Take a hike along 300 miles of trails through some of the oldest forests in the city, and past 10,000 acres of wild and untouched natural areas, glacial potholes, and bedrock you can see and touch.
You’ll come across all kinds of wildlife, from the majestic ospreys nesting high up on utility poles to turtles sunbathing on rocks in the ponds.
Along the way, you can also visit historic places that give a glimpse of Old New York and tell the story of the greatest city on the planet..
Here’s the NYCOTC guide to the best NYC parks and trails in each borough for social distancing, according to the Urban Park Rangers of the NYC Dept. of Parks.
Great places to start are Central Park’s Literary Walk and around the Bow Bridge, and Brooklyn’s Prospect Park’s Pond, and Alley Pond Park in Queens, to see the tallest tree in New York City.
Find the borough-by-borough listing on the NYC Parks Dept. website.
When the pandemic is over, you’ll be able to take FREE guided hikes once again in all five boroughs with NYC’s Urban Park Rangers.
In the meantime, these parks and trails are easy to navigate without a guide.
The parks, and the hikes, are FREE
Best Parks for Social Distancing – Manhattan
Inwood Hill Park
Trees to see: Oak, hickory, Tulip poplars
There’s no wrong place here, at the very northern tip of Manhattan, where NYCOTC Editor Evelyn Kanter grew up, and where Peter Minuit purchased the island from the local Manhatta tribe for just $24, probably the best real estate deal in the history of the universe.
One recommended route is along the blue trail, a marked trail that picks up at the Gaelic Field in the northern side of the park and leads up to the Overlook, which will give you a gorgeous view of the Hudson River and the Palisades.
Inwood Hill Park Hiking Trail takes you through the last natural forest in Manhattan, and treated to picture postcard views of the Hudson River. Allow two hours to complete this trail, which is about two miles.
Especially the Promenade between 79th and 95th Streets, and Cherry Walk, between 97th and 125th Streets. Plus, there are views across the Hudson River.
Just about anywhere in this 840-acre urban oasis is ideal for fall foliage.
Always popular is the area around the famous Bow Bridge, and now that the equally iconic Belvedere Castle has re-opened after a lengthy restoration, the view from the terrace.
Check the park’s own autumn guide to Sugar maples, Black Tupelo and more of the 20,000 trees dotting what is arguably the best and most famous urban park on the planet.
Best Parks for Social Distancing – Brooklyn
- Fort Greene Park
- Trees to see: Massive London plane trees, oaks, elms, gingkos, osage orange trees
The park is small enough that you can meander through the whole thing. Just don’t forget to climb to its apex and check out the view from the hill.
Most of NYC’s salt marshes have been paved over for development, so it’s a treat to be able to commune with egrets, herons and other birds at Salt Marsh Nature Trail.
This trail is about one mile long, past prairie grass and along the Gerritsen Beach shoreline toward Jamaica Bay.
Brooklyn Bridge Park Pier 1
Seek out the small, winding forest-like trails, and photo-perfect skyline views of Lower Manhattan.
To see: a scenic overlook of Jamaica Bay and surrounding neighborhoods, a sandy shoreline that ducks and geese love
To see: more than five hundred acres of preserved natural areas, ospreys nesting, an island just for birds, remnants of the first tide-powered mill in North America
Paerdegat Basin Park
To see: an upland coastal forest that includes a scenic view of Paerdegat Basin which is a 1.25-mile channel that empties into Jamaica Bay in nearby Bergen Beach
Best Parks for Social Distancing – Bronx
Van Cortlandt Park
Trees to see: Oaks, hickory
Van Cortlandt is filled with nature trails that pass through gorgeous native hardwoods, including the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail, the Putnam Trail, the Muir Trail, and the John Kieran Trail.
The John Muir Trail is named for the 19th Century naturalist, author, environmental philosopher, and early advocate to preserve wilderness in the United States.
He also was a friend of fellow environmentalist President Teddy Roosevelt, and influenced him to create the National Park System.
To see: hills, ridges, and valleys, a wetland with rare pumpkin ash trees, a forest of red oak, tulip, and hickory trees, historic stone buildings, and a scenic freshwater lake.
Bronx River Forest
To see: New York City’s only freshwater river, a floodplain forest, Bronx River Island
To see: an oak-hickory forest, a small pine grove, and a red oak- and tulip tree-dominated forest, as well as stunning views of the New Jersey Palisades and the Hudson River from a viewing platform
Best Parks for Social Distancing – Queens
Alley Pond Park
Trees to see: Pin oaks, white pine, black cherries, black oak, flowering dogwood, black locust, American beech, red oaks, sweetgum, red maple, tulip trees
Choose between several of the park’s official walking paths, although the most popular are the green trail and the white trail.
The Green Trail is especially tree-filled, surrounded by tulip trees and some sassafrass. Those that venture down the white trail will get to see the Queens Giant.
Take the Tulip Tree Trail to see the park’s most famous resident, a 450-year-old tulip tree considered the oldest tree in New York, which stands in an ancient forest.
At 133 feet high, this is the tallest tree in New York City and possibly the oldest living thing in the metropolitan area..
There’s also a wonderful view of the park’s natural salt marsh.
To see: a beach overlooking the bay (perfect for birdwatching), a maritime forest, and a bayberry grove
To see: a century-old pine Grove, the largest continuous oak forest in Queens, Richmond Hill War Memorial, Strack Pond
Willow Lake – Flushing Meadows Corona Park
To see: a freshwater wetland that offers visitors scenic views of the lake and abundant opportunity for bird watching and wildlife viewing
Best Parks for Social Distancing – Staten Island
Trees to see: oak, hickory, beech, maple, sweetgum, and tulip trees
This natural treasure in the heart of Staten Island has some 35 miles of walking trails along the crest of the Serpentine Ridge and through one of the last undisturbed forests in New York City.
You’ll see a wide variety of native trees, as well as a rare species of fern, glacial ponds, and a 16-acre lake. Keep your eyes peeled for any animals and birds making their home in the forest.
The Yellow Trail is a real hike, but worth the effort for NYC skyline views from the top of Todt Hill or Moses’ Mountain, where you might catch a glimpse of bald eagles.
It’s an eight mile day-trip, that also passes through Basket Willow Swamp, a 47-acre patch of purple willow planted in the 1800s to grow the reeds for basketmaking.
Conference House Park
To see: New York City’s “south pole”, beachside views, the house where the failed Revolutionary War peace conference took place in 1776
To see: a native hardwood forest, kettle ponds, a trail loop ideal for dog walkers
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What’s your favorite NYC spot in any one of the many NYC parks?photos courtesy NYC Dept. of Parks and Recreation
This article was published originally in 2014 as a Fall Foliage guide and is updated annually