Winter in Onondaga County Parks

By Mary Beth Roach

From the dazzling light displays of Lights on the Lake at Onondaga Lake Park to the serene
winterscapes at Highland Forest, Onondaga County parks has something for everyone during the winter season.

Recognized as the No. 1 holiday tradition in Central New York, Lights on the Lake for the 2021-22 season is bigger than ever, with more than 200 displays, including a dragon and a huge Christmas tree, according to Onondaga County Parks Commissioner Brian Kelley.

The 2020-21 season set a record attendance figure, with 56,000 cars going through the two-mile display, Kelley said.

This season’s event will run through Jan. 9, and tickets are available online only, like last year.

Ticket prices are $6 Monday and Tuesday, $10 Wednesday and Thursday, $20 Friday-Sunday, per vehicle. Different fees apply to mini-buses and motorcoaches. For more information and to order tickets visit Lights on the Lake info at

Attendance records were also set last winter at both Beaver Lake Nature Center in Baldwinsville and Highland Forest in Fabius, Kelley said.

Beaver Lake offers trails for both cross-country skiers and snowshoers, and is especially popular among snowshoers, Kelley noted. There are three separate trails for snowshoers, plus a snowshoeing clinic and weekend guided walks. Registration is required for the clinic and the walks, and can be made by calling 315-638-2519. Snowshoes are also available for rent.

Cross-country skiers have seven miles of trails to enjoy at Beaver Lake, but there are no ski rentals.

For those who simply want to walk through the winter wonderland there, specific trails have been set aside.

With about 30 miles of trails for cross-country skiers and another 20 for snowshoers, Highland Forest is another favorite county park for the winter enthusiast. About 20 miles of the ski trails are groomed or track-set, with the remaining 10 for those who prefer to make their own trails or are more familiar with backcountry skiing.

The county invites cross-country skiers and snowshoers to try the West Shore Trail, along Onondaga Lake, near the St. Joe’s Amphitheater this season. The site, which is about four miles long, offers beautiful views of the Lake and because it’s flat, an ideal location for beginners, Kelley pointed out.

Parking is available at the north entrance of the trail, across from Long Branch Park or on the south end, in a designated portion of the NYS Fair Orange Lot.

At Long Branch and Highland Forest, sledding is available. Guests need to bring their own sleds. Snowboarding is not allowed.

One of the most popular ways to spend a winter day is on a horse-drawn sleigh ride at Highland Forest. The rides are available on weekends from Dec. 11 to Feb. 27, from 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. It’s $8 per person or $5 for ages 5 and younger. Reservations required, and can be made by calling 315-289-3775 or 607-345-2152.

Kelley also suggests a trip to the Rosamond Gifford Zoo at Burnet Park, with its approximate 700 animals and more than 215 species. Many of the cold-weather species are quite active during the Central New York winters, like red pandas, snow leopards, Amur tigers, Amur leopards, two-humped camels, gray wolves, red wolves, North American river otters and a new arrival, a lively young Andean bear named Bjorn.

Among other exhibits, Rosamond Gifford Zoo at Burnet Park features feature the Penguin Coast, home to some playful Humboldt penguins.
Among other exhibits, Rosamond Gifford Zoo at Burnet Park features feature the Penguin Coast, home to some playful Humboldt penguins.

The outdoor exhibits feature the Penguin Coast, home to some playful Humboldt penguins and the Helga Beck Asian Elephant Preserve. These magnificent animals can be viewed through windows while indoors but often come out to play in the snow in winter.

Included in the indoor exhibits are the Diversity of Birds aviary, a tropical rainforest exhibit with many exotic birds; the Social Animals wing, home to several species of primates as well as Naga the Komodo dragon’s winter quarters; and nocturnal animals such as sloths, fennec foxes, and lesser anteaters called tamanduas.

A new attraction at the zoo is the Animal Health Center, expected to be open in December. The 20,000-square foot facility will allow visitors to observe animal health care in action through viewing windows into exam, treatment, surgical and lab rooms. Zoo visitors are welcome to venture in and observe animal health care in action.

The zoo will celebrate the holidays with several special events.

During the zoo’s Holiday Nights, families can stroll through the zoo after-hours on Fridays and Saturdays during December. It will be decorated with sparkling light displays and seasonal treats and pop-up entertainment will be offered. Tickets will be $7 for zoo members and $8 non-members in advance, $8 members and $9 non-members at the door. Info and tickets at

On Sunday, Dec. 12, it’s Holidays with the Animals, as visitors watch the animals as they enjoy their gift-wrapped holiday treats. It’s free with zoo admission; Find the schedule at

And during “Noon Year’s Eve,” families can ring in the new year in a special celebration from 10 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 31. There will be entertainment, a dance party and a ball drop countdown at noon! Free with zoo admission.

The zoo’s Snow Leopard Days will run during January and February, when admission is about half price to encourage winter visitation. For more information and rates, visit

With life being a little chaotic and uncertain during the last few months, Kelley said, “We certainly offer a place that people can come and clear their minds. It’s proven that physical activity is really good for the mind, and the body and the soul.”

For more information on county parks, including rates and trail maps, visit and click on your favorite park or activity.

One of the most popular ways to spend a winter day is on a horse-drawn sleigh ride at Highland Forest in Fabius.