Hello, dear readers! Hope you’re doing well and staying healthy. If you’re looking to get back in shape now that the tri-state area is reopening, how about doing some hiking? While we were in lockdown, my husband and I got a bit antsy being cooped up in our apartment all the time. So, we decided to start spending our Saturday afternoons hiking, and we’ve discovered several amazing parks and preserves all within about an hour’s drive of NYC.
#1 The Staten Island Greenbelt, NY
Even during the COVID lockdown, New Yorkers were still encouraged to go outside and get some exercise, and we fully took advantage of one of the five boroughs’ best-hidden treasures: the Staten Island Greenbelt.
Early in the pandemic, we weren’t super comfortable venturing too far from home, so we spent every Saturday from mid-March through April exploring all of the Greenbelt, which is a 2,800-acre swath of land smack dab in the middle of Staten Island. There are 35 miles of trails spread out across seven different major trails, each of which is surprisingly unique.
The hubs of the Greenbelt are at the Greenbelt Nature Center and High Rock Park, which means if you start your hikes there you’ll tend to encounter more people on the trails. However, these are the best jumping-off points if you want to climb atop Moses Mountain, a hill made from the rubble cleared during the construction of the Staten Island Expressway!
For a more socially-distanced hike, though, you can start with the White Trail on the northern end of the Greenbelt at Willowbrook Park. It took us a while to find the trail entrance, but you’ll find it back behind the archery field (yes, there is also an archery field here!)
Our favorite trail, though, is the Blue Trail. You can pick up the Blue Trail near the Petrides Educational Complex, where there’s a huge parking lot right next to the trailhead. You’ll get in some decent uphill climbing about 10-15 minutes into this trail, and you’ll also need to cross the street to continue on to the next wooded section of the trail.
This isn’t a loop trail, so if you prefer to start at the other end of the Blue Trail instead, you’ll pass by the spooky abandoned Seaview Hospital complex. In the middle of the Blue Trail, you’ll circle around the bottom of the Latourette Golf Course and walk along some delightful narrow trails that made me feel like we were on a hobbit quest of some sort.
No matter where you go in the Greenbelt, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised to find such a wonderful outdoor escape right in New York City!
#2 Inwood Hill Park, NY
At the very tippy-top of Manhattan, you’ll find another hidden NYC treasure: Inwood Hill Park. I guarantee that you will never believe you’re still in Manhattan when you hike one of the park’s three marked trails.
In several spots you will still hear the roar of the nearby Henry Hudson Parkway, but as you stroll along, you’ll enjoy the very last natural forest that remains on the isle of Manhattan. Some of the trees are massive – they’re so tall that even on a hot, sunny day, you’ll be perfectly cool and shaded as you wander the trails.
Each of the trails (Orange, Blue, and White) is under two miles long, so it’s easy enough to walk them all in one visit to Inwood Hill Park. However, be aware that they are not as well-marked as they are in the Greenbelt, and there are many unmarked paved paths that wind through the park as well. We found ourselves guessing which way to go a couple times, but we would usually end up back on track even when we took a wrong turn.
While the Blue and Orange trails mostly have you walking atop the hill in the heart of the park, the White trail briefly connects with a nice paved trail that takes you under the highway through a couple cool old tunnels.
On the White Trail, you’ll also walk under the Henry Hudson bridge and maybe even catch a glimpse of a train crossing the Spuyten Duyvil swing bridge. Back within the wooded section of the park, there is a gorgeous old stone staircase, caves, and magnificent views of the rocky hillside.
If you’ve mostly kept to Central Park when spending time in Manhattan, you really need to make a trip up to Inwood Hill Park to enjoy this less well-known (and much less crowded!) natural NYC wonder.
#3 Welwyn Preserve, NY
A bit further afield on Long Island is the Welwyn Preserve. We first visited Welwyn last year because, in addition to being home to a former Pratt family estate, it is also the site of some excellent graffiti-covered ruins, and who doesn’t love finding that kind of stuff on a hike??
It’s hard to find a trail map or any useful info on how best to find the ruins at Welwyn, but I’ve outlined some instructions for direct access to help save you some time. We decided to just wander the first time we were there and only came across the ruins by accident.
Aside from the ruins, there is a paved path off of the parking lot and a woodsy trail off the garden, both of which lead down to Welwyn’s private beach where you have excellent views of the Long Island Sound and Connecticut across the way. If you walk east along the beach, you’ll pick up a trail that winds through the nature preserve. There’s a salt marsh where you can do a little bird-watching, a hidden pond, and even a couple creeks to jump over as you stroll along.
I hear that kids love the graffiti-covered buildings but be aware that some of the words and imagery may not be kid-appropriate. Also, keep an eye on the little ones as they explore, as there are several holes, missing stairways, and drop-offs that could cause a bit of harm. There’s also plenty of rust and suspect objects lying about, so maybe just keep that in mind in case you don’t want to rush your kid (or yourself) to urgent care for an emergency tetanus shot.
#4 Hartshorne Woods, NJ
Our first hiking adventure outside of the NY-metro area took us down the shore to Hartshorne Woods, which is a 736-acre county park located in Monmouth County, NJ. You’ll find it right in the town of Atlantic Highlands just before you cross the bridge over to Sandy Hook, NJ. The trails are soft, even, and more sandy than rocky, which makes hiking here much easier on the knees and ankles.
Within the park, there are 16 miles of well-marked trails, and even during a short 4-5 mile hike, you’ll be amazed at how much the scenery and terrain changes. The trees here are very tall and give good shade, and some sections of the park seemed almost jungle-like. We did the Grand Tour loop from the Rocky Point entrance and felt like it was an easy/moderate hike with lots of variety.
In addition to welcoming hikers, Hartshorne is also a popular location for mountain-bikers, so keep an eye out while hiking as they tend to zip down through those narrow trails at a pretty fast pace. The trails are shared between bikers and hikers, and some areas don’t leave you much room to step aside to let them pass you by.
When you’re done on the trails, there are several very cool old bunkers you can explore, as Hartshorne is home to what was once known as Battery Lewis, a coastal defense site. In one of the casemates (which has a beautiful waterfront view, by the way) you will find a replica of an old WWII era 16-inch gun. Although we mainly came to Hartshorne for the hiking, we enjoyed this little slice of history, too!
When we visited in mid-May, parking at the Rocky Point entrance was limited to half capacity due to COVID, but there was a lot of street parking nearby in town. We parked on the street and walked up the hill and into the park with no issues, and it really wasn’t crowded once we got out on the trails.
However, we did go to Hartshorne Woods before the Jersey Shore opened up for the summer, so traffic to the park and foot traffic within the park may be much heavier now that shore season is in full swing. We won’t likely head back until after Labor Day ourselves as a result because we definitely prefer a quieter and less crowded hike!
#5 Ramapo Mountain State Forest, NJ
Not far from the NJ/NY state line you’ll find New Jersey’s Ramapo Mountain State Forest, with more than 20 miles of hiking trails. I first visited this park more than a decade ago to visit the old abandoned Van Slyke Castle, but as luck would have it this year, it was impossible to park anywhere near the trailhead to make a return visit.
There are two designated parking areas on the east side of the park, the northern one of which will allow you closest access to the castle. Both of these lots were full with lines of cars waiting for a spot, so we decided to head the three miles over to the west side of the park to Back Beach Park, which has a huge parking lot and an access trail that puts you right into Ramapo.
From the parking lot, we hiked up to the red Cannonball Trail, which runs alongside beautiful Ramapo Lake. It is difficult to get in alongside the lake, but there are a few cutouts in the trees that will allow you to get closer to the water for a rather picturesque picnic spot.
From the lake, we briefly joined the blue MacEvoy trail before climbing up the orange Wanaque Ridge Trail. The views from the ridgeline were spectacular, and worth the sweat and effort it took to reach the top. Even better, there were hardly any other hikers on the ridge trail making it rather peaceful to have the place nearly to ourselves.
The trails near the lake are pretty flat and easy and really more like roads than hiking trails. If you’re not looking for a challenge, stick to the lake. Otherwise, climb up the ridge or hike up to the castle to really get the heart pumping!
#6 Norvin Green State Forest, NJ
Just to the west of Ramapo Mountain is a lovely park called Norvin Green State Forest, which has more than a dozen different hiking trails, some of which were created from old logging trails. As you drive closer to the park, you’ll also get to enjoy gorgeous views of the beautiful and expansive Wanaque Reservoir.
The great news about Norvin Green is that there are multiple parking areas, so if your preferred lot is full, chances are you’ll be able to find something nearby and choose a different, but no less spectacular, adventure.
The park is divided into two major sections, and we decided to head to the northern part to hike the Manaticut Point loop trail, which is just about 4.5 miles long. When possible, we prefer a loop trail so that we don’t have to backtrack so much (a problem with a lot of the hikes in the Greenbelt), and this loop trail in Norvin Green has ever-changing scenery throughout.
You’ll walk alongside the reservoir, hop some creeks, climb up to a couple different summits, and walk past a charming little gazebo in someone’s backyard that sits alongside the park’s trail.
There’s a nice long road alongside the trailhead with plenty of parking available, so if the southern section of the park is too crowded, head up here instead to get your hike on. If you take this trail counter-clockwise, most of the climbing will happen in the second half of the trail. If you prefer to get the climbing out of the way, go clockwise instead when you get to the start of the loop.
#7 Harriman State Park, NY
Once you’ve gotten some hikes in at the places listed above, you might be ready to start to tackle some of the hikes in New York’s beautiful Harriman State Park. Just north of the NJ/NY state line, Harriman is the second-largest park in New York and has about 200 miles of hiking trails, so you could spend a lot of time hiking here and still not cover it all.
I recommend getting practice in at other parks first mainly because the two most challenging hikes we’ve done this year have been at Harriman. We’re talking some serious uphill climbing and a fair amount of rock scrambling. On both occasions, we wanted to just give up and go back home, but in the end, we’re glad we stuck it out. (And lived to tell the tale!)
Our first hike started on Johnstown Road, where we got the last spot in the circular parking lot. Here we hiked up the Blue Disc trail to the red Tuxedo – Mountain Ivy trail and then back to our car along the White Bar trail. The Blue Disc section was incredibly challenging, but once you reach the top the views will soothe your pain. And the second half of your journey will be a pretty gentle decline back down, so easy on the heart and easy on the knees.
The second time we went to Harriman, we picked up the Long Path trail on the east side of the park, hiked up to Big Hill and Jackie Jones Mountain, and even climbed up a fire tower, which gave us beautiful views of nearby Lake Welch. The climb here wasn’t quite as steep as the Blue Disc but it was constant incline for the first half of the hike. It was warmer and more humid on that hike, too, and we truly thought we’d die before we made it back to our car.
Again, well worth the sweat and effort it in the end, but definitely do your research before venturing out to Harriman, especially if you’re new to hiking. There are many tempting trails here, but conquer those marked as “easy” before moving on to the more challenging adventures.
We’ve taken a bit of a break from hiking the last couple of weekends since it’s not as much fun to hit the trails when it’s hot, humid, and sunny, but as the temps start to drop in the coming weeks we’ll be getting back out there.
Overall, we’ve really been struck by how much natural beauty there is so close to the hustle and bustle of New York City. If you have access to a car for a day and are craving the outdoors, I hope you’ll get out to one of these amazing spots soon. And if you have other spots you’d recommend, drop us a line in the comments below!
- Boots: Buy some boots! Hiking around NY and NJ typically entails steep hills and rocky, uneven terrain. Boots will give you support and stability and help keep you on track. Many trails, especially in the Greenbelt, are also often muddy and not best traversed in sneakers. Buy boots well in advance of your hike and break them in with regular walks in your neighborhood – do not wear brand new boots on a hike!
- Trip Planning: AllTrails is a great resource for planning hikes. You can read reviews from other hikers, as well as details on elevation, mileage, ease of hike, and more. Local hiking blogs, like Scenes From the Trail, also serve as a great resource for knowing what to expect out on the trail. Most importantly, don’t set out thinking you’re doing a short, easy hike and find yourself in a position where you don’t have the energy to get back to where you started. Have a plan!
- Find the Right Map: Be sure you check the official website for wherever you intend to hike so you’ll have the most up-to-date trail map. The Greenbelt in particular has changed a lot, and we found ourselves very lost one day only to discover we were using an outdated map! (We did, however, find a very cool lighthouse while trying to get back on track, so not a totally unfortunate incident.)
- Printed Maps: In addition to ensuring you consult the correct trail map, ALWAYS bring a printed trail map with you on your hikes. AllTrails is great, but unless you pay for the premium plan, you won’t have access to offline maps, which are essential in the woods where cell service may be limited or nonexistent. (Pro Tip: If you want to buy AllTrails premium, sign up for a free account and email notices and wait for a sale – they often offer a 50% discount, especially around holiday weekends.)
- Parking Capacity: Many parks are enforcing COVID capacity limits, and parking lots can fill up early in the day. Have a backup plan (or 2) for other trails you’d like to conquer in the area in case your intended trail is inaccessible due to lack of parking.
- Legal Parking: And speaking of parking, stay in the designated parking areas for the trailhead. In many cases, it is not legal to park on the side of the road when a parking area is full, and you may come back from your relaxing day in the woods only to find a parking ticket on your windshield.
- Restrooms: Most places we’ve hiked do not have restroom facilities available at all or still have them closed due to COVID, so plan your bathroom needs accordingly.
- Nearby Hunting: If you go hiking in the fall, note that several of the above locations permit on-site hunting. Some destinations may be best visited in spring/summer to avoid hunters, but if you do go in the fall, wear high-visibility clothing to ensure you’re not mistaken for a critter.
- Bears and Snakes: And speaking of critters, there are black bears in the area, as well as poisonous snakes such as timber rattlers and copperheads. I did some research on snake bites, and it’s really, really uncommon to be bitten by a poisonous snake in NJ/NY unless you do something stupid like, say, try to pick up a snake. That said, watch your step when crossing over logs and stay out of overgrown and brushy areas. For what to do if you encounter a black bear, read these tips before your next hike.
- Tick Protection: There are A LOT of ticks on the trails in New York and New Jersey. Get yourself some good bug spray (one with DEET is recommended for ticks), spray yourself down, focusing especially on your ankles and boots, and don’t forget to take a shower and do a good tick check as soon as you get home. Here are some tips on how to remove ticks in case you find one!
- Hydration: Water and snacks are essential, especially once the temps get above 70 degrees or if you’re doing a lot of uphill climbs. We were able to get by on just a couple bottles of water back in the spring when it was cool out, but come summer we filled up our Camelbaks and easily went through 2.5 liters of water on just 3-5 mile hikes. Throw some extra water in a cooler in your trunk so you’ll have even more hydration awaiting you upon your return to the car.
- Be Safe and Have Fun: Not much more to say about that – enjoy the outdoors, friends!