It’s a given that New Yorkers (and visitors) do a healthy amount of walking every day, traversing the urban grid to get to their destinations. But did you know that there are acres of natural wilderness to hike all around the City as well? In these pristine paradises, you’ll have to remind yourself that you’re still in New York City, and they’re proof that NYC really does have it all. Just like a day spent exploring the City’s urban jungle, a day in the woods can yield the unexpected, so don’t forget the essentials—nutritious snacks, water, layered clothing (ideally something water-resistant, in case of a shower), a first-aid kit—and you’ll be ready for anything the environment may throw at you.
The Greenbelt in Staten Island is made up of about 2,800 acres of forests, meadows, bodies of water, parks and other natural areas, which altogether form the second-largest park in New York City. Its four trails—Blue, White, Red and Yellow—add up to more than 20 miles, and each offers a unique experience, covering different types of forest and featuring different views. Experienced hikers may want to opt for the Yellow Trail, whose terrain is classified as moderate-to-difficult, while the Red Trail passes by the secluded ruins of the Heyerdahl family house, built in the 1800s and later abandoned when it was realized that a grape orchard could not grow from the rocky soil.
Van Cortlandt Park
Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx has several trails, but the most intriguing may very well be those that don’t end in the Bronx. The Old Croton Aqueduct Trail stretches all the way to Croton-on-Hudson and lets you walk along the aqueduct that brought water to New York City for more than 100 years, until 1955. And the Putnam Trail, which traces a former railroad path, extends more than 50 miles north to Brewster, NY. In coming years, the remainder of the Putnam Trail will be paved, providing cyclists a direct route through the woods from "upstate" to NYC. Van Cortlandt’s other trails are worth checking out as well. For a challenge, the John Muir Trail, which goes east to west, crosses some steep topography. Or for more aquatic landscapes, the John Kieran Trail passes the park’s lake and wetlands.
Surprisingly enough, Brooklyn is home to one of the best natural escapes in NYC. Marine Park’s Salt Marsh Nature Trail (aka Gerritsen Creek Nature Trail) lets you explore the salt marsh habitat, which is home to a wide variety of plants and wildlife. Platforms along the trail allow for especially up-close bird-watching, while signs elaborate on the park’s rich landscape and history.
Alley Pond Park
Alley Pond Park in Queens is unique in that it is composed of both freshwater and saltwater areas, including ponds and natural springs. More than three miles of nature trails weave through the park’s wetlands, and the Alley Pond Park Adventure Program offers a low-cost outdoor educational experience. Children, families and youth groups learn skills like canoeing, fishing, orienteering and more. The Adventure Program also features a ropes course and offers group activities like camping and day and night hikes.
The eastern region of Forest Park is where it’s at when it comes to hiking. (If you’d rather a horse do the hiking for you, it can be arranged at Forest Equine Center or D&D Stables.) Explore the largest oak forest in the country, whose trees range in age up to 150 years. Take the Orange Trail for the most extensive view of the park, while the shorter Blue and Yellow Trails are great for a hike with little tikes.
Gateway National Recreation Area
Gateway National Recreation Area comprises the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge in Brooklyn and Queens as well as Great Kills Park in Staten Island and areas in Sandy Hook, NJ. The outdoor activities hosted by the massive 26,000-plus-acre park run the gamut, but the best in hiking takes place in Jamaica Bay, where guests can hike the Upland, East Pond and West Pond Trails for optimal glimpses of the plants and animals that flourish there—including an endangered species of bird and a prickly pear cactus. Or explore the trails around Fort Tilden, a former US Army post with a nearby freshwater pond and an observatory deck for a rare elevated view of Jamaica Bay and New York Harbor.