Trailside Museums & Zoo is located in Bear Mountain State Park on the western bank of the Hudson River adjacent to the Bear Mountain Bridge. Trailside reaches beyond Bear Mountain State Park. In Harriman State Park, there are several summer seasonal nature museums serving group camps for urban youth. At Rockland Lake State Park, there is the seasonal Nature Center with gardens and boardwalks through wetland forests.
Trailside and the Natural Resources Program take the lead on research, conservation, and stewardship in the Palisades Region.
Trailside is located on a short section the Appalachian Trail overlooking the Hudson River. The trail takes the visitor by exhibits of non-releasable native wildlife and small museums. Each museum has a focus to its exhibits. The Herpetology Museum exhibits live reptiles, amphibians and fish. The Geology Museum showcases geologic history and specimens. The Nature Study Museum houses specimens of small animals including insects, birds and mammals. The History Museum exhibits artifacts and displays to interpret the history of local Native Americans and colonists and the Revolutionary War plus a founder of the Boy Scouts, Dan Beard.
Trailside strives to encourage people to become acquainted with and interested in the local environment and care for it. It seeks to provide experiences that lead people to understand their connection to the natural world, develop environmental literacy and stewardship.
Trailside Evolving while grounded in its Origins
The seeds for Trailside Museums and Zoo were planted in Harriman State Park in 1920 where the first nature museum was founded at Lake Kanawauke. The Kanawauke Nature Museum served the Boy Scout summer camp. From there, other nature museums were established in proximity to clusters of summer group camps situated around lakes in Harriman. The Harriman Nature Museums welcomed the campers to become acquainted, comfortable and respectful of native flora and fauna.
In 1927, Trailside Museums and Zoo was founded to guide visitors to Bear Mountain State Park in learning about the local environment and its geology and history. Trailside is the nation’s first self-guided nature trail. It began with an innovative founding vision: “the best way to learn about nature is to be in nature and the best way to enjoy nature is to have a friendly, knowledgeable voice as your guide”. Little signs were placed along the trail to tell local natural history stories. Visitors were (and still are) welcomed with a sign that exemplifies this approach:
“How many of us are able, unaided, to read the signs of nature? Let the guiding labels take the place of a naturalist friend who has an interesting story to tell you as you follow the trail.”
Trailside Museums and Zoo began as a unique collaboration between the Palisades Interstate Park Commission and the American Association of Museums and the American Museum of Natural History. Until the Great Depression, it was under the leadership of the American Museum of Natural History. Since then, Trailside has been a New York State Parks facility guided by scientist directors and a small staff caring for the animals and landscape, facility, visitors and programming. Trailside has continued to evolve in exhibit expansion and animal rehabilitation, animal policy, plant communities and philosophy.
Beginning in the 1990s, volunteers stepped in to expand the capacity of the small staff. Volunteers continue to generously contribute their time, expertise and hard work. They are the lifeblood supporting Trailside Museums and Zoo, Rockland Lake Nature Center and citizen science research and programming throughout the Palisades Region. They serve as naturalist interpreters at animal exhibits, reclaim the landscape from invasive plant species and transform those spaces in native plant landscapes and habitats, staff special events, conduct field research and monitor sites and more.
All four of Trailside Museums and Zoo’s museums were all built from native granite. The original museum was built in 1927 and is now the Herpetology Museum. The architecture was created through the Laura Spellman Rockefeller Foundation. The first of three Trailside Museums was built at Yosemite National Park’s Glacier Point (1924), followed by the one at Bear Mountain’s Trailside Museums and Zoo and a third one at Grand Canyon National Park’s Yavapai Point. During the Great Depression, WPA (Works Progress Administration) built the History Museum, Geology Museum, Nature Study Museum and other buildings at Trailside Museums and Zoo following the architectural style of the original museum.
Trailside Museums and Zoo continues to draw inspiration from the original architecture and signage in restoration and new projects. In 2014, the Walt Whitman monument area was refurbished. Asphalt was removed and a new patio was designed and installed with native granite and plantings. Small signs still guide the visitor and new ones are made using techniques developed in the 1950s. Larger signs are hand-painted in an illustrative style also emanating from the 1950s.