The Greenbelt: Staten Island's Hidden Jewel
by Heather Liang, 09/17/2014
One of New York City's best-kept secrets is the Staten Island Greenbelt—a network of lush parks, wetlands, open meadows and hiking trails located in what is often referred to as NYC's "greenest borough." Protected by the Greenbelt Conservancy (in partnership with the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation), this nearly 3,000-acre natural resource is home to the City's largest remaining forest preserve—something of note in such a rapidly developing borough. Within the Greenbelt there are natural sections (some of which are accessible to the public) along with more traditional parks. The Greenbelt hosts more than 1 million visitors annually and offers many activities in addition to hiking, such as birding, fitness classes, golf, tennis and carousel rides. For more about this nature-rich area, read on.
In an effort to preserve the area's natural beauty, the Greenbelt was formally designated in 1984. Spread throughout the center of the borough, the vast landmass extends from Todt Hill on the north end to Arden Heights on the south. From east to west, it's bordered by the New Dorp and Travis neighborhoods. The Greenbelt Nature Center is a good first stop on your tour. It contains exhibitions about Greenbelt history, geography, events and what there is to see in the vicinity. The center is also home to programs and other activities. The easiest way to reach the Greenbelt—and navigate it—is by car. Those without access to their own transportation can take the free-of-charge Staten Island Ferry and then catch the S62 bus, which stops at the entrance to the centrally located Willowbrook Park. Other parts of the Greenbelt are also accessible by bus; visit the Greenbelt's directions page for more information.
The Greenbelt Conservancy oversees many parks and other natural areas in Staten Island, and within its system are some of the borough's richest green spaces. The cornerstone of the Greenbelt is High Rock Park, known for its deeply wooded areas, quiet ponds and various wetlands. Designated a Natural Environmental Education Landmark by the US Department of the Interior in 1971, High Rock Park contains the Greenbelt Conservancy's headquarters. Also part of the Greenbelt is Willowbrook Park, home to hiking trails, tennis courts, baseball and archery fields, a lake, shaded picnic grove, playground and the famous Carousel for All Children (open May–October). Freshkills Park was once the world's largest landfill but is currently being transformed into a space dedicated to environmental sustainability and ecological restoration. The park will be constructed in phases over the next 30 years, and upon its completion, it will be the largest park developed in the City in more than 100 years. (It will be nearly three times the size of Central Park.)
What to Do
The number of activities available in the Greenbelt seems endless: fishing, birding, hiking, sports, family activities, classes—the list goes on. The best way to experience the abundance of nature is via the 35 miles of hiking trails. There are six trails to choose from, offering various experiences for people of differing abilities—the Blue, White and Red Trails are easier to navigate, while the Yellow Trail is the most physically demanding. Other options include the Nature Center Trail and Multipurpose Trail. More information (including a detailed map) can be found here. The La Tourette Park Golf Course was once a flourishing family-run farm that was sold to the City in 1928 and designated a New York City Landmark in 1973. The 1870 mansion that sits on the land is now used as the public golf course's clubhouse. Also included are a putting green and driving range to help you refine your skills. Runners will enjoy taking part in the annual Fall Flat 5K run that takes place before Thanksgiving and is suitable for novices and veterans alike. Take advantage of the many indoor activities offered in the Greenbelt Recreation Center, including tai chi, ballroom dance classes, after-school programs for children ages 6–13, piano lessons and computer-training classes. The Greenbelt Nature Center and carousel are available to rent for private parties.
What to See
In addition to the many activities offered, the Greenbelt affords the opportunity to observe the local flora and fauna. Spend your time exploring the assortment of plants that call Staten Island home, including red maples, highbush blueberries and patches of skunk cabbage. The Greenbelt also houses a significant amount of wildlife, such as muskrats, frogs, turtles, snakes, deer, geese and several types of fish—some of which can be seen up close as part of the catch-and-release program here. Birdwatchers can revel in the many avian species that can be found in these parts, like blue herons, woodpeckers, migrating colorful warblers, juncos, white-throated sparrows, finches and owls.
Whether you're looking to take a hike, attend a class, have a picnic, ride the carousel or sign your child up for summer camp, the Greenbelt has you covered. Further details about the programs, classes and other activities can be found by visiting sigreenbelt.org, which also contains a calendar of events and information about the many ways you can help preserve this area.