There's something magical about the Thousand Islands region of upstate New York. Where else can you skip stones into Canada right from the waterfront of your full hookup campsite? Wellesley Island State Park is such a premier camping destination that the State of New York considers it their Flagship Park (which is a fancy way of saying all of your camping dreams can become reality here!).
Where the St. Lawrence River begins to turn into the massive Lake Ontario, endless small islands spread out across the river in every direction. Thousand Islands is actually more than 1,800 separate islands in both the U.S. and Canada, with Wellesley being one of the largest. Though much of it must be viewed by boat, the striking Thousand Islands International Bridge on I-81 creates easy access to the park and on to Canada.
With 436 campsites, Wellesley Island State Park is easily the largest park in the Thousand Lakes area. The park is open year-round, and summer hiking trails turn into winter ski trails when the snow flies. There are so many things to see and do right in the area that many families have been visiting Wellesley for generations.
Apart from the islands themselves, the Minna Anthony Common Nature Center is the main attraction in the park. With 600 acres of nature preserve within the park and three miles of shoreline, the Nature Center has eight miles of trails for hiking and skiing, a large museum and interpretive center, greenhouses, a butterfly den, and classes and activities for all ages year-round.
There is a nine-hole golf course, which can be played in reverse, boat launches, a marina, food concession, laundry, a playground, and miles of bike-friendly park roads. Several companies offer tours of the surrounding islands by water and one of the main highlights is a castle! You'll wish you had more time to stay.
Just below the border with Canada, Wellesley Island State Park is located just off of I-81 and NY-100. In fact, you can throw a rock across the water and it will probably land in Canada’s section of the St. Lawrence River. The park is only 31.2 miles north of Watertown, which is the self-proclaimed inventor of the safety pin and the five and dime stores. It is also the home of the Little Green Tree air fresheners you see hanging in many people’s cars.
Just under 100 miles from Syracuse, you can stop in this big city and see the planetarium, Erie Canal Museum, and eight other museums and art galleries. You may also enjoy stopping in at Clark Reservation State Park, Onondaga Lake Park, the Rosamond Gifford Zoo, or the Erie Canal State Park. Then you can head on to your destination, Wellesley Island State Park.
Interstate 81 sees so much truck traffic that you may have even heard it mentioned on the news. It's true, the interstate is beaten-up, busy, and truckers are often speeding. Drive assertively and be safe. Also, the roads in Wellesley Island State Park are usually covered in pedestrians and bikes, so be careful driving around. Go ahead and park the rig in the campsite and head out to explore the park on foot or bikes.
The Heron Campground has 34 campsites with 30- to 50-amp electric hookups. All the way on the southern side of Eel Bay, away from all of the other campgrounds, this is a more secluded space that tends to attract those who wish for a more peaceful RV vacation. Located just to the northeast of the Eel Bay Cottages and to the southwest of the park office, this campground is also just a short walk to the bay. In fact, you can choose from nine sites with waterfront spaces. The rest of them have a lovely view of the water though.
In the middle of the camp, the comfort station provides hot showers and flushable toilets. The kiddos will love the large playground located between the cabins and the camp. You and the kids can also take a short walk to the Minna Anthony Common Nature Center. If you have your boat with you, the boat launch is just across the road as well. Pets are welcome and each site has a picnic table and fire ring. There is also an RV dump site just to the north at the end of the road.
For those who would rather have all the hookups, you will want to book your spot in the Fox Campground. These 56 campsites have full hookups and are right next to the camp store and recreation barn. These spots are very popular so you will need to make your reservation as early as you can, up to nine months prior to your visit. Another reason why these spots are so popular is that they are all able to accommodate motorhomes and trailers up to 40 feet long.
You and the kids can walk to the camp store anytime you want to grab snacks, drinks, ice, or whatever else you need. They even have souvenirs and gifts for those back home who could not make the trip. The marina is also within walking distance as is the beach and picnic area. Each site has its own picnic table and fire ring and pets are welcome here too.
With 100 campsites, the Eagle Campground is the largest of the bunch. It is also the most popular, maybe because it is right on the St. Lawrence River and next to the marina and boat launches. In fact, it has 24 waterfront sites, which is more than the other campgrounds. Although they do not have any utilities, there are two comfort stations with showers and restrooms. The park also provides campfire rings with grills and picnic tables at each site.
In addition, the marina and another comfort station are located nearby as well as the beach and picnic area. If you have a boat with you, this is the perfect campground for you because of the larger RV length limits and two boat ramps. Most of the sites can handle rigs up to 30 or 40 feet, but make sure to check this when making your reservation. Pets are welcome too so go ahead and bring them along.
The Deer Campground at Wellesley Island State Park has 40 campsites just to the north of the Fox Campground with 10 of them being waterfront sites on the banks of the St. Lawrence River. That means you can fish, swim, and just enjoy the water while sitting outside your rig. Speaking of the rig, these sites are a bit smaller and many can only handle small popups and trailers 20 feet and shorter.
Although there are no utilities at this campground, there is a comfort station in the common area, which boasts hot showers and large modern restrooms. This camp is also close to the camp store, recreation barn, and golf course. You can bring your dog or cat but keep them restrained and supervised during your stay.
All of the 74 campsites in the Coyote Campground at Wellesley Island State Park have 30- to 50-amp electric hookups. Each site has paved parking pads that will fit RVs and motorhomes from 20 to 40 feet long, picnic tables, and fire rings with grills to cook on. There is a comfort station in the middle of the camp with modern restrooms that have running water and hot showers.
Many of the sites are close to the playground in the Acorn Campground and kids are more than welcome to enjoy it. Pets are welcome here at the Coyote Campground. However, you must keep them on a leash that is six feet or shorter. Also, they must have a rabies shot and be supervised at all times during your stay. Reservations can be made from 24 hours to nine months in advance of your planned visit.
The Blue Jay Campground is located just to the north of the Coyote Campground and northwest of the Acorn Campground. There are 50 sites, seven that have 20- to 30-amp electric hookups. With 21 waterfront sites on the St. Lawrence River, this campground is popular. However, none of these waterfront sites have electricity. All of them have a picnic table and firepit and there is a comfort station with restrooms and showers as well as a second set of restrooms.
With the water so close, you and the family can enjoy some fishing, boating, or swimming without having to go far. You can bring your furbabies with you to the camp as well. But be sure to keep them leashed or otherwise restrained and supervised at all times. Reservations are needed and can be made up to nine months in advance. Most of the sites can accommodate rigs from 20 to 30 feet, but it is best to check that info when booking your spot.
Acorn Campground has 78 primitive campsites without utilities that can handle RVs and trailers from 10 to 40 feet in length. Some of these sites are also only available as tent sites, so you have to check this when you make your reservation. Twelve of the 78 campsites are located right on the banks of the St. Lawrence River. These sites are all pet-friendly so go ahead and let Fido come along for the trip.
Each of the sites has a campfire ring and a picnic table, and there is a comfort station with showers and modern restrooms in the middle of the camp. The campground also has an exciting playground to keep the kids busy while you cook dinner or try to sit and relax. If you need to clean out the black tank, you are in luck because the RV sanitation station is right in the campground.
If you want more of a pampered place to sleep and eat, try one of the 12 Eel Bay Cottages. These spacious sites are located on the southern side of Eel Bay between the Heron Campground and the Minna Anthony Common Nature Center. With a full kitchen, fully furnished living room, restrooms, and bedroom, the cottages are more like home than the cabins. You won’t even have to bring pots and pans, bedding, or towels because they are all provided.
You can cook indoors or outside on the barbecue pit and then sit on the screened porch to watch the sun go down over Eel Bay. The whole family can toss out a rod and catch some dinner or launch the boat nearby at the boat ramp. The kids will also enjoy visiting the nature center and playing at the playground near cottage A. Unfortunately, your furbaby is going to have to miss this experience because pets are not allowed in the cottages.
The 10 Chipmunk Cabins are located between the beach and the Deer Campground near the Canadian border. These cozy cabins have two rooms with two sets of bunk beds to sleep up to four people and two pets. The kitchen and living room area have a refrigerator, microwave, table and chairs as well as an additional seating area. However, there is no water or restrooms. The comfort station nearby has showers and restrooms for all to use.
You will have to cook outdoors if you need more than just a microwave to heat things up. The park provides a campfire ring with a grill as well as a picnic table for your family to eat at. You will need to bring your own bedding and kitchen utensils. You’ll be surrounded by water so you can catch some fish in the river and then cook them up on the grill for dinner. After dinner, relax at the picnic table while enjoying the sunset over the river.
With a full-featured nature museum indoors and 600 acres of island woods, there is much more here than a quick visit will take in. Hiking trails will take you through three miles of granite shoreline, forests, and wetlands. Educational outings, seminars, and talks are happening here all year round. In winter, the center rents snowshoes and cross-country skis to access the preserve in the snow. The kids will enjoy the programs and displays at the nature center, and you will enjoy learning more about the flora and fauna of the area.
Wellesley Island State Park owns and operates a golf course right inside the park. It is a nine-hole course that can be played forward and then in reverse for a full 18-hole game. The park rents clubs and carts for shockingly low rates to make sure that everyone who is interested in playing has no excuse to miss this. It's nice enough to be satisfying to seasoned golfers, but also a great place for kids and beginners to get into the swing of things.
The unique geography of Thousand Islands creates a perfect playground for fishermen. Huge northern pike, walleye, and muskie are pulled from the strikingly clear waters of the St. Lawrence River. There are multiple easy boat launches in the park and a marina with a fish cleaning station. Fishing from Thousand Island requires a license from New York state or the Province of Ontario. Try using some fly-fishing techniques to attract some of those finicky bass and crappie as well as the other top-water feeders.
The large sandy swim beach on the river is very popular in the summer. The state park keeps lifeguards on duty from Memorial Day to Labor Day and the boundaries are clearly marked. There are some rocky areas that are fun to jump from for the kids, and there is plenty of room to spread out chairs and blankets to soak up the sun. The swim beach is also a great place to float around in a small canoe, raft, or kayak. Don’t forget to pack your sunscreen.
Small trails intersect each other constantly as you walk around the park. This makes it possible to hike over eight miles on the fresh trail, but it would be a lot of zigzagging. The terrain is nice and level, and into the nature preserve area, there are miles of trail which access views of the shoreline. It's reasonable to hike from the campground all the way to the small village on the SW corner of the island and explore scenic waterfront homes. There is a wonderful and safe feel all over the island, and visitors regularly let their children roam free and wide without fear.
Several local companies offer guided tours by the water of the Thousand Lakes area. There is something for all. There are romantic and lively sunset cocktail cruises, there are historical tours that will take you to castles and famous homes, and there are full-day trips that explore all the way across to the islands in Canada. If you didn't come with your own boat, make sure you take a tour. The scenery is one of a kind.