Pro Tips for the Best National Parks in New York City
Hear from a National Park Service ranger on how best to experience these Big Apple attractions
Discover why Federal Hall is more than just a photo op with the statue of our nation’s first president, George Washington, in this exploration of the best national parks in New York City.
When New York City visitors run into Jimmy Cleckley in his work uniform, they’re usually a bit surprised. “They see a National Park Service ranger in uniform, and they’re like, ‘What are you doing here?’” Cleckley says. “They imagine us all out west, at Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon.”
But if you’re planning a trip to New York City, you may be surprised to know it’s actually home to more than half a dozen fascinating sites administered by the NPS, and they’re some of the best destinations to learn about the history of the city, the nation, the people who built it and the people who call it home. Discover more about the best national parks in New York City!
Walk in George Washington’s footsteps at the Federal Hall National Monument
“People love the outside of Federal Hall and taking photos with the statue of George Washington,” Cleckley says. “They’re always shocked when they find out they can go inside too.”
Federal Hall National Monument, located just off Wall Street and near many Manhattan hotels, has a long and storied role in American history. As the place where George Washington took his oath of office (and home to the bible he was sworn in with), it’s been called the first White House. It was also home to the first U.S. Congress, Supreme Court and offices of the Executive Branch.
“At all the New York City sites, one of the things families like most is the Junior Ranger program,” Cleckley says. “The kids get a booklet—it’s like a scavenger hunt—and once they complete it, they’re sworn in by a ranger and given a badge. It’s a good way for kids and adults to learn about these amazing NPS sites together. Every one of them has something different, unique and special about it.”
Experience history at the African Burial Ground National Monument
Long-lost history is unearthed at the African Burial Ground National Monument.
Enslaved Africans played a pivotal role in the building of New York City, and that chapter of history is honored at the African Burial Ground National Monument near City Hall. In 1991, a planned development resulted in the discovery of a six-acre cemetery dating from the mid-1630s to 1795. The area contained the remains of more than 15,000 enslaved and free Africans who lived and worked in the city during Colonial times.
“We give a guided tour of the outside section of the memorial, then invite visitors inside to watch a film about the history,” says Cleckley, the supervisor of the African Burial Ground, Castle Clinton and Federal Hall. One of the best national parks in New York City is also one of the least known. “People always say they’re so happy they came, because they didn’t even know it was here, and they leave knowing so much more about the history and the contributions of these people.”
Visit the resting place of an American war hero at the General Grant National Memorial
Visit the largest mausoleum in North America when you stop by the General Grant National Memorial on Riverside Drive.
More commonly known as simply “Grant’s Tomb,” the Riverside Park burial place of the American war hero and former president is the largest mausoleum in North America. The General Grant National Memorial is one of the best national parks in New York City, and a must-visit for national park lovers who want to honor the man who established the country’s first national park—Yellowstone—in 1872.
It’s also a remarkable place to learn about Civil War history—busts of Civil War generals and murals of the Union victories at Vicksburg, Appomattox and Chattanooga look down on the dais that holds the sarcophagi of Grant and his wife, Julia.
Follow the history of a special fort at Castle Clinton National Monument
The stone walls of Castle Clinton have served many purposes over the years, including duty as a fort, opera house, immigration center and aquarium.
As you stroll through Battery Park, in the shadow of Manhattan’s financial district, it’s tough to miss the squat, round, stone building by the river. This is Castle Clinton, one of the most unique and historically rich NPS sites and one of the best national parks in New York City. The building was originally constructed during the War of 1812 and was one of four forts built to protect New York Harbor from the British invasion that never came.
“Castle Clinton has been so many things throughout its history,” Cleckley says. For the first decades of the 19th century, it was used as an entertainment venue and opera house. By 1855, it had another purpose.
“It was the first immigration station in New York, even before Ellis Island,” Cleckley explains. “Between 1855 and 1890, over 8 million immigrants came through here. I get a lot of calls from people looking for information about their ancestors.”
See one of the most beloved symbols of freedom, the Statue of Liberty
The Statue of Liberty, which was dedicated in 1886, is one of the most popular places to visit in New York.
Without a doubt one of the best national parks in New York City (and perhaps the country), no trip to NYC is complete without a sail out into the harbor to visit the Statue of Liberty. The NPS has been caring for the copper statue of Lady Liberty since 1933, and you can disembark on the island to visit the museum inside the statue’s pedestal or take a park ranger–guided tour.
At Ellis Island, part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument, you can get a firsthand look at the experience of 12 million immigrants who arrived between 1892 and 1954 in search of the American dream. There are free ranger-guided tours of the main building, and for a fee, visitors ages 13 and up can take a hard hat tour of the Ellis Island Hospital Complex.
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