A view of the Chimney Bluffs from a position over Lake Ontario
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Visiting state parks frequently can get expensive

Exploring the natural beauty of New York’s state parks is a must-do for both residents and visitors. However, frequent visits to these stunning landscapes can add up financially. The fees for many parks, such as Seneca Lake State Park or Fillmore Glen, run about $8, with some of the larger parks, such as Letchworth, Niagara Falls, and Watkins Glen costing $10 per vehicle. Fortunately, there are several savvy ways to save money on New York State Park admissions, making it easier to enjoy the great outdoors without breaking the bank.

Autumn park road scene at Letchworth State Park

Park Admission = Vehicle Entry Fees

The per-vehicle fee

First, it’s important to understand how New York State Parks charge admission. The vast majority of parks simply charge a vehicle admission fee for a single non-commercial motor-vehicle. Regardless of how many people you pack in, you’ll pay the same amount. So, if you are planning a larger get-together, carpooling is the best way to take advantage of this system.

Not every entrance collects

While digital admission collection machines are slowly being installed and making this less of a method of getting around fees, there are still many parks that have legit side or back entrances that are staffed during daylight hours in peak season (Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend). Some parks have alternate entrances that aren’t staffed and do not collect tolls at all. Letchworth State Park, for example, collects from 9am to 5pm daily, only May through October. Even in the peak season, entrances at Portageville near upper falls, or the east side of the park at the Parade Grounds, do not collect at all. Before heading out to a park, check Google maps and see if there’s an alternate entrance that still gets you where you want to go. You may get lucky and you’ll skip the fee, and perhaps see a part of the park you’ve never experienced before.

Walk, Cycle, or Skate in

This tip doesn’t necessarily apply to a good deal of parks due to their remoteness, but the vehicle admission fee applies to motor-vehicles only. There is no charge for people walking, bicycling, or even boating in (although there may be dock fees). There are some parks near urban areas, such as Niagara Falls, where there may be cheaper alternative parking around, and you can walk freely into the park.

Walking into a new york state park is usually free

The Empire Pass for frequent visits

For those who plan to visit multiple state parks throughout the year, purchasing the annual Empire Pass is a cost-effective option. This pass offers unlimited day-use vehicle entry to most of New York’s state parks and recreational facilities. By paying a one-time fee, frequent park visitors can enjoy substantial savings over the course of the year. The passes do have some rules and limitations, but how they work is fairly simple:

  • The Empire Pass covers the Vehicle Entry Fee, but does not guarantee you entry to some parks if parking lots are full.
  • The pass is good for the calendar year that you bought it: The day you buy it through Dec 31 of that same year.
  • The pass is sharable! Be sure to buy the card version, not the digital version, for easy sharing.
  • The pass does not cover some museum, golf, swimming, historic site, or camping fees.
  • The pass is non-refundable.

How much does an Empire Pass save you?

  • Buy a single year pass and it’s good the calendar year you bought it. Because of this it’s better to buy them earlier in the year.
  • For this pass to save you money, you would have to visit about 8 or 9 state parks that calendar year.
  • 3 and 5 season passes are also available. “Season” is probably not the best name for these. These also cover calendar years. If you buy a 3 “season” pass in 2024, then it covers 3 years (2024, 2025, and 2026).
    • The 3 Season Empire Pass costs $205 and saves you $35 over buying 3 yearly passes.
    • The 5 Season Empire Pass costs $320 and saves you $80 over buying 5 yearly passes.
  • A Lifetime Empire Pass will set you back $750. If you visit parks about 83 times with it, you’ll break even.

You can obtain your Empire pass from shop.parks.ny.gov

The Empire Pass is a great way to reduce the costs of NY State Park visits.

Empire Pass for FREE

Borrow an Empire Pass from your Local Library

Head to your local library and check out an Empire Pass for free! Most county libraries have several of them and they will order more as demand rises. We have confirmed the following library networks have them ready to loan out: Erie County (Buffalo-area, Akron), Monroe County (Rochester-area), Onondaga (Syracuse-area), Tompkins County (Ithaca-area), Albany County, Ontario County (Canandaigua-area), Broome County (Binghamton) and too many more to list.

Get a free Empire Pass under the Patriot Plan Benefit

Under the provisions of Executive Order 125 from the Governor’s Office of New York State, active members of the New York State National Guard or Reserves engaged in supporting the war on terrorism are entitled to receive a complimentary Empire Pass card. This card grants free park access and can be used by the service member’s immediate family during their deployment. Additionally, the service member can use the pass upon returning home. To be eligible for this benefit, the service member must be a resident of New York State. More information on this benefit can be found here: parks.ny.gov/admission/patriot-plan-benefit/

Lifetime Liberty Pass for veterans with disabilities

The Lifetime Liberty Pass offers eligible New York State veterans with disabilities the opportunity to enjoy discounted access to state parks, historical sites, and recreational facilities managed by the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation (NYS Parks) and the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). This pass, once issued, is valid for the holder’s lifetime.

Benefits of the Lifetime Liberty Pass include complimentary vehicle entry to the majority of state parks, DEC-operated day-use areas, several state boat launch sites, historical sites, arboretums, and park preserves. Additionally, pass holders can enjoy free greens fees at State Park golf courses, free admission to State Park swimming pools, and reduced rates for camping and cabin rentals at most State Park and DEC campgrounds. The pass holder needs to be present to make use of these free or discounted services. Please note that the Lifetime Liberty Pass does not cover certain amenities, particularly those services or locations operated by external vendors.

Read more and sign up for the Lifetime Liberty Pass here: parks.ny.gov/admission/lifetime-liberty-pass.aspx

Free NY State Park admission for people with disabilities

Access Pass for people with disabilities

The New York State (NYS) Access Pass provides residents with disabilities, as outlined in the application, with complimentary or reduced-cost access to state parks, historical sites, and recreational facilities managed by the NYS Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation (NYS Parks) and the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation. To benefit from these privileges, the pass holder must be present when utilizing the facilities.

It’s important to note that the Access Pass does not cover certain amenities, particularly those operated by external vendors.

Holders of the Access Pass enjoy a range of benefits, including free vehicle entry to most state parks, DEC-operated day-use areas, state boat launch sites, historical sites, arboretums, and park preserves. Additionally, the pass allows for complimentary greens fees at State Park golf courses, free entry to State Park swimming pools, and offers discounts on camping and cabin rentals at most State Park and DEC campgrounds.

Read more and sign up for the Access Pass here: parks.ny.gov/admission/access-pass/

Free admission to most NY State Parks and historic sites for Senior Citizens

Free access for seniors with the Golden Park Program

Residents of New York State aged 62 and above can enjoy the Golden Park Program, which offers complimentary vehicle access to the majority of state parks, boat launch sites, and arboretums, as well as reduced fees at state historic sites and state-operated golf courses. This benefit is available Monday through Friday, excluding holidays.

To take advantage of this program, simply present a valid New York State Driver License or New York State Non-Driver Identification Card at the park entrance. There’s no need for a separate application; your NY State Driver’s License or Non-Driver ID Card acts as your pass. For those parks with pay stations, it’s advised to reach out to the facility directly (any staff on hand) for specific details.