In my first round of living in New York City, I made only a handful trips to the northernmost neighborhoods of Manhattan, places like Washington Heights and Inwood. It was always so far away, taking longer to get to from much of the city than it did to reach parts of Brooklyn or Queens. Since coming back to New York, I’ve lived in the area three times. It is far, but for nature lovers or anyone who might want to learn a bit of what Manhattan was like long, long ago, it’s worth the trek to unwind in some of the best parks in the city. A few options to consider:
A Walk in the Woods
At nearly 200 acres, Inwood Hill Park is the kind of place that’s so big I don’t know where to begin. Late one sunny Saturday morning, I shrank my focus to its northern end. I had spotted a Tudor house perched on the edge of the Bronx just across the river, and I wanted a clearer view.
The outer edge of the park was filled with people—playing baseball, tennis, and soccer or just relaxing on benches. As I walked farther in, though, I passed just an occasional runner or couple taking a stroll. A man tossed a stick for his black-and-white Australian shepherd. She snatched it from the ground and ran back to him with the stick clenched between her teeth, begging for another throw.
There were paths in every direction. One led to tiny caves that were once the seasonal home of the Lenape, a Native American tribe. I wandered off path to explore them—now lined with the plastic bags of homeless people who use them for shelter—then chose another route that wound up and up, surrounded by the last natural forest in Manhattan.
That clear view of the Tudor house was never to be found, and my focus shifted from finding an overlook to simple wandering. When there was an option to turn, I chose without thinking, listening to the birds tweeting around me and stopping to gaze at thick tree trunks and light that filtered through the green leaves.
At the top of the park, the path narrowed, becoming cracked and crumbled, and eventually turned to dirt. Save the distant sounds of traffic on the Henry Hudson Parkway below, it was empty and quiet, the closest I had felt in New York City to being in the woods. When I’d start to worry about how I would remember which way I came, I’d remind myself this was time to get lost. Every life needs time for discovery. That afternoon and many after, Inwood Hill Park became a place to go to roam free, and for that it became one of my favorite parks in the city.
Nearby: Inwood is a true neighborhood, with a community feel that’s faded in many other parts of Manhattan and various arts events to experience (see Inwood Art Works). I enjoyed the Dyckman Farmhouse for a step back in time to what Manhattan was like before the city spread farther north. The year-round Saturday greenmarket on Isham St. (between Seaman Ave. & Cooper St.) has fresh vegetables, desserts, homemade pickles, and more. And the Indian Road Cafe (218th St. & Indian Road) is a popular place for a meal.
The Best of the Four Seasons
Early one winter morning I came home from downtown, where the sidewalks were wet but bare, to find snow blanketing the paths and trees of Fort Tryon Park. Washington Heights is so far north in Manhattan that it can get heavier rain and snow than the southern part of the borough.
The bushes and thick branches of the trees held the wet snow against a bright blue sky. An occasional gust of wind sent sparkling flakes twirling in the air, a magical sight made dream-like by the fact that when I returned in the afternoon it had nearly all melted away.
It was my first glimpse of the park’s knack for showing off the best of every season—the bursting colors of spring, the white light and bare branches of winter, the golds of fall—all overlooking the Hudson River below. While many visit the park to see the Cloisters, a part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art that focuses on medieval art, my favorite time there was spent walking its hilly paths and strolling its lush gardens.
Nearby: If you’re looking for a meal or drinks, your best bet may be to leave the park at the northern end and head to Inwood. Fort Tryon Park also has a restaurant inside it called the New Leaf. To the south of the park, much of the area is residential, though if you exit from the southern end near the Heather Garden, you can walk south on Fort Washington Ave. to 187th St. where there are a few (so-so) casual restaurant options and a diner.
A One-of-a-Kind Crossing
Manhattan may not be a place most people think of when they hear the word “island,” but an island it is, with bridges connecting it to New Jersey and other parts of New York. You can walk, run, and bike on designated paths that run alongside or above the traffic lanes on many of the bridges, but just one is closed to cars: the High Bridge that connects Manhattan to the Bronx.
The bridge was originally built in the mid-1800s to carry water from Westchester County to the city. It is the city’s oldest standing bridge and had been closed for more than 40 years before it reopened in 2015.
I walked there late one Saturday afternoon, passing men playing dominoes at card tables they had set up on sidewalks in the heavily Latino and much more animated part of Washington Heights than the quiet streets closest to the Hudson River. Groups of friends sat talking outside a bodega (a small convenience store). Street vendors sold vegetables and clothing.
When I made it to the park, a group of young girls gave me directions to the steep staircase that takes you to the bridge, offering to walk me there the same way so many people did when I explored places away from home.
I arrived just as the sun was beginning to set. Below the bridge was the Harlem River and next to that the Harlem River Drive, which once held horse and carriage races and was now packed with bumper to bumper traffic.
On the bridge, though, it was quiet. I crossed it to reach the Bronx and then made the climb back toward the massive pool, built in 1936 on the site of the reservoir. The girls I had met earlier came over to ask me if I found my way.
As I walked home, a full moon was rising in the sky. I passed the nightclubs where young crowds would be dancing to live music and drinking until early the next morning. I took it all in, this area that I never really knew before, realizing again that though I was living back in New York, I hadn’t stopped traveling.
Nearby: Highbridge Park stretches from 155th St. in Washington Heights all the way to Dyckman St. in Inwood. To get to the High Bridge from the Manhattan side, use the entrance at 172nd St. & Amsterdam Ave. and walk east to reach the staircase. You’ll see a food truck or two outside the park, but if you want something more and don’t mind a short walk, Viva Mexico (St. Nicholas Ave. & 185th St.) is recommended for tacos.
To the River
If you want to get closer to the water on the west side of Manhattan, follow 181st St. west to the greenway along the Hudson River, where a path continues both north and south with views of the George Washington Bridge. It gets crowded, but it has its peaceful spots, and fans of the children’s book The Little Red Lighthouse and The Great Gray Bridge may want to visit to see the lighthouse in person. In the summer and fall there are occasional tours of the inside of the lighthouse, the only one remaining in Manhattan. Since the tours are infrequent, check online beforehand if you want to plan your visit around one.