and boating.  The woods behind the beach are great area for hanging out and grilling with a group or eating lunch from Grafton’s Town Store. I suggest going during the week or arriving early on the weekends in the summer, to ensure you’ll find a spot on the beach or a picnic bench. 

Capital District explorer, New York State worker, and local music lover (and, yes, my friend) Susan Rice recommended Grafton Lakes State Park to me because it’s “beautiful and very family oriented” – and she’s right!  With over 30 trails, there are hiking options for every family member and every ability level. 

The park offers an abundance of recreation options, including a basketball court, a softball field, a volleyball court, and playgrounds.  My favorite part of the park is the small, dog-friendly beach next to the swimming beach. Here, leashed pets are permitted to play.  Before you leave Grafton, take amazing photos of the sunset at Dickinson Hill Fire Tower, or chill out at the marvelous Grafton Peace Pagoda.  Almost anything you need for a fun day outdoors is available at Grafton Lakes State Park. 

Cherry Plain State Park

Cherry Plain State Park is in Petersburg, NY, on the east side of Rensselaer County.  Within the small park is a beach on Black River Pond, five hiking trails, campgrounds, a boat launch, and a playground.  Because of its small size and location, this park is a great option for visitors and campers who want a quieter experience. 

During my visit, I parked along State Park Road, walked to the Boat Launch, then took a short hike along Lakeside Trail with my dog. All trails are less than 2.5 miles and vary from easy to difficult.  If you like aquatic activities, Black River Pond is wonderful for a calm kayak float, or a long day of fishing in the winter or summer.  If you don’t own a boat, but still want to set sail, Cherry Plain has boat rental options for kayaks and rowboats. Click here for information about kayak and rowboat rental availability.     

While in Cherry Plain, visit the Rocky Hill Country Store on Route 22, where you can get a delicious sandwich for breakfast or lunch, or select from a variety of local honeys, syrups, and jams.  Drive a little further to Stephentown and stop by Four Fat Fowl, an artisan creamery that makes and distributes some of New York’s tastiest cheeses.

Thacher State Park

The breath-taking view from Thacher State Park is magnificent all year round.  The park sits on a mountain, and is worth your, or your vehicle’s, gently inclining climb.  

When we parked in the Overlook area, my partner and I took in the gorgeous view of the fall foliage across Albany County.  I was slightly shocked and pleasantly surprised to see as far as the tallest buildings on UAlbany’s campus and state offices downtown.  

Thacher State Park isn’t popular for its vista alone.  Trails for all-season activities can be found throughout the park, with some winding (safely) along the cliff.  The playgrounds and campsites near Thompson Lake provide a suitable area to spend a weekend with your family.  Thacher State Park is also a local top choice for day trips.  Its proximity to Albany (only a half hour away!) makes the park a prime location for a sunset stroll.

Indian Ladder Farms

After your visit, grab dinner downtown at Rain Modern Chinese on Lark Street, or El Mariachi, with locations on Hamilton and Lark Street. If you like beer and ciders, take a peek at what’s happening near the park at Indian Ladder Farms Cidery and Brewery.  Their bottle shop is open every day and they serve scrumptious foods on weekends. And of course, they’ve got amazing apple picking in the fall — a perfect complement to the views at Thacher State Park.

Brennan Austin-Peters

Written by: Brennan Austin-Peters

Brennan Austin Peters studies International Education Policy at Rockefeller College of Public Affairs & Policy.  Her concentrations are alternative education, creative learning, and extracurricular programming.