Our country’s National Park Service turns 100 this August and the year is full of centennial celebrations, including encore broadcasts of Ken Burns’ six-part, 12-hour series, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. Not one of the 59 national parks designated for nature conservation are in New York or New Jersey, but the states’ national monuments, memorials, and protected areas are among the 412 “parks” administered by the National Parks Service. They each get special treatment for either their historic or environmental significance and are well worth a visit. Here are a few National Park sites for your consideration.
General Grant National Memorial
Despite the tight real estate in narrow Riverside Park, it does hold the nation’s largest mausoleum — the granite and marble tribute to Ulysses S. Grant (April 27, 1822 – July 23, 1885), the Civil War Union general and two-time U.S. President. The final resting place of Grant and his wife came to fruition via the largest public fundraising effort of its time and resulted in a parade and dedication ceremony on April 27, 1897, attended by over one million people.
Your chance to follow the march of history comes April 27, during the National Park Service’s annual ceremony on Grant’s birthday (11 am-noon), which includes a rifle salute by West Point Military Academy cadets and a lecture on Grant as a pro-Reconstruction president and supporter of the 15th constitutional amendment. NYC Parks will live stream part of the ceremony on Periscope. See the website for open hours of the mausoleum and visitor center.
Hamilton Grange National Memorial
It may take ages and twoscore ten-spots before you get a pair of ticket to the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Hamilton, but you can visit Alexander Hamilton’s Harlem estate Wednesday through Sunday, for free! Because visits to his home within St. Nicholas Park jumped 450 percent in 2016, read the tour and visitor information carefully: timing is key. Current advice for weekdays is to do a self-guided tour between 11-noon or 2 -3 pm, or arrive early for one of the afternoon ranger tours; on weekends, arrive early. Hamilton lived in the two-story frame Federal-style house from 1802 until his death by duel with Aaron Burr on July 11, 1804 in Weehawken, NJ. Rangers recommend watching the 20-minute introductory film before touring the historically furnished rooms. A fun fact about the house is that it has been moved in whole, twice; once in 1889 to 287 Convent Avenue, to make room for the city’s new grid system, and again in 2008 to its current location, where more restorations could be accommodated.
African Burial Ground National Monument
The newest national monument in New York City was created in 2006 to honor the free and enslaved people of African descent whose forgotten burial grounds were re-discovered in 1991. This year is the 25th anniversary of its discovery during construction excavations in Lower Manhattan. The cemetery had been used in the late 17th and 18th centuries. In addition to an outdoor memorial, an exhibition addresses the African diaspora and slavery in New York City. On May 21, the memorial is the site of Pinkster celebrations, named for the Dutch word “Pinksteren” which means Pentecost, or the Seventh Sunday after Easter. Pinkster also recognizes the coming of spring and is oldest African-American holiday of the original 13 colonies. Events will include pouring of libations, performances, readings, laying of flowers on the burial mound. Juneteenth, celebrating the Emancipation of slaves after the Civil War, will be celebrated at the site on Saturday, June 18. Because the memorial is accessed via a federal building, be prepared for airport-style security. Check events and important visitor information here.
Fire Island National Seashore
This sliver of a barrier island south of Long Island is one of only 10 national seashores in the country. Fire Island is sparsely populated, mostly car-free, and primarily a summer destination, with 26 of the 30 miles of shoreline part of the national park system. There are beaches with life guards, three sites for camping, and ranger led-events like bird watching on May 14, International Migratory Bird Day. The Sunken Forest at Sailor’s Haven (accessed by ferry from Sayville or by water taxi from other Fire Island communities) is a rare ecological area of maritime holly, which is only found behind well-established sand dunes along the Atlantic coast from New Jersey to Massachusetts. A major manmade attraction is the Fire Island Lighthouse, completed in 1858 and a short walk from Robert Moses State Park. Communities throughout Ferry Island can be accessed by ferries from different towns on Long Island, usually within one-half hour; the Long Island Railroad offers day trip packages.
Parks Shared by New York and New Jersey
Gateway National Recreation Area
This 27,000-acre park is made up of three locations: Jamaica Bay (in Queens and Brooklyn), Sandy Hook (a narrow peninsula in New Jersey), and parts of Staten Island. Nature fans will not want to miss the BioBlitz sessions hosted by Gateway National Park Service as part of a nationwide quest to document biodiversity. Fauna, flora, fish and insects will be counted by scientists who lead citizen scientists (that’s us) in Jamaica Bay (June 10 – 11) and Sandy Hook (September 24-25). A BioBlitz geared for children will take place May 15 in Staten Island. Check for the full update of spring and summer events on the Gateway National Recreation Area site in May.
In spring and summer, rangers teach city-slickers skills such as how to ride a bike, kayak, and in partnership with REI sporting goods, even how to set up camp in the great outdoors! Sandy Hook National Park and Floyd Bennet Field off Jamaica Bay host Great Centennial Campout nights August 13-14; sign up (with fee) is through REI.
Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island
Ferries leave for these quintessential, American attractions from Liberty Park in New Jersey and Battery Park in Lower Manhattan every day except December 25. Both the Statue of Liberty on Liberty Island and immigration museum on Ellis Island are big tourist draws, so be wise and plan your trip far in advance, especially if you want to reserve tickets to visit the museum or see the harbor view from Lady Liberty’s crown or pedestal. The sights and tickets are free, but you must pay for the ferry trip. To walk up to the statue’s crown is the equivalent of walking up a 22-story building —think of the Flatiron building at 23rd Street and Fifth Avenue —- and part of that climb is 162 steps on a narrow spiral staircase.
Exhibitions on Liberty Island and ranger tours tell the story of the statue, a symbol of freedom around the world. The design is by artist Frederic Bartholdi, with a framework by Alexandre Gustave Eiffel, and the statue was a gift of the people of France the the people of the United States. Learn more about the American reception of the gift with this infographic.
A fitting event for the National Park Service Centennial is Ellis Island Museum‘s exhibition (through September 5) on the father of American national parks: John Muir. John Muir was an immigrant from Scotland who became a passionate conservationist in his adopted homeland, advocating that Yosemite in California be protected as the country’s first national park (1890).
Paterson Great Falls National Park
With the Passaic River plummeting 77 feet at Paterson Great Falls National Park, the waterfall here is the second largest after Niagara Falls, east of the Mississippi River. Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton took one look at this powerful source of energy and chose the site for the nation’s first planned industrial city in 1791. Hamilton hired Pierre Charles L’Enfant, who laid out Washington DC, to build a system of canals, called raceways, that helped power the new mills in Northern New Jersey. Today the 52-acre park is a mix of nature and industrial ruin (7 acres), and holds a museum documenting what products were made in this industrial center. “Paterson is Exhibit A on where we declared economic independence,” says the park’s superintendent Darren Boch. It was here that Hamilton set out to turn a nascent country from agrarianism dependent on slave labor to industrialism. Among the innovations that came from industry here were the first true submarine, the first Colt pistols, and more than half the locomotives and silk products made at the time. A statue of Hamilton is at the park’s section called Overlook Park, where a new viewing platform opened last August to provide a great view over the mighty falls.
On August 26 Passaic County Community College will host a day of dance, music and poetry in the park. The following day, August 27, you can join scientists and other citizens in a BioBlitz — a nationwide effort to document and count all the flora, fauna and living creatures in parks.
Daytrippers to the park can dine in Paterson, a city that has 52 ethnicities in its eight square miles, and which is full of lively restaurants (many Peruvian) on Market Street, a short walk from the park. Sports enthusiasts should note Hinchliffe Stadium on Maple and Liberty Streets, one of the rare Negro League baseball stadiums still standing (though awaiting restoration), where Paterson native Larry Doby once played. Like Jackie Robinson, Doby broke the color barrier in 1947 as the second black player in Major League Baseball (he was the first in the American League).
For more parks to explore on your weekends and vacations, check the National Park Service’s Find Your Park site, designed especially for the big 100th birthday. Here is the quick view of all New York State and New Jersey attractions run by the National Park Service. Ken Burns’ six-part, 12-hour series, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, airs April 25 – 30 at 9 pm nightly on THIRTEEN. Share this page to start planning a day trip or vacation with friends and family!