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New York’s Parks Hit New Attendance Record In 2020

From left, Al and Diane Denardo take a walk at James Baird State Park in Pleasant Valley on February 12, 2021.

ALBANY — The COVID-19 pandemic limited travel last year for most New Yorkers, so they found an outdoor alternative nearby: the nation’s largest parks system in their home state.

Attendance at New York’s 180 parks and 35 historic sites hit a new attendance record in 2020 with 78 million visits, a 1.2% increase from 2019.

New York has invested heavily in the park system, and the $1 billion investment has paid off, state officials said: The state has had nine years of visitor growth, up 34% during that span.

“In 2020, our state parks became an even more critical resource than before as New Yorkers sought safe places for solace, exercise and relief from the pandemic,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in a statement Jan.26.

The state expects big years ahead: It recently finished completion of the 750-mile Empire State Trail, a recreational trail that runs across New York.

Letchworth State Park, pictured on Sept. 12, 2020.

Parks officials said the increase was particularly pronounced in the spring and fall as COVID prompted New Yorkers to turn to state parks, trails and historic sites for recreation.

But the pandemic prompted uneven attendance last year.

Some parks, beaches, pools, historic sites and trailheads operated with reduced capacity. And out-of-state travel bans and a ban to the U.S. from Canada also had a major impact.

The Niagara Fall State Park, for example, is usually the most visited, but attendance fell 38% last year to 6 million due to the lack of Canadian visitors.

So the most visited park in 2020 was Jones Beach, where trips to the ocean off Long Island hit 8.3 million, a 2% increase from 2019. Nearby, Robert Moses State Park’s attendance leaped 39% to nearly 6 million visitors.

“As other park systems were closing at the start of the pandemic, Governor Cuomo focused on taking the necessary precautions to open them safely,” Erik Kulleseid, the state’s parks commissioner, said in a statement.

“Our state parks and open spaces proved to be true sanctuaries for people to escape inactivity and isolation during this difficult year.”

In the Hudson Valley, Bear Mountain State Park along the Hudson River had about 2.2 million visitors, on par with 2019, making it the seventh most visited park in the state.

The Old Croton Aqueduct park in Dobbs Ferry was a more popular spot last year than in 2019: Attendance jumped 34% to nearly 1.7 million.

Attendance on The Walkway Over the Hudson in Poughkeepsie fell 10% to 558,000, records showed.

In the Albany area, John Boyd Thacher park was a popular COVID retreat: Attendance soared 86% to 1.1 million last year.

In the Finger Lakes, Watkins Glen State Park had a drop in attendance of 36%, falling to 663,000.

But the Robert Treman and the Buttermilk Falls state parks in the Finger Lakes each went over 440,000 in attendance, up 20% and 35%, respectively.

Fifteen parks exceeded attendance of 1 million last year. Letchworth was next: It got to 966,000, an increase of 15% from 2019.

The parks department said it made a number of improvements last year.

Those included a new visitor center at Minnewaska State Park in Ulster County, an expanded Purple Heart Hall of Honor in Orange County and a new recreation complex at Letchworth.

This year, Cuomo announced a launch of NY Parks 100 to celebrate the state’s 100 years of parks in 2024.

The state, Cuomo proposed, would invest at least $440 million over the next four years in its parks system.

The 100th anniversary will be of the State Park Act, which was created by Gov. Al Smith in 1924.

“NY Parks 100 will continue crucial investments in park infrastructure while enhancing opportunities to reach the full range of New York State’s recreational and cultural offerings, including local parks and trails, regional flagship parks and historic sites and vast wilderness parks,” the parks department said.

“The initiative will focus on creating places to recreate locally, relieving overcrowded parks, welcoming new visitors and protecting New York State’s environmental and historic legacy.”

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