A trip to a nature preserve in most huge American cities will cost you an energy-sapping drive through sprawling “chain-store ghost towns” and subdivisions, but New York City is full of places where the concrete ends and the region’s sundry ecosystems take over. The Giuliani regime may have made a step toward bleaching street life, but it can’t eclipse the city’s legacy of green-oriented urban planners and progressive conservationists (not to mention guerrilla gardeners). Beyond Central Park, Prospect Park, and the other staples lie some of the richest pieces of this legacy. Getting to a lot of these spots takes some extra time, but that’s exactly what keeps any good boondock hideaway from being overrun.
With New York City’s most comfortable season on its way (on average, there are actually more sunny days in September and October than in the summer), you may want to spend your lunch money on a map. What follows is a selection of some of the city’s best fall getaway spots. All are accessible by public transportation and have excellent paths for exploring.
Five-Borough Foliage Hunt
The city’s anemic street trees just don’t possess the chlorophyll for a blitz of fall color, but every borough has a few stunning forest preserves with the kind of mottled awtum splenda that Northeasterners rave about.
STATEN ISLAND The info-packed Wild New York field guide conducted a survey a few years back to find the healthiest forest ecosystem in the five boroughs. The Staten Island Greenbelt took the prize. Officially designated in 1984, this 2500-acre “belt” is made up of public and private recreational land threaded together with 28 miles of hiking trails (most of which are accessible by bus or train). It’s nothing less than a godsend for outdoor enthusiasts — and Staten Island teens who spraypaint pot leaves on the rocks. Don’t miss the surreal hike up to the top of Todt Hill, which is the Atlantic coast’s peak point south of Maine. The rentable rowboats at Clove Lakes Park (718-390-8000) are another incentive. Call High Rock Park (718-667-2165) for a comprehensive map of the Greenbelt.
THE BRONX Nudging right up against Westchester County, the Bronx’s overlooked Van Cortlandt Park (718-430-1890) holds some of the city’s most untethered woodlands, the Northwest Forest being the crown jewel. The park’s varied terrain also makes for ideal hiking. A lesser-known treasure is the Old Putnam Trail, a defunct commuter rail that once ran all the way up to Putnam County. You can access this trail from its point adjacent to the No. 1 train stop at 242nd, where it leads all the way out of the park and into Westchester County! Some of the fairly unmanaged stretches of the Old Put — with its wide, smooth dirt path and rusted bridges and platforms — are the perfect place to reenact a scrubby East Coast version of Stand by Me, or maybe a Boogie Down version of the Andy Griffith intro.
QUEENS Say a prayer for all those fermented street puddles when you visit the glacial kettle ponds, tidal creek, and spring-fed pond at the 600-plus-acre Alley Pond Park (800-201-PARK). The borough’s largest preserve is also one of the most pristine natural areas in the entire city. Between the park’s saltwater and freshwater sections are trails that blaze through lush stands of black oak and beech trees.
MANHATTAN “There’s no place like home!” cries the clueless Manhattanite as he clicks his loafers together in the woods of the island’s own Inwood Hill Park (408-0264). The joke’s on him — though who would guess that Manhattan had any native forest left at all, much less this teeming 196-acre tract at the island’s northern tip? Wild New York ranked Inwood Hill third in its Forest Eco-Awards survey (Van Cortlandt’s Northwest Forest ranked second).
BROOKLYN Flushing Victorian ideals of natural beauty down the toilet, the bizarre municipal-airport-turned-park in Floyd Bennett Field (718-338-3799) is one of the most uncommonly beautiful landscapes in the five boroughs. Accessing and exploring it (by bus or by bike) is time-consuming, but once you get out to this bayside prairie in Jamaica Bay — where old airplane runways cut through the city’s largest grasslands preserve, and the hazy Manhattan skyline hangs in the distance — you’ll be thankful. The fall-foliage attraction here, also uncommon, can be found along the intimate North Forty Nature Trail, which winds through a very diverse stand of young coastal forest. The absence of dark canopy makes for a cheerful and ultracolorful ramble. Keep in mind that up and around the bay in Queens, Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge (718-318-4340) offers many more trails.
Creature From the Black Lagoon and its many knockoffs probably didn’t help popularize brackish, hyperfertile ecosystems like bogs, swamps, and marshes. But during the day, New York’s waterlogged landscapes are as transcendental as they are scary. Here are some prime places to explore, with well-maintained trails and nothing following you — except for the mosquitoes, unless you wait until around the second week of September for them to die down.
NEW YORK’S BIGGEST PARK Besides the crowds at Orchard Beach, you never hear much about Pelham Bay Park (800-201-PARK), yet it’s New York City’s largest. Though highways and golf courses twist through its 2700-plus acres, there are some nice isolated nooks here. The premier wet attraction is the salt marsh on Hunter Island, which includes trails. Salt marshes are more than just mosquitoes and mud, and you may never sweat the same once you catch a glimpse of the tightly threaded, highly productive ecosystem that thrives in New York’s humid climate. You may also have an out-of-NYC experience when you catch your first peek of Long Island Sound and its rocky shores.
THE GATE AWAY Floyd Bennett Field is just one component of the 26,000-acre Gateway National Recreation Area (718-338-3799), one of the first two urban national parks (the other is Golden Gate Park in San Francisco), with access to shoreline all over Jamaica Bay, the Rockaways, and New York Harbor, including sections in Staten Island and New Jersey. More than 150 species of birds stop by on their trek along the 10,000-mile Atlantic Flyway, making Gateway a world-class birding destination — and granting all of us jaded city slickers imported birds to go along with our imported everything else. The September flurry of monarch butterflies at this park, along with Gateway’s Breezy Point Tip, Fort Tilden, and Jacob Riis Park (as well as Great Kills Park on Staten Island), are all must-sees, as are the wild beaches at these last four parks.
STATEN ISLAND SLOP Topping it all off is the Staten Island Bluebelt (718-390-8000), a loosely linked network of wetlands and watery woodlands that isn’t as integrated as the Greenbelt, but worth a dozen or more day trips. The fact that you sometimes have to wander through suburban yards and between houses to get from one park to another only makes it more of a Huck Finn odyssey. Blue Heron Park (800-201-PARK) and Wolfe’s Pond Park (718-984-8266), adjacent to one another and spotted with idyllic freshwater ponds, glistening swamps, and forests, are sensible places to start your Bluebelt foray.
This is just the beginning. Visit the New York City Parks Department’s website or search the Green Apple Map for the big picture. Or better yet, dig through the 2000-plus volumes at the Parks Library (Central Park Arsenal, 64th and Fifth Ave, room 240, 360-8240).