The 1986 New York Times headline about Harriman State Park still rings true today: “For Hispanic New Yorkers, Summer Oasis”
There’s a lot to love about Harriman, New York’s second largest state park. It features 31 lakes, such as the popular Lake Welch, and about 200 miles of trails. Hundreds of thousands of people from New York City, New Jersey, and the local Hudson Valley visit each year to hike, paddle, and relax outdoors.
Many of Harriman’s visitors are Hispanic (a person with roots in a Spanish-speaking country) and/or Latinx (a person with roots in Latin America). According to a 2013 study from the Open Space Institute, about three quarters of the estimated 400,000 annual visitors to Lake Welch were Hispanic/Latinx. The park has even earned its own nickname in Spanish:
“For Latin communities, they know that area as Los Siete Lagos, the Seven Lakes,” said Ronald Zorrilla.
Zorrilla knows Los Siete Lagos well. Growing up in New York City, he and his family headed to Lake Welch for large cookouts of empaguetadas (a traditional Dominican spaghetti dish), and as a teenager he discovered his lifelong love of hiking and camping on trails in the state park. Today he calls the Hudson Valley home, and works to introduce youth to the outdoor spaces he loves. He has volunteered with AMC YOP (since renamed Educators Outdoors) and now runs his own nonprofit, Outdoor Promise, which focuses on environmental justice and supporting communities traditionally underrepresented in outdoor recreation.
“[Hiking as a teenager] really had an impact on me… Remembering that feeling of camping for the first time and wanting to share that with other urban kids that don’t have the chance to have those experiences.” said Zorrilla.
A Train Ride Away
New York City is a true global metropolis, with residents from every corner of the world. Over the second half of the 20th century and into today, immigrants from across Latin America as well as other Spanish-speaking countries, especially the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Ecuador, moved to the city. Today, almost 2.5 million Hispanic people, many of them second, third, or even fourth generation New Yorkers, call the five boroughs home. Many more live in the surrounding cities and towns.
While other city escapes may require hours of driving, Harriman State Park is easily accessible to the residents of New York City. Located less than fifty miles from Manhattan, the park can be reached by train or a short car ride. In fact, the Sloatsburg, Suffern, and Tuxedo train stations are all mere blocks from a Harriman State Park trailhead. Other options include a shuttle service, or even taking a ferry and then biking.
For some first-generation Latinx immigrants, time at Lake Welch is a reminder of beaches in their homelands. For many others, it’s simply a respite from the hustle and bustle of life in America’s largest city. Either way, the area’s beautiful setting and proximity to New York City has turned its beaches into a haven for Hispanic outdoor enthusiasts.
“If you go [to Lake Welch] today, you think you’re like in the Dominican Republic or Puerto Rico. Hundreds of Bad Bunny tracks playing at the same time,” Zorrilla jokes.
When it comes to the miles of trails and numerous campsites that surround Harriman’s lakes, however, it’s a more complex picture. Zorrilla often finds it takes an extra push to help the kids he works with feel that these places are theirs to enjoy too.
“Some people, some groups, feel like it’s not their space, you know? There’s even jokes like, ‘that’s what white people do,’ on certain trips.”
A lack of diversity is all too common in America’s green spaces. But, slowly, that is changing.
The “Nature Gap” is a term describing the way people of color in the U.S. disproportionately live in places without accessible green spaces. The problem extends to outdoor recreation and public land use; for example, in a 2020 survey of the National Park system, Hispanic people made up less than 5 percent of all visitors.
For outdoor activities like hiking and backpacking, barriers to entry may include a lack of transportation and proper gear. Lack of access to training in backcountry safety and “Leave No Trace” ethics can also leave new hikers feeling unprepared and unsafe. The problem isn’t just accessibility, but also representation.
“Young people, especially if they see themselves reflected in a particular arena or profession, like [a] National Park Service ranger, will become more inspired to want to strive toward that,” said Luis Villa, executive director of the nonprofit Latino Outdoors, in a 2020 interview with AMC Outdoors.
“Representation matters because it creates a perception of what you’re able to do, what other people are able to do, are allowed to do, should do, shouldn’t do… So if you grow up in an urban environment where they say, ‘that’s what white people do,’ and you’re not a white person, then that’s not what you do.”
Across the country, parks like Harriman have been on the frontlines of introducing a more diverse audience to the outdoors. As a place where generations of Hispanic and Latinx families have traveled, Harriman can feel like a more welcoming space than other, less diverse public lands.
Closing the Gap
In 2016, AMC opened the Stephen & Betsy Corman AMC Harriman Outdoor Center to better serve the diverse audience that already spends time in the park, and to attract even more people to the outdoors. The center offers lodging, educational programming, and is home to an Educators Outdoors gear library for educators and youth programs, including Outdoor Promise.
Educators Outdoors is an AMC program dedicated to outdoor education, professional development, and social justice. The program offers Outdoor Leadership Trainings for educators from schools and youth organizations in lower-income communities and communities of color. Through education, gear, and trip planning support, Educators Outdoors works to increase representation in the outdoors.
“I think that the staff at YOP and now Educator Outdoors has done a really good job of creating a space where leaders can discuss these very difficult topics involving equity and access and the historic reasons that some people haven’t been able to have access [to the outdoors],” said Zorrilla.
Since opening the Corman Harriman Outdoor Center, AMC has also expanded its commitment to Harriman State Park with a 40-year lease to build a second outdoor center at Baker Camp, on Sebago Lake. This new facility will allow AMC to continue lowering barriers to the outdoors with a range of lodging options and recreational opportunities.
While the Nature Gap in the US remains a real problem, progress takes the form of advocacy, policy, and continued investment in outdoor infrastructure. It can also be a group hike or an empaguetadas cookout on the shores of Lake Welch. Ultimately, Zorrilla hopes to show the next generation that enjoying the outdoors isn’t just ‘what white people do.’ It’s also what Hispanic people do, what Latinx people do, what we all can do.
“Investing in people and community to create those experiences for others will, I think, have a ripple effect in the future. More people will appreciate nature, more people will take advantage of the trails, more people will spread the word.”
September 15 to October 15 is Hispanic Heritage Month, a celebration of Hispanic and Latinx contributions to all parts of American life, including the outdoors.