Friday, November 05, 2010

"I feel like I’m about a hundred miles from home”

Fall is arguably the most beautiful time of the year in the Northeast. Even if you live in the heart of New York City. (GW)

In New York City Parks, a Fall-Color Tour

By Beth Greenfield
New York Times
November 4, 2010

STANDING atop the breezy peak of Moses Mountain on a recent afternoon, I was struck by the juxtaposition of two facts: One, all I could see in any direction was a dense canopy of red maple, oak and hickory treetops, the leaves revealing autumn’s first golden blush. Two, I was in Staten Island.

Who knew there were such forest gems in New York City?

There are a surprising number, actually — more than 30 — from the small, wooded sections of Prospect Park and Central Park to the sprawling Alley Pond Park Preserve in Queens and the Northwest Forest in Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. All are viable, even enviable, options for doing some serious leaf-peeping right in the city.

The forest I was gazing upon — High Rock Park, part of the roughly 2,800-acre Greenbelt in Staten Island — has thick woodlands and wetlands, and a network of six hiking trails encompassing ponds, hills, valleys, groves and spongy earth that is speckled at this time of year with papery maple leaves. It is, however, part of a city park and not exactly pristine: you can hear the vague din of traffic in the distance, and I spotted a discarded Hostess Mini Muffins wrapper on the way up here.

Also, the high point is named not for the prophet but for the developer Robert Moses; it is actually a 260-foot-high mound of dirt cleared in the 1960s for a highway he had proposed that was never completed. Still, the preserve is a prized piece of nature in the city that offers a welcome immersion in fall foliage.

“Every time I come here, I feel like I’m about a hundred miles from home,” said Daniel Vazquez, a Staten Island resident who was entering the hiking trail toward Moses Mountain with friends. “This is the only urban park in New York City that actually compares to hiking through the Catskills.” He added, “And you can see deer, pheasants, falcons, snakes, turtles, lizards and other creatures too.”

The park, operated by a partnership of the Greenbelt Conservancy in Staten Island and the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, was once a Scout camp. It was sold to developers in the 1960s but saved by preservationists. Today it is a hub of environmental education, with a nature center that introduces groups of city children to the concept of forests.

“Sometimes kids from urban areas will ask: ‘Is that animal a real animal? Were these trees planted?’ ” said Sgt. Jeff Martin, an Urban Park Ranger.

Suburban developments and busy roads surround the dense woods, but they can be surprisingly soothing.

Another spot well worth a fall trek is the New York Botanical Garden’s 50-acre Native Forest in the Bedford Park section of the Bronx. It is considered the city’s largest remaining old-growth forest, with some trees nearing 300 years old. Among them are maple, white and red oak, sweet gum, bitternut hickory, sweet birch, tulip, elm, tupelo and sassafras. The Bronx River and a small waterfall cut across the northern portion.

The forest became part of the botanical garden in 1895, yet its lush offerings remain a secret awaiting discovery by many visitors.

“I’ve given tours to garden members who are surprised that it’s here,” said the forest’s manager, Jessica Schuler, who recommends taking in a view of the trees from the stone mill at the woods’ northeast entrance before exploring the ridges and bedrock.

Temie Elsner of Brooklyn was strolling along paths with her husband, Phil, recently. Though they had visited the gardens before, they had not made their way into the forest.

“Usually everything at botanic gardens is so neat and planned,” Ms. Elsner said. “This is natural, and it feels really nice.”

The wide trails are sprinkled with wood chips and lined with fences, and small plaques explain the elements of a forest. But entering the forest’s cool depths feels like crossing the threshold into a surreal wilderness.

Kyle Blaha of Queens described it as “almost like an amusement park for city people.” He had visited to wander and “get lost” with a friend for his 29th birthday, and he said he was pleasantly surprised to have encountered only one other person while strolling along the paths and footbridges.

Another urban respite containing some of the last remaining natural forest in Manhattan is Inwood Hill Park, where the Lenape lived and foraged before colonists settled. The area became parkland in 1916.

“You can come here sometimes and not run into any people,” said Jim Wilson, an Inwood resident and a professional oboist who walks the trails several times a week. “Even if you take the same walk every day, it’s always different — different foliage, things dying and things coming up. It’s a morale lift.”

With most of its 196 acres perched above Inwood, the park has eastern ridges that offer city views. From a western overlook, you can gaze down at the Hudson River and watch spectacular sunsets.

The park is thick with groves of maple, oak and pine, and it holds Manhattan’s last remaining salt marsh as well as a valley that sprouts a carpet of spring wildflowers. The marsh is home to great blue herons, snowy egrets, raccoons and black squirrels. Black-capped chickadees and cardinals are among the birds that pass through in the fall.

“Right now there are warblers, and lots of hawks — red-tailed and Cooper’s hawks, and great-horned owls,” said Bill Andermann, an Inwood resident and retired post office employee who was walking the trails with his camera and enjoying the solitude. “Other parks have more diverse types of birds, but they have more people too,” he said.

Another haven with both a wide range of birds and few people is Forest Park, containing the largest continuous wooded area in Queens. While its eastern portion is home to a golf course and a carousel, the western part is a natural setting for hiking trails and bridle paths weaving around a 413-acre forest of hickory, chestnut, tulip, and red and white oak trees.

The area became parkland in 1898, after the city had spent years purchasing 124 privately owned parcels. Its knob-and-kettle topography makes for hikes that can be slightly challenging. Its nooks are home to forest creatures like chipmunks, possums and Eastern screech owls.

“It’s beautiful all year round — even in the winter, when the trees turn into skeletons,” Peggy Scriva, a local resident for 40 years, said as she walked the perimeter on a recent afternoon. “If not for this place, I probably would have moved a long time ago.”

ALLEY POND PARK Northern Boulevard and Cross Island Expressway, Douglaston, Queens; search “alley pond park.”

FOREST PARK The visitor center is at Woodhaven Boulevard and Forest Park Drive, Woodhaven, Queens; (718) 846-2731; search “forest park.”

HIGH ROCK PARK 200 Nevada Avenue, off Rockland Avenue, Egbertville, Staten Island; (718) 667-2165,

INWOOD HILL PARK Dyckman Street and Payson Avenue; search “inwood hill park.”

NEW YORK BOTANICAL GARDEN NATIVE FOREST Bronx River Parkway at Fordham Road, Bedford Park, the Bronx; (718) 817-8700;

VAN CORTLANDT PARK PRESERVE is in the northern part of the park; main entrance at Broadway and West 246th Street, Riverdale, the Bronx; (718) 430-1890; search “van cortlandt park preserve.”


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