Category Archives: Park Projects

Seek and You Might Find: Geocaching In NYS Parks

I am not stealthy. This is not new information, but I didn’t realize how sloppy I was at sneaking around until I tried geocaching—a worldwide game of locating some of millions of little hidden stashes.

This outdoor activity relies on the use of Global Positioning System (GPS) technology, where participants place caches of trinkets, also known as “hides,” in various places, and record locations with GPS coordinates to the website geocaching.com. Cache-seekers then use those coordinates with their own GPS devices to locate the caches, and can take some trinkets and leave some of their own for subsequent seekers to find.

And there are a lot of little hidden treasures out there. For example, the website above indicates there are more than 2,800 caches hidden around the Albany region.

On my first go at it, I found myself lifting low-lying tree limbs and creeping around bushes in search of tiny containers along a busy section of the Empire State Trail, the new 750-mile multi-use trail that connects New York City to the Canadian border, and Albany to Buffalo. While I was doing this, a woman in an SUV noticed me and I could tell I was acting a bit too suspicious for her taste. She stopped her car, watched me, and didn’t continue driving until I left that section of sidewalk.

After this inauspicious start, I was in awe of more experienced hobbyists, known as geocachers or cachers. After examining the map on the official geocaching app, it turned out there was a cache hidden close to my home. Strangers had been snooping around the area to try to find it and I hadn’t even noticed them! Luckily, the 2021 New York State Geocache Challenge is here this summer, so I will have plenty of time to hone my skills.

Volunteers and New York State Park workers have concealed more than 230 geocaches with items like stickers, toy cars, and figurines in 56 State Parks and Historic Sites in Central New York, the Saratoga-Capital Region, and the Hudson Valley. Adventurers who find at least 45 caches (at least 35 in a specific region, and up to 10 in either of the other two regions) will receive a geocache challenge geocoin representing the primary region.

The obverse of the geocoin for the Saratoga Capital Region.

The geocoins are trackables, each with a unique identifying number that can be activated online and then tracked as coins are located, reported and moved to new locations by subsequent geocachers.

So far, the geocoin that has traveled the furthest from a State Park is from the 2015  Saratoga-Capital District Region Geocache Challenge. Now settled outside Salt Lake City, Utah, the token (TB6Y60Y) has so far trekked 160,500 miles to such places as the Mediterranean island of Malta, Germany, the Kapaleeshwarar Temple in India, Japan, Israel, and nearly three hundred other places.

Some geocachers are nearly as well-traveled. Larry Eaton is the Saratoga-Capital region’s geocache volunteer coordinator and during his two decades, he has logged about 17,500 caches, with about 1,500 of those found in State Parks. Though this seems like a daunting number to some, Larry knows cachers who have found hundreds of thousands of caches.

Eaton and his companion, Sadie, out on the trail.

But most geocachers start with smaller beginnings. David Brooks is the education manager at the Schoharie Crossing State Historic Site and serves as the park’s liaison for this year’s Saratoga-Capital District Regional Geocache Challenge. As more geocaches came to his site, he became more interested in the hobby. He decided to try it with his son after being inspired by a volunteer at his historic site named Barbara, who used the hobby to spend more time with her son.

When putting out caches in the historic site, Brooks likes mixing the environment and history of Schoharie Crossing, which focuses on the history of the Erie Canal. One year, he and Barbara put created an innovative cache that involved a small boat on a pulley system.

Some geocachers take pride in creating such clever hiding places. Eaton said once a geocacher in the Capital Region built a replica of the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz out of an old furnace and hid a cache inside of it. There are also different kinds of caches for folks to get creative with, including puzzle caches and different types of challenge caches that require specific skills and tasks to obtain.

A cleverly disguised cache made from an owl decoy.

All the State Parks geocaches that are part of the challenges are free to find and access, though there may be fees to enter the parks. To participate, you can download the pick up a passport in person from a park or historic site or find it on their website.

For passports, click on the name each region involved to download a PDF, which outlines which Parks contain the geocaches: Central, Saratoga-Capital and Taconic.

To find the caches, download the Geocaching app or follow the coordinates of the caches listed on the Geocaching.com website. When you find a cache, stamp your passport with the stamp inside each cache the turn it in to the state park indicated on the passport. Remember to leave the stamp behind for others that come after you. The challenge runs through November 11, 2021.

Stay on or near trails, take care not to trample vegetation, put everything back as you found it.

And please, don’t set up your own geocaches without checking with your Park manager first. State Park rules require that any geocaches in State Parks must be approved beforehand and follow rules to protect sensitive environmental or historic areas and public safety. Keep it safe, keep it fun! Happy seeking!



Cover shot – The reverse side of the 2021 New York State Parks Geocache Challenge. All photos by NYS Parks.

Post by Jessica Andreone, Environmental Educator, Central Region of New York State Parks.

State Parks Trails for All: Measuring Accessibility

For people with differing levels of physical ability, it can be difficult to know in advance whether a hiking trail might be too steep, too narrow, too soft, or otherwise not suitable.

Here at State Parks, we are working to help address that through something called the Universal Trail Assessment Process (UTAP). Developed in the 1990s by a Nevada-based company specializing in aiding differently abled people to engage in recreation, UTAP is a system of objective measurements taken at specific intervals along an unpaved trail to form an accurate picture of its difficulty, in terms of grade, width, surface firmness and cover.

UTAP is the creation of Beneficial Designs, whose founder Peter Axelson suffered a spinal injury in the mid-1970s. Axelson later went on to become a championship alpine adaptive skier and founded his company to design and fabricate adaptive recreational equipment for people with mobility impairments. The company also develops accessibility standards for ski areas, amusement parks, playgrounds and other outdoor recreation environments.

Parks is entering our third year of the UTAP program, having measured more than 19 miles of trails at 17 different State Parks in 2019 and 2020. It is a time consuming process done on foot with several hand tools, with measurements taken at least every 100 feet. That has meant nearly 1,200 individual measurement points have been recorded so far!

So if any hikers encounter Parks staff carrying a clinometer (a protractor-like device used to measure grade), a hand-held roller wheel (used to measure distance), a level, and a hand-held GPS unit (used to record locations), they have seen the UTAP process in action.

The trail measuring tools under the Universal Trail Assessment Program. (Photo credit – Beneficial Design)
Student Conservation Association member Tyler Stempsey measures trail accessibility at the Olana State Historic Site. (Photo credit – NYS Parks)

This year, a new wheeled “buggy” is being acquired by State Parks that will carry a laptop computer to make measurement recording faster. With the buggy, an entire mile of trail can be measured in about an hour, a big improvement over doing everything manually.

This work is being supported by a Recreational Trail Program (RTP) grant from 2019, with the project currently scheduled to run through 2022.

These thousands of measurements are meant to identify which Parks trails meet what is called Recreational Trail Accessibility Standards (RTAS), which State Parks adopted from the United States Access Board standards and United States Forest Service standards Trail Accessibility Guidelines. These standards set requirements for maximum trail steepness, width, surfaces, passing space, resting areas, trailheads, gates, and signage.

With such measurements, Parks will be able to publicize trails that already comply with RTAS and prioritize trail improvement projects that would increase trail compliance with RTAS.

A sample is shown here of how measurements and surface conditions developed through UTAP can be represented visually. This shows a steep pitch across a trail, called a cross slope, that results in a soft, damp trail surface with mud, a situation which would render that trail out of compliance with the RTAS requirements.

So far, trails identified as meeting these standards include the Upper Falls Lookout Trail at Letchworth State Park and the Awosting Falls Connector Trail at Minnewaska State Park Preserve.

There are also several trails that are close to meeting RTAS with minor modifications including: the Bog Trail at Chenango Valley State Park, the Beacon Hill Trail at Minnewaska State Park, the Bike Path at Schodack Island State Park, and the Green Lakes and Round Lakes Trail at Green Lakes State Park.

This map shows trails in State Park showing where UTAP measurements have been made. (Photo Credit – NYS Parks)

Work is currently under way to improve the Green Lakes trails (park is #3 on the map above) so it meets standards.

More information on the UTAP assessment process and standards specific to State Parks and the trails examined so far, as well as an interactive version the above map, can be found here.

Once the measurement data is compiled and finalized, Parks will be able to provide a listing of accessible trails, as well as focus future improvement efforts on trails close to meeting accessibility standards.

The data we are collecting will also allow Parks to create detailed trail access information signs, which would provide visitors at trailheads with vital information such as slope, surface cover, distance, clearance, and elevation gains.

An example of a trail sign based on measurements of grade and cross slope taken under the UTAP system. (Photo Credit – Beneficial Designs)

The goal of the UTAP program is to make Parks trails more inclusive to all, regardless of ability. If you have a favorite trail that could be assessed for accessibility, let us know in the comments!


Cover Shot – Parks staffer Sean Heaton assesses trails at Minekill State Park in Schoharie County. (Photo Credit – NYS Parks)

Post by Victoria Roberts, GIS/Accessible Trails Technician, NYS Parks

Wasp Warriors Aid Parks Against Insect Invaders

If you haven’t noticed, New York’s ash trees have been struggling lately. Over the last few years, they have been rapidly dying due to a little iridescently green insect: the emerald ash borer (EAB).

An invasive beetle native to parts of Asia and Russia, EAB was first discovered in New York in Cattaraugus County in 2009. It has since spread to 55 of New York’s 62 counties, decimating once thriving ash populations.

Since its discovery in southeast Michigan in 2002, EAB has spread into 35 states and the District of Columbia, killing tens of millions of ash trees in their wake.

EAB is widespread in the eastern U.S. as show in this USDA map. Each red dot represents an infested county and the blue line is a federal quarantine zone.

Emerald ash borers lay eggs between bark layers and in bark crevices on ash trees. Upon hatching, the larvae burrow through the bark and begin to feed on the tree’s living parts: the phloem and sapwood. The larval feeding creates galleries, which cut off the movement of nutrients throughout the tree. Eventually, as the infestation grows, the tree’s system of nutrient transport ceases to function, and the tree slowly starves and dies.

EAB larvae create S-shaped “galleries” where they feed just beneath the bark of an infested ash tree. Use the slider bar to explore the damage in this tree.

Ash trees are important for so many reasons. They provide cool shade in the summer heat, provide habitat for wildlife, and are a valuable source of timber and firewood. When large ash die, however, they can pose serious safety risks. Dead and dying trees often bring down powerlines along the road and cause blackouts.

In addition, many trails, campgrounds, parking lots and playgrounds are surrounded by ash that, once infested, become hazard trees that require removal. Parks’ staff must constantly monitor public use areas for the presence of dying trees that may pose a risk to patrons.

The fight to conserve ash has been an uphill battle. While pesticide treatments work, they only last a year or two before reapplication is necessary and also are too expensive to use everywhere. Statewide quarantines and public education have helped slow the spread, but these little beetles can fly over a mile and lay up to 200 eggs in a lifetime, making containment difficult.

This chart shows the lifecycle of the EAB. (Photo credit – Cornell University)
State Parks staff at Jacques Cartier State Park peel back bark from an infested ash tree to reveal the EAB damage. (Photo credit- Aaron Hemminway, NYS Parks biologist)

You may be thinking “what can be done?!” Well with National Invasive Species Awareness Week coming May 17-23, an update from State Parks is timely.

Luckily, we may finally have a cost-effective, sustainable, and chemical-free solution to the problem. For the second year in a row, the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) are partnering to release three species of predatory wasps – known ecologically as biological controls or parasitoids – to battle EAB in select state parks.

These tiny warriors are heavily studied little predators from the EAB’s home countries which prey only on these beetles and pose no risk to our native ecosystem. (And don’t worry. These wasps don’t sting and are no threat to people).

The females of these species attack ash borers in the early stages of their life cycle. These three wasps were chosen because they each have slightly different ways of tackling EAB, making them a more effective as a group.

Here, let’s meet our winged team.

Tetrastichus planipennisi

Tetrastichus planipennisi females lay eggs inside of EAB larvae, where the parasitoid larvae grow and eventually kill their host. They are used to protect smaller ash trees in particular, and they originate in China.


Oobius agrili

Oobius agrili lay eggs inside EAB eggs, where the parasitic wasp larvae hatch, grow, and kill the host EAB egg. These wasps are all female, so they reproduce asexually. They also originate in China.


Spathius galinae

Spathius galinae lay eggs outside of EAB larvae; when they hatch, Spathius feed on the EAB larvae, killing it. These wasps are best at helping larger ash trees, and are collected in the Russian Far East.


Last year, 11 State Parks received about 40,000 Tetrastichus wasps: Rockland Lake in Rockland County; Harriman and Bear Mountain in Rockland and Orange counties; Minekill in Schoharie County; Beaver Island and Buckhorn Island in Erie County; Clay Pit Ponds in Staten Island; Lakeside Beach in Orleans County; Golden Hill in Niagara County; Southwick Beach in Jefferson County; and Point Au Roche in Clinton County.

Starting this month, Jacques Cartier State Park in St. Lawrence County and Ganondagan State Historic Site in Ontario County will be added to that list. All three wasp species will be deployed, with an expected total of more than 50,000 wasps. All the wasps used are reared in a lab in Michigan, where they are shipped to New York and other states where USDA is coordinating its EAB biocontrol program.

For the wasps to be successful here, they need to find the beetle in its early life stages. In New York, the emerald ash borer generally begins to lay eggs in the summer; however, many larvae overwinter inside of ash trees, and are thus readily available as food for the parasitoids in the spring.

Parks staff introduces the wasps into infested ash trees through three methods:


  • Ash bolts are small sections of ash (think small ash logs slightly larger than cans of soup) that house mature parasitoid larvae. They are attached to infested ash trees using twine or zip ties. When the larvae mature, they leave the bolts and find EAB larvae to feed on within the ash stand.
Ash bolts are attached to infested trees with zip ties or twine, and are marked with flagging so they can be easily found. Please don’t disturb or tamper with the bolts if you come across them!

  • Plastic cups containing adult parasitoids arrive on-site ready for distribution. The cups simply need to be opened, inverted and tapped gently against the trunks of infested trees.
Adult parasitoids arrive in plastic cups, ready for release.
  • Oobinators are used less frequently and only for the delivery of Oobius agrili. They are small, plastic pill bottles with a screen over the open end that can be attached to trees with zip ties or twine. They contain a sheet of paper with parasitized EAB eggs. Once mature, Oobius will hatch and escape through the screen.
Oobinators are hung upside down, to allow mature parasitoids to escape. Photo credit: USDA

While out exploring NYS Parks, you may see these “ash bolts” or “Oobinators” attached to trees. They are often marked with flagging for easy identification. While it may be tempting to try to get a closer look at these woodland wasp homes, it is important to let the parasitoids grow and feed uninterrupted,  to give them the best possible chance of survival.

While parasitoid releases may be new to New York State Parks, USDA has been conducting releases throughout the country for several years. Subsequent studies indicate that that wasps are surviving and are feeding on the EAB.

Studies have also shown that the Tetrastichus wasps in particular can eliminate up to 85 percent of EAB larvae in ash saplings. (Duane et al., 2017)

These are promising results which suggest if parasitoid wasps can be reared in abundance, they may offer crucial protection to the next generation of ash trees. It is important to keep in mind, however, that success will not happen overnight. Wasps need to find enough EAB to build up their populations to sustainable levels and it takes time to see results, even if wasp populations are doing well. Parasitoids also will most likely not save most larger ash, but they can help manage EAB populations so smaller ash trees can have a chance grow and hopefully reproduce.

Parks is thrilled to partner with USDA in this important endeavor to protect our forests. You also can join in the effort by reporting emerald ash borer sightings or suspected damage to the iMapInvasives website or smartphone app. There is also a USDA online reporting form here.

Also, help stem the spread of EAB and other invasive forest pests by following state regulations that control the movement of untreated firewood, which can carry these invasive hitchhikers.

  • Untreated firewood may not be imported into NY from any other state or country.
  • Untreated firewood grown in NY may not be transported more than 50 miles (linear distance) from its source or origin unless it has been heat-treated to 71° C (160° F) for 75 minutes.
  • When transporting firewood, the following documentation is required:
    • If transporting untreated firewood cut for personal use (i.e. not for sale) you must fill out a Self-Issued Certificate of Origin (PDF).
    • If purchasing and transporting untreated firewood, it must have a receipt or label that identifies the firewood source. NOTE! Source is sometimes, but not always, the same as where it was purchased. Consumers need to use the source to determine how far the firewood may be transported.
    • If purchasing and transporting heat-treated firewood, it must have a receipt or label that says, “New York Approved Heat-Treated Firewood/Pest Free”. This is the producers’ declaration that the firewood meets New York’s heat-treatment requirements. Most “kiln-drying” processes meet the standard, but not all, so it is important to look for the appropriate label. Heat-treated firewood may be moved unrestricted.

Find out if your destination is within the 50-mile movement limit by using this interactive map from the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

Finally, if you encounter evidence of biocontrol release sites while out on State Parks trails, know that you are in the presence of these wasp warriors, engaged in a battle to save our beloved ash trees.

Above, Parks staff hang ash bolts and record release data used by USDA to measure the effectiveness of the project to combat the Emerald Ash Borer.


Cover shot – Emerald Ash Borer (Original Artwork – Juliet Linzmeier, Student Conservation Association member with NYS Parks) All other photo credited to NYS Parks unless otherwise noted.

Post by Sarah Travalio, Terrestrial Invasive Species and Biocontrol Coordinator, New York State Parks


Here are other easy tips that can make a big difference in helping stop the spread of all invasives:

  1. Clean, drain, and dry your watercraft and gear thoroughly to stop the spread of aquatic organisms.
  2. Plant only non-invasive plants in your garden, or even better, plant native plants. You can use the New York Flora Atlas to check which plants are native to New York.
  3. Clean your boots or your bike tires at the trailhead after hitting the trail – seeds of invasive plants can get stuck on your boots, clothes, or tires. You don’t want invasives in your yard or your other favorite hiking spots.
  4. Get involved – volunteer to help protect your local natural areas, join your local PRISM (Partnership for Regional Invasive Species Management) to stay informed, or become a citizen scientist by using iMapInvasives to report infestations of invasive species right from your smartphone.

Interested in taking a deep dive into research on the parasitoid battle against the EAB? Check out these scientific studies:

Jian J. Duan, Leah S. Bauer, Roy G. Van Driesche, Emerald ash borer biocontrol in ash saplings: The potential for early stage recovery of North American ash trees, Forest Ecology and Management, Volume 394, 2017, Pages 64-72, ISSN 0378-1127, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.foreco.2017.03.024.

Duan, Jian J., Leah S. Bauer, Kristopher J. Abell, Michael D. Ulyshen, and Roy G. Van Driesche. “Population dynamics of an invasive forest insect and associated natural enemies in the aftermath of invasion: implications for biological control.” Journal of Applied Ecology 52, no. 5 (2015): 1246-1254. https://doi.org/10.1111/1365-2664.12485

Jian J Duan, Roy G Van Driesche, Ryan S Crandall, Jonathan M Schmude, Claire E Rutledge, Benjamin H Slager, Juli R Gould, Joseph S Elkinton, Establishment and Early Impact of Spathius galinae (Hymenoptera: Braconidae) on Emerald Ash Borer (Coleoptera: Buprestidae) in the Northeastern United States, Journal of Economic Entomology, Volume 112, Issue 5, October 2019, Pages 2121–2130, https://doi.org/10.1093/jee/toz159


Gathering Memories at Grafton Lakes State Park

It’s July 1st, 1971. Nelson Rockefeller is governor of New York State, “It’s too Late” by Carole King is number one on the music charts, and gas is 40 cents a gallon. In the eastern part of the state, just shy of the Vermont border, a new state park opens in Rensselaer County, welcoming swimmers onto a monumental 1,000-foot beach.

Michael Hogan is an 18-year-old lifeguard at the new Grafton Lakes State Park, earning $1.76 an hour to keep watch over that beach with two other lifeguards, Sandy Town from Pittstown and Paul R. Jones, who everyone called “Buzz.”

Recalling the day 50 years later for the Grafton Lakes State Park’s new oral history project, Hogan remembers that his team performed a simulated rescue that aired that evening on an Albany television station covering the park opening, which was attended by State Parks Commissioner Dr. Sal J. Prezioso and other dignitaries.

Located in the heart of the Rensselaer Plateau, the new park included five lakes, 1,850 acres, a concession stand, and a park office. Hogan worked at Grafton for seven years, and now is retired and living in Rensselaer County.

This dawning of a new park was followed shortly by the end of another era at Grafton, when the Dickinson Fire Tower was shut down in 1972 after 48 years in service. One of the tower’s observers, who looked out from atop the 60-foot tower for signs of fire, was Grafton resident Helen Ellett. She was one of a handful of state female fire observers and was assigned to Dickinson from 1943 to 1965 to call in signs of fire in that heavily forested region.

Helen Ellett, top, sight down her orienteering equipment in the cabin atop the Dickinson Fire Tower at Grafton Lakes State Park.

According to Linda Laveway, Ellett’s granddaughter and another participant in Grafton’s oral history project, Ellett was a staunchly independent woman. Long days in the tower were no deterrent for Helen who felt pride every time she raised the American flag, knowing that through her work, she would be helping to save people’s livelihoods and possibly their very lives.

Helen Ellett was one of five women hired to be fire observers at Grafton between 1942 and its closing in 1972. When Ellett was hired in 1943 at age 29, she earned $100 a month, and was a young mother with a daughter. She usually rode one of her horses eight miles to work from where she lived in Grafton. At the tower, she was kept company by her dog, Tippy, and for a short time, her pet raccoon, Soggy.

Tippy and Soggy enjoy a moment.
Helen Ellett and her trusty ride to work.

In 1965, she wrote about her experiences in an article titled “Sitting on Top of the World,” in which she described her initial training by a ranger to use spotting equipment to estimate the location of a potential fire. When she returned to the tower the next day alone and began to climb, she had to  “admit the 81 steps seemed like Jacob’s ladder going to heaven … I finally reached the top and tried to open the lock with one hand to hang on with the other; I have never looked but I would not be surprised if my fingers left imprints on the steel railing. That was a long time ago. After a few trips up and down, I didn’t mind at all.”

In her last year of service in the tower in 1965, Ellett reported nine fires and 209 visitors to the towers. At that time, she was earning $122.09 bi-weekly.

After being shuttered for years, the Dickinson Fire Tower was restored by the Friends of Grafton Lakes State Park and reopened in 2012, giving visitors the sweeping vistas that Ellett and other fire observers had. Now a popular hike at the park, the tower was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2011 and is the last remaining fire tower in the county.

Helen Ellett, bottom center, helps cut the ribbon at the 2012 reopening of the fire tower to the public.
A visitor takes in the view at the fire tower.

How quickly 50 years have passed since opening day of the beach and park! Grafton Lakes park has now expanded to include more than 2,500 acres, 25 miles of trails, and six lakes, along with a new Welcome Center. The park spans both sides of Route 2 and is a favored place for kayakers, canoeists, and those who like to fish.

Amenities also include biking, boat launches and rentals, equestrian trails, fishing, hunting, pavilions and shelter rentals, playgrounds, and showers, During winter months, there is snowmobiling, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing.

Over the last decade, about a quarter-million people a year annually have visited the park, so over five decades, totaling many millions of visits since 1971.

There is something for everyone at Grafton Lakes, no matter the season. Check out this slideshow below for some ideas…

With so many visitors and so many memories, Parks staff at Grafton is encouraging those who want to participate to come forward and share these tales for posterity in a mini-movie that will debut on the park’s beach the evening July 1st to mark the 50th anniversary. The event that day will also include an art gallery, historical walks, a photo scrapbook, and interpretive panels.

Those who want to visit the Dickinson fire tower will have a chance to meet Linda Laveway, take in the dramatic view, and learn more about her grandmother and the days of the fire observers. Retired, Linda still resides in Grafton and is an active member of the community.

Park staff will hold video interviews for anyone with Grafton memories during April and May. To participate in the oral history project or any 50th anniversary activity, contact the park by email: graftonlakesadmin@parks.ny.gov or phone: 518-279-1155.

You can follow Grafton Lakes State Park on Facebook here. Hope to see you there July 1st as we look back over the last 50 years and make new memories for the years to come!


Cover shot – Kayakers paddle past the beach at Grafton Lakes State Park. All photos by NYS Parks.

Post by Tamara Beal, Environmental Educator, Grafton Lakes State Park

Grafton Lake State Park is holding an event May 1 for I Love My Park Day. Find details here.

Learn more about the history of the Dickinson Fire Tower at Grafton Lakes State Park here..

A Challenging Jewel Transformed at Niagara Falls State Park

Thundering waterfalls! Dangerous rapids! Towering ice! Quicksand!

If it sounds like the plot of a Hollywood adventure movie, these engineering obstacles surmounted during the rebuilding of the nation’s oldest state park at Niagara Falls fit the bill.

Recently, the American Society of Civil Engineers recognized this massive, seven year, nearly $65 million revitalization project at Niagara Falls State Park as one of nine nationwide nominees for its Outstanding Civil Engineering Achievement Award.

Established in 1960, this prestigious award honors the project that best illustrates superior civil engineering skills and represents a significant contribution to civil engineering progress and society. Honoring an overall project rather than an individual, the award recognizes the contributions of many engineers.  

Other past winners and nominees have included the new World Trade Center, Cowboys Stadium and seismic protection upgrades to the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.

This nomination for Niagara Falls recognized the complex and dangerous challenges in working in a place where 45 million of gallons of water a minute cascade over the 167-foot waterfalls and where freezing temperatures turn water into thick coats of ice. And that this work had to be done while the park remained open year-round to millions of visitors who come from all over the world.

A portion of the viewing area of the American Falls. In the distance (upper center), are the viewing areas at Luna Island and Goat Island. Horseshoe Falls is in the upper distance. (Photo Credit – NYS Parks)

Overseen by the global engineering firm of T.Y. Lin International, work at the park involved 21 separate projects, including bridges, roads, parking, pathways, observation areas, railings, landscaping, electrical, mechanical and drainage systems all spread across the 400-acre facility, its three waterfalls – American, Bridal Veil, and Horseshoe – and its five islands – Luna, Goat and Three Sisters. The entire park is now ADA-compliant, and accessible to all.

To start, engineers initially had to inspect the condition of the existing infrastructure at America’s oldest state park, established in 1885 and inspired by the landscape design principles of Frederick Law Olmsted and architect Calvert Vaux, who had overseen the design of Central Park in New York City. These inspections included assessing Luna Island’s pedestrian bridge, which spans the Niagara River a mere 80 feet from the roaring precipice of Bridal Veil Falls.

This white-knuckle account in the March 2020 of Civil Engineering magazine describes what had to be done: “… the team inspected the underside of the bridge at night – using specialized rigging – to avoid conflict with ongoing construction at Luna Island and the patrons occupying the Hurricane Deck 167 feet below… Supported by a system of cables and aluminum platforms suspended just two feet above the flowing river, the engineers performed their hands-on inspection of the existing stone-clad, cast-in-place concrete arch bridge.”

And how much fast-flowing, thundering water that is. On average, 3,160 tons of water flows over Niagara Falls every second. This accounts for 75,750 gallons of water per second over the American and Bridal Veil Falls, and 681,750 gallons per second over the Horseshoe Falls.


Above, engineers suspended above the brink of Bridal Veil Falls as they inspect the pedestrian bridge between Goat and Luna islands. (Photo credit – NYS Parks)

A few feet away from the workers was the brink of Bridal Veil Falls. And this is what it looks like over the edge to the base of the falls and the Cave of the Winds viewing decks…


Similar engineering and contracting work was required to bring new utilities – such as water and sewer, electrical service, fiber optics and telecommunications – from the mainland to Goat Island suspended underneath a 700-foot vehicle bridge over the river. Goat island separates Bridal Veil Falls from the American Falls.

This work “required safety harness tie-offs and specialized scaffolding – all of which required prior approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Coast Guard and the New York State Department of Transportation.”

At other times, engineers, landscape architects and work crews had to deal with ice caused by the freezing of the constant mist over the falls, and the damage that freezing and thawing would do to rocky surfaces where walls and railings would have to be anchored.

There were some unanticipated man-man obstacles found in what was a heavily developed industrial area prior to becoming a park and generations of infrastructure had to be vetted. Ground-penetrating radar and seismic monitoring equipment were used to map the underground structures to determine whether to excavate or build around them.

And even the ground itself could be unpredictable. As described in the Civil Engineering magazine: “The park presented varying subsurface and poor soil conditions, for example, hidden pockets of soil with a consistency akin to quicksand that created design challenges and potentially hazardous conditions for the contractors.”

In an aerial shot of American Falls, the new Luna Island viewing area can be see at the right edge, with Bridal Veil Falls immediately to its right, , while the decks at the Cave of the Winds is at the bottom right. (Photo credits – NYS Parks)
The new Luna Island viewing area at Bridal Veil Falls, which is ADA accessible. (Photo credit – NYS Parks)

Niagara Falls was rebuilt as one of State Parks flagships under the NY Parks 2020 initiative. In addition to the $65 million spent on these projects, over $55 million more as been spent expanding green space north and south of the park as well as creating a new welcome plaza. So, for those who have not been to Niagara Falls for a while, now is the time to see the new and improved State Park, where engineers and other workers prevailed in a harsh and challenging environment to help bring the park into the 21st century.

The project was funded through Governor Cuomo’s Parks 2020 initiative and the New York Power Authority, via the Niagara River Greenway Fund.

The team that helped make this work and national engineering honor happen included:

T.Y. Lin International managed a team of consultants that included the LA Group,Saratoga Springs, which provided landscape architecture services; McMahon & Mann Consulting Structural Engineers, Buffalo; Foit-Albert Associates, Buffalo/Albany/New York, which provided architecture, engineering and surveying support; PGAV Destinations and Design Island, St. Louis/Pittsburgh, which created the new Cave of the Winds Experience.

The award winner and two runners-up be be chosen Oct. 8, 2021 during the ASCE Convention in Chicago, IL.  

Use this slideshow below to tour the revitalized Niagara Falls State Park…

And the map below shows the layout of the falls, the islands and the various infrastructure projects in the park’s revitalization..

Use the slider bar on this map to locate Goat and Luna islands, and some of the projects involved in the revitalization of Niagara Falls State Park.

Post by Brian Nearing, Deputy Public Information Officer, NYS Parks


Learn more about how Frederick Law Olmstead advocated for the creation of Niagara Falls as the nation’s first state park in this 2011 book published by The Urban Design Project, School of Architecture and Planning, University at Buffalo.