HoW to hike here
Every other day or so, I check the Reddit page for my neighborhood, in Astoria. It can often feel like an online community board—equal parts grocery store bulletin and neighborhood-specific Yelp page. People debate best places to eat, post news of restaurant openings and closings, and contribute to the “Rumor Mill,” a weekly roundup of conversation items we’ve all “heard” around the neighborhood. (The rumors are somehow usually right.)
Recently, a user named “so_dope24” asked the forum where they should go hiking the upcoming weekend. And people had dozens of answers: Bear Mountain; the Adirondacks; Breakneck Ridge; and spots along the Hudson that the Metro-North reaches. They pointed to local hiking Meetups, which organized trips upstate, and other resources for prospective outdoorspeople. When I suggested the Greenbelt, in Staten Island, so_dope24 replied, “Wait, really?”
That’s the answer I often get when I mention hiking spots in New York City: a sort of blank, confused stare, followed by questions. Hiking, it seems, is a word you would only expect to use within the city in reference to a tough climb up the subway steps, or a hilly part of a commute home. We were supposed to have conquered nature in Gotham with industry, paved it over with roads, bridges, and subways. Whatever was left of it, we pushed into a park, an REI store, or “upstate.”
But here’s the truth: nearly 14 percent of the city’s entire landmass is parkland. That includes your local playground, small parks, big parks, community gardens, botanical gardens, waterfronts, beachfronts, like the Rockaways and Coney Island, and those pedestrian triangles with just one awkward bench sitting in them. Furthermore, a third of that parkland—a whopping 10,000 acres—is what’s known as “natural area,” the wild landscapes that most people do not associate with New York: wetlands, marshes, urban forests, lakes, ecological habitats, preserves, and other “green and blue spaces.”
We’re quite literally surrounded by 30,000 acres of greenery at all times, but amongst the noise, congestion, and trash, they become “urban oases”—hard to get to, blurry in the distance, and, maybe, even an illusion. For those who can access upstate New York and other trails across the country or worldwide, it’s worth keeping in mind that most New Yorkers never do: in fact, according to one poll, nearly half of New Yorkers’ primary contact with nature is here, in the city.
And that’s why urban hiking may sound strange: if you’re in that other percentile, your own backyard is an afterthought: a last-resort Plan D.
In the decade that I lived in New York, I’ve done my fair share of hiking without leaving the city.
I’ve followed the Bronx River within city borders. it’s a winding, shadowy trail that takes you through the Bronx Zoo, a number of great green spaces, like Bronx Park and Starlight Park, and ends in the marvel of Concrete Plant Park. (Alternatively, you can bike, or kayak down.) You start up in Woodlawn, take it through places with names like Muskrat Cove Park, and will be bemused and horrified, at least a few times, that we allowed Robert Moses to build a highway—literally, The Bronx River Parkway—right through this natural preserve. Because you’ll be right alongside it.
With close friends, I’ve charted the “Giraffe Path,” a trail connecting the parks in upper Manhattan (Jackie Robinson, Morningside, Fort Tryon, amongst others) that a renowned psychiatrist reportedly made to make people who live there happier, and healthier. From Central Park up, it’s an uphill climb, but worthwhile: you’ll hit the High Bridge, The Cloisters, and the island’s only natural forests in no time. And then realize that Manhattan is, in fact, something approaching mountainous. At least above 110th street.
Alongside my partner, Angela, I walked the entire span of Manhattan, from Inwood down to Bowling Green. For the reasons above, we went top to bottom: we took the 1 to 215th Street, hopped off, and started in Muscota Marsh, a remarkable outlook that recently housed a seal. Along the way, we hit landmarks like the Dyckman Farmhouse, the stunning Morris-Jumel Mansion, which is nearby Sylvan Terrace, a picaresque stretch of age-old houses, and Grant’s Tomb, where the Union general and 18th president is buried.
And finally, I’ve maneuvered through the Greenbelt, a trail through the heart of Staten Island that will trick you into believing that the “forgotten borough” is somewhere deep in the Catskills. It is outfitted with summer-camp-style lakes, forests, and Todt Hill, the highest natural point in New York, which offers better views of the Statue of Liberty and Manhattan than most money can buy. When I was there last, the local Boy Scout troop was, too.
If you’ve never heard of these trails, you’re not alone—most of the time, I was by myself on them. Forget the general public; often times, even the surrounding populations are unaware. That’s a PR fail on behalf of our city. In fact, it wasn’t until 2016 that for the first time ever we had a map of all the trails in New York’s wilderness—courtesy of the Natural Areas Conservancy (NAC), which protects those landscapes.
The trails in parks, unfortunately, are poorly maintained: roads are upended, wayfinding is sometimes non-existent, and flooding can be a serious problems. What we do offer hikers we do not take care of well. The next question is a classic chicken-and-the-egg: which came first? Lack of people, or insufficient institutional attention?
However we got here, it’s never been easier to hike in the city. Google Maps and other outdoors-focused apps have each of these trails mentioned. WalkNYC wayfinding terminals—the ones that look like the black monoliths from 2001: A Space Odyssey—are all over. And finally, the city is making a concerted effort to bring this part of our city back to life; recently, NAC and the city’s Parks Department announced a plan to preserve the city’s urban forests. The New York Times headline nailed the confusion: “A Plan for New York City’s Forests. Yes, Forests.” (Of which there are many. See: Forest Park, Queens.)
Out on the trails, you’re in a different city. One where you can find real isolation: not among the teeming millions, but beyond them. You can start to lose the feeling we have about the city as a moving, speeding, crashing world of metal, filled with high-rises we can’t afford and subways that never work. It is that, too, but it’s also a place that is teeming with green.
John Surico is a freelance journalist and researcher who covers New York City transit for VICE and frequently contributes to the New York Times. He is a contributing editor at Newest York.
George Etheredge is a New York City-based photographer from North Carolina. He works regularly for the New York Times and has also contributed to TIME, CNN, WSJ Magazine, Modern Farmer, ZEIT Magazine, among others.