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I Heart NY: Discovering the Beauty and Joy of Upstate New York

i heart ny

Get into the Empire State of mind with a trip away from the city so nice they named it twice.

Photos: Les Fabian Brathwaite

How does that old standard go: "I like New York in June, how about you?" And how couldn't you? The city is in all its full, resplendent glory, fresh off spring and feeling alive with an energy you can see in the bounce of New Yorkers as they go distractedly about their business. But New York in August is another story. The sweat and stick and stench of the city--coupled with the less than savory attitude that inevitably comes with being crammed on a subway with strangers on a daily basis--become too much to bear and escape is imminent.

Some flock to Fire Island, or the Hamptons, or to further, more exotic locations, as far as their bank accounts can take them. But New York State has any number of sanctuaries away from the hustle and bustle of NYC: burgeoning mini-metropolises, hamlets that all but define "quaint," enough vineyards to send any Real Housewife into a quivering glee, and 180 state parks that remind you how beautiful life can be away from sidewalks and skyscrapers.

For the LGBT traveler, upstate New York might not seem like it has a lot to offer--especially since some shadesters consider anything north of 125th Street to be "upstate." But whether you love the great outdoors or just a great outdoor brunch, there's more to upstate New York than an easier getaway to Canada come November. During a whirlwind trip way, way past 125th Street, I became personally acquainted with an area of the state I had relegated to fans of hockey and voting Republican, i.e. no gay's land.

Not true. At all. From early June, New York has some 18 different LGBT Pride celebrations--beginning with Albany's Black and Latino Gay Pride, continuing with festivals and marches throughout the Hudson Valley, the Finger Lakes, and every borough of New York City, and culminating with Rochester's celebrations in mid-July. Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo, in particular, surprised me with their commitment to revitalization and prominent LGBT communities. Meanwhile, judging from my extensive research on Scruff, upstate is prime bear-trapping territory.

But New York's other great natural resources proved the real attraction. Just a few minutes outside Syracuse, Green Lake State Park lived up to its name with its mesmerizing emerald waters.


Watkins Glen State Park, with its 19 waterfalls and breathtaking ravines, put the "gorge" in gorgeous.

Letchworth State Park, the "Grand Canyon of the East," was voted the best state park in the U.S. in 2015 for obvious reasons, including its own 600-ft waterfall and numerous tourist-pleasing activities.

But Watkins Glen and Letchworth were just the warm-up act--the amuse-douche, if you will--for the grand daddy of waterfall parks: Niagara.


Established in 1885, Niagara Falls State Park is the oldest state park in the United States. Churning out 750,000 gallons of water each second, the Falls draw millions of visitors from around the globe every year. I could really go to town on jokes about getting wet right now, but it was truly one of the most wondrous things I've ever experienced--and I saw Cher having a kiki with Hillary Clinton in Provincetown this summer. Niagara Falls was better than that. Not by much, but it was better.

Getting drenched by Mother Nature kind of puts things into perspective. I initially agreed to go on this trip through upstate New York because I was exhausted by New York City and, really, by the world in general. In a summer full of national and international tragedy, escape was the one thing I craved. I found my escape in nature and in its restorative powers. Whether at the gorges of Watkins Glen, on the trails of Letchworth State Park, or under the glorious rush of Niagara Falls, the beauty of the world that's so far removed from my daily life yet so close to my physical existence recharged me, so that all I can suggest to any urbanite suffocating in the concrete jungle is this: get thee to a goddamn park. With summer coming to an unofficial close this Labor Day, you owe it to yourself.

30 Years of Out100Out / Advocate Magazine - Jonathan Groff and Wayne Brady

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Les Fabian Brathwaite