We've identified some solid tools for discovering memorable outdoor experiences in your area. Take a look, and enjoy a memorable staycation.
As a federal taxpayer, you own some extraordinary land, so consider a visit if you live near a national park, national forest, national landscape, national heritage area, national wildlife refuge or a national wild and scenic river. And you've done a good job over the years as a state taxpayer, too, preserving some extraordinary state parks, so don't forget to check with your state's wildlife conservation, parks and historic preservation departments for ideas. Of course, your local tax dollars have helped counties, cities and towns preserve some significant parcels, so don't forget them, either.
Several organizations have launched ambitious attempts to catalog nature destinations around the country, and they are tremendously useful for identifying new parks to explore. That said, my endorsements of the tools below come with a caveat. I've compared local searches against my knowledge of New York's Hudson Valley, and found all of the databases lacking. These tools are useful, particularly for those who have taken relatively few nature excursions, but they may leave experienced hikers disappointed. Just be aware that there are many gems missing from these lists.
1. NatureFind, the National Wildlife Federation's map-based tool, includes a wealth of data to help you search for places or events by nearly 40 criteria, from arboretum to zoo. That makes this tool a great starting point for finding a suitable experience for you and your family; contact information and driving directions are provided so you can explore more deeply on your own. Helpfully, it includes not only many national and state parks, but also Audubon Centers and many Nature Conservancy preserves. (But not all: Where's Stissing Mountain?) That said, I found it misses parks preserved by some private land trusts, which in the Hudson Valley means missing extraordinary destinations like the Mohonk Preserve's 70-miles of trails on the Shawangunk Ridge, and Scenic Hudson's network of more than 50 parks and preserves along the Hudson River. And the Catskill Mountains, a world-renowned haven for hikers, birdwatchers, fishers and other nature lovers, wasn't even on the map!
2. LocalHikes.com, provides solid information about specific trails so you can plan for a day outdoors. Whereas you'll find out that The Nature Conservancy operates the Sam's Point Preserve on the Shawangunk Ridge from NatureFind, LocalHikes.com will detail a moderate 10-mile loop featuring a stunning waterfall, dramatic white cliffs, blueberry bushes ripe for the picking and ice caves that stay cool even through the dog days of summer. The site allows you to search by a small set of criteria, including difficulty, so you can find a suitable hike for yourself or your family. LocalHikes.com isn't comprehensive, but it has a great level of detail about some extraordinary hikes selected by a network of "reporters" who seem to know what they are talking about. (If you find yourself scoffing at the choices, then you can become a reporter yourself, and help others discover the hikes you love a theme that recurs in this article.)
3. Trails.com is a similar, more glossy, tool that allows you to browse and sort a good number of hiking, biking and kayaking trails. Unfortunately, you have to pay for the slick presentation and database of hikes. While I found its level of detail impressive in some areas, it still misses some stand-out hikes (Esopus Meadows Preserve, Vanderbilt Mansion and all of Minnewaska State Park, for instance) that should be included, particularly if you're paying $50 a year for the service (there is a free 14-day trial, but you can't enjoy it without first divulging your credit card info). Even without registering or paying a dime, though, you can access the site's interactive map, which could easily turn you on to a new trail.
4. The Nature Conservancy has hundreds of preserves in the U.S. and around the world, many of them offering unparalleled nature experiences (they pride themselves on protecting the "World's Last Great Places"). Of course, you won't find parks and preserves affiliated with any other group or government, but it's a valuable map, particularly since TNC properties don't all reliably show up with the search tools above.
5. The American Public Gardens Association has a searchable database of public gardens that isn't exhaustive, but reveals destinations not included in the other databases in this list, including, in my area, the Bard College Arboretum. It doesn't, however, include gems like the Innisfree Garden in Millbrook, or the gardens tucked away at the Wethersfield Estate.
6. The Sierra Club's new(ish) Trails site is a user-generated database of hikes and outdoor experiences. Unfortunately, it's still of little use to novice hikers because it has very few listings (15 for all of New York State, for instance). If you're an avid hiker, though, consider submitting your favorite hikes and outings so that others can benefit.
7. Land Trust Alliance has a database of local land trusts. You can search in your area to connect to land trusts that may have preserved parks nearby. The process is more convoluted here than on the other sites because the purpose of the Land Trust Alliance's interactive map is to identify land trusts, not parks or trails. You'll have to first identify a land trust, then link to get more information about its preserves. Without using this site, though, you won't find some parks and preserves that the tools above miss, like in my neck of the woods, the beautiful little Esopus Bend Nature Preserve, preserved by the Esopus Creek Conservancy.
Talk to Others
There will always be gems hidden from view. For instance, none of the searches I detail above would reveal Opus 40, a one-of-a-kind sculpture park that is an affordable and memorable spot for a walk or picnic. Books devoted to trails and history of the region can help you identify them. Outdoors writers for local publications may be able to help. Hiking clubs and their members are usually more than willing to share expertise. One good way to discover a new trail is to start with what you know: You're bound to run into someone out there who's been somewhere you haven't!
Photo: The Hudson River at Black Creek Forest Preserve, by Dan Shapley
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