Six State Parks Less Than an Hour's Drive from Syracuse

There's a Christmas song that mentions a certain winter holiday as being "the most wonderful time of the year." Some, such as this writer, would beg to differ, countering that summer — glorious, too-short, summer — is actually No. 1. More sunlit hours, warm nights, water sports, chilling on the beach — so much to do in the summer in Central New York makes winter boring in comparison.

Many of those activities are best enjoyed at a state park because facilities are well maintained and the venue is clean. While New York State contains 101 state parks, this article will focus on six that are within a hour's drive of Syracuse. Each offers something distinctive for enjoying the summer but picnicking is available at all of them.

Something new for 2016 is a Geocache Challenge. Twenty state parks and historic sites are participating in the challenge and a total of 63 geocaches are hidden within the parks, including a few of those here. If you are interested in taking up the challenge, pick up a geocache passport at any of the participating parks and sites or download it at

The following list is arranged by distance, from closest to farthest from Syracuse within the 60-minute parameter.

Clark Reservation State Park
6105 E. Seneca Turnpike
Jamesville, NY
(315) 492-1590
Geocache Challenge

Located just 13 minutes from Syracuse, this park's natural features include rugged cliffs and rocky outcrops, woodland and meadows, a wetland and a glacial lake. Fish here for pickerel, bullheads and sunfish or venture out with your binoculars to spy cedar waxwings, kingfishers and woodpeckers. The Nature Center is open from mid-May through Labor Day; guided nature walks leave from here and the center itself offers numerous exhibits. Five trails await hikers, including the cliff trail, featuring an overlook 175 feet above the water. Open year-round, 7 a.m. to sunset with a $5 vehicle admission fee.

Green Lakes State Park
7900 Green Lakes Road
Fayetteville, NY
(315) 637-6111
Geocache Challenge

This very popular park is hands-down the jewel of the Syracuse area state parks system and it's located only 16 minutes from the city. The park is best known for its two turquoise-hued glacial lakes, hence its name. Both Round and Green Lakes are meromictic lakes, which means there is no mixing of surface and bottom waters. The habitat of both lakes is fragile and visitors are urged to take caution when hiking around them. Swimming and boating (using boats rented on site) are available in the eastern end of Green Lake.

A hiking/running trail surrounds each lake. At the halfway point around smaller Round Lake, the trail provides access to even more trails above the lakes; runners and mountain bikers take advantage of their diversity and varied terrain. Be sure to wear DEET insect spray and wear white socks to better discover Lyme Disease-carrying ticks that may have hitched a ride.

Some old growth forest remains here, and a hiking trail leads visitors into the tree stand. Camping here is popular as are disc golf, regular golf on the 18-hole Robert Trent Jones-designed course and birding in a special conservation area (be sure to print out the bird checklist available here).

New to the park this year is an all-terrain wheelchair providing access to the beach and trails. The wheelchair, purchased with a grant from the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, is available for use at no charge on a first come, first served basis from 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Check with the lifeguards at the beach for availability.

The beach is open through Labor Day, from 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Vehicle admission fee of $8 is collected daily starting at 8 a.m., so plan accordingly.

Chittenango Falls State Park
2300 Rathbun Road
Cazenovia, NY
(315) 637-6111
Geocache Challenge

A mere 32 minutes away from Syracuse, the namesake 167-foot waterfall here was glacially carved out of bedrock that is more than 400 million years old. Hike to the top of the falls or into the gorge to view the falls from a footbridge. Activities include fishing, hiking and picnicking.

Vehicle admission fee is $3 on weekdays and $5 on weekends and holidays. Hours vary so call first to confirm.

Verona Beach State Park
6541 Lakeshore Road South (Route 13)
Verona Beach, NY
(315) 762-4463
Geocache Challenge

Oneida Lake is the largest inland lake in New York, but this is the only state park on its shores. Shaded picnic areas and the campground sit next to the beach. Swimming is available here, even though it's not the real attraction; camping is. Nature trails, a bridal path, biking and fishing are also popular.

The beach is open daily from 11 a.m.-7 p.m. through Labor Day, and a $7 vehicle fee is charged from 9 a.m.-6 p.m. You'll find Verona Beach State Park just 35 minutes from Syracuse.

Fair Haven Beach State Park
14985 State Park Road
Fair Haven, NY
(315) 947-5205

One of several state parks located on Lake Ontario, Fair Haven Beach is 47 minutes from Syracuse. Its impressive lakefront features bluffs, 1,500 feet of sandy beach with 600 feet available for swimming and diving, and adjacent hilly woodlands.

Campgrounds and cabin areas are nestled within those woodlands and fishing and boating are available for non-swimmers. Or you can choose biking, hiking, picnicking, and camping. Visitors can rent row boats, paddle boats, canoes and kayaks, for use only on Sterling Pond and creek, located within park grounds.

Vehicle fee is $8 and the swimming season lasts through Labor Day; beach hours are 11 a.m.-7 p.m.

Fillmore Glen State Park
1686 Route 38
Moravia, NY
(315) 497-0130

The Finger Lakes Region of New York State features countless waterfalls, and visitors are lucky that many state parks were established around them. Fillmore Glen (named after Millard Fillmore, who grew up nearby and is considered by many to be the worst U.S. President ever) contains five waterfalls and the glen surrounded by dense woods, all accessible on hiking trails. You can swim (through Labor Day, 11 a.m.-7 p.m.) and fish here, and camp in one of Fillmore Glen's 60 campsites.

This park is open year-round, a vehicle entry fee of $7 is collected from 9 a.m.-6 p.m. through Labor Day and on weekends until mid-October, and restrooms are open from mid-April to mid-November.

Molly English-Bowers spent many summer days as a youth swimming at Green Lakes, and now she enjoys running the trails there.