Bears' Den at Bear Mountain Zoo
Credit: Leigh Goessl/All rights reserved

A bear takes a dip in the pool in the bears' den at th Bear Mountain Zoo

The Hudson River Valley in New York has a number of terrific landmarks and parks, along with a rich history. A picturesque region, one of its popular destinations for visitors and locals is Bear Mountain State Park.

Within the park is Trailside Museums & Zoo, but most locals refer to it as the "Bear Mountain Zoo", and it is not your typical type of zoo. It only houses animals native to the Hudson River Valley and surrounding region. Additionally, the majority of these animals have either been injured or orphaned and cannot survive without human intervention. Trailside Museums & Zoo was opened in 1927.

Critters at Bear Mountain Zoo

The zoo is not very large, but it carries a lot of charisma. Exhibits include deer, foxes, wild turkeys, swans, geese, ducks, birds, fish, otters, turtles and other small furry critters, to name some of the animals to be seen. There is also a small reptile house.

The most well-known exhibit, and the one that usually has the most crowds, is the bears’ den.

A key attraction for decades, the bears’ den is where several black bears live, there are usually three to five of them to be spotted (hard to say since there are a few concrete shelters for them to go in and there is also an underground area beneath the viewing platform).  In recent years, it appears the bears have a number of new den mates too – the vultures are frequently seen in the bears’ den, living in harmony.

Vultures at Bear Mountain Zoo
Credit: Leigh Goessl/All rights reserved

On my last two visits to the Bear Mountain Zoo the vultures could be seen flying in and out of the bears' den, living in perfect harmony. Here are several cooling themselves on a hot July day in 2012, the bears were all hanging out to the left of where the birds were standing.

A few critters, who are wild and have the freedom to come and go, choose to stay and make the Bear Mountain State Park and/or zoo their home. Mostly feathered friends and small animals can be spotted at any given time when walking through the park. Although on my last visit, some deer crossed the zoo path we were on too (there is a fenced-in deer exhibit at the zoo, but we watched these two come out of the woods).

A Place to Connect with Nature

Located in a wooded area overlooking the gorgeous Hudson River, it’s a beautiful space. It is conveniently located, as it runs alongside some major roadways and the Bear Mountain Bridge - you’d never know there was traffic nearby walking through most of the zoo). This is one of the most appealing draws to Bear Mountain State Park - the unaltered nature. Aside from a few of the dated cages that are still used to house the very small animals, the zoo leans towards letting animals live in natural surroundings. Plans are in the works to reduce the number of cages even more. 2

Over the decades I have visited this zoo and returning in recent years I found in some ways it largely looks the same as it did in the 1970s which adds to its charisma. While the park still looks the same, some important improvements have been made and plans continue. As an example, during my fall 2014 visit, I found the coyotes had been moved out of cages and now have a large fenced in area to run around in, complete with a shelter. Visitors can stand on a large platform and view these beautiful animals.

Coyotes at Bear Mountain Zoo
Credit: Leigh Goessl/All rights reserved

A coyote howls during a 2014 visit

Over the decades, some of the critters living at Bear Mountain Zoo have changed, but the organizational mission has stayed true to its roots. A pamphlet from the zoo answers the question, "Why can't the animals be released back into the wild?"

“Trailside Museums and Zoo is a home for rehabilitated wild animals. Many of them have permanent injuries that severely limit their ability to survive in the wild. Others were raised in captivity, so their parents never taught them to fend for themselves.”

Bald Eagle
Credit: Leigh Goessl/All rights reserved

This eagle suffered a permanent wing injury and has been a resident at the zoo for a very long time.

Visit Science and History Too

As you wander the trails that make up the zoo's paths, visitors can read a number of plaques that have been placed throughout the park. Each shares information on the types of trees, plants, animals and offers other “fun facts” and "quizzes" along the way.  Most of these plaques are decades old and it’s clear right from the beginning the zoo’s caretakers have paid special attention to these small details to enhance visitors' zoo experience.

The Bear Mountain Zoo also houses four museums which feature: local geology, Native American and colonial history, animal specimens in nature study and the aforementioned reptile, fish and amphibians house. There is also a pretty wildflower garden that attracts a lot of butterflies in the warmer months.

Butterflies at Bear Mountain Zoo
Credit: Photo by author/All rights reserved

A butterfly lands in the wildflower garden planted outside one of the park's small museums. You can see one of the other small museums in the background.

Being the Hudson River Valley was a pivotal region during the American Revolutionary War, it is not surprising that remnants from the 18th century remain. For example, Fort Clinton, established in October 1777, was built on the land where the Trailside Museums & Zoo is situated today. Parts of its original foundation still exists. Also, within the zoo's boundaries stands a statue which is a tribute to the late poet, Walt Whitman.

Remains of Fort Clinton
Credit: Leigh Goessl/All rights reserved

What was once Fort Clinton is located within the boundaries of the Trailside Museums & Zoo. Here you can see some of the original foundation that remains.

Visiting Trailside Museums & Zoo

For years the Trailside Museum & Zoo offered free admission, except for a period of time when the park charged .50 for children and $1.00 for adults to enter. The admission fees have since been replaced with an unmanned box that simply asks for donations. Any money collected goes towards zoo operations such as food, medical care, supplies and upkeep. There is a parking fee to park on Bear Mountain State Park property – check with the park for current rates.

Bear Mountain State Park is open year-round and offers many seasonal recreational activities. The Trailside Museums & Zoo is open daily from 10 a.m. - 4:30 p.m.

[ Related Reading: Guide to New York's Best State Parks ]

Ducks, swans and geese
Credit: Leigh Goessl/All rights reserved

Ducks, geese and the swan enjoy the cool reprieve of the water on a hot summer's day in 2012.

Get Directions
Bear Mountain State Park, 3006 Seven Lakes Drive, Bear Mountain, NY 10911, USA