• The Great (Local) Outdoors

    The Best Of Beaches, Camping, Nature And Water—In And Out Of NYC

    By Jennifer Lehner

     

    You and the kids may be dyed-in-the-wool
    urbanites—but come summer, that doesn’t mean that you don’t crave cooling ocean
    breezes and sand between your toes, yearn for the chance to break out
    binoculars (you just have to find them first) and gaze up at the stars, and
    desperately want to set up a tent somewhere other than your coop’s living room.
    Here’s how you can get out of your walk-up and into the NYC “wilderness” as
    soon as the weather warms.


    BEACHES

    BEACH MOST LIKELY TO
    INSPIRE A RAMONES SONG

    Rockaway Beach | Queens

    It’s not hard, not too
    far to reach
    ” crooned the Ramones in their 1977 song about this urban
    coastline which stretches for miles along the Rockaway Peninsula. Near 103rd
    Street, there is a wider swath of beach for the taking and past 73rd Street,
    the packed sand gives way to a quieter, dune-studded conservation area (with
    seven playgrounds and the city’s only surfing zone sprinkled in-between). Don’t
    miss July’s 17th Annual Sandcastle Contest for creative kid-builders.
    nycgovparks.org

    BEACH BOARDWALK WITH A
    RETRO FEEL

    Point Pleasant Beach | New
    Jersey

    On this slice of the Jersey shore,
    you’ll find a mile-long boardwalk (dubbed Jenkinson’s) with an old-timey, but
    not-too-cheesy, vibe. Buff lifeguards cruise the beach on those groovy dune
    buggies, candy apples practically sell themselves and mini golfers roam free.
    jenkinsons.com

    KITSCHIEST BEACH &
    BOARDWALK

    Coney Island | Brooklyn

    Embrace this end-of-the-line (subway,
    that is) beauty in all of its in-your-face glory. Ride the historic, wooden
    Cyclone coaster or catch a Brooklyn Cyclones baseball game at MCU Park. Or
    start off summer with a splash by donning appropriate Ariel attire and marching
    in the Annual Mermaid Parade on Saturday, June 23 at 2pm. You could also just
    people watch while enjoying a hot dog and crinkle-cut fries at the original
    Surf Avenue location of Nathan’s Famous.
    coneyislandfunguide.com

    IF KITSCHY IS NOT YOUR
    THING

    Manhattan Beach Park |
    Brooklyn

    Originally built as an
    exclusive resort for wealthy bathers, Manhattan Beach features barbecuing
    areas, basketball, handball, volleyball and tennis courts, baseball diamonds
    and playgrounds. It also proves to be a calmer and quieter alternative to its
    Coney Island neighbor. In June, kids will delight in watching all of the
    horseshoe crabs emerge from the Atlantic Ocean as they lay their eggs on the
    beach.
    nycgovparks.org

    SHELLIEST BEACH

    Sandy Hook | New Jersey

    A mere 40-minute ride from
    NYC on the SeaStreak Ferry, this 1,665-acre barrier peninsula offers views of
    the Manhattan skyline, free tours of its lighthouse—the oldest operating one in
    the country—and miles of sandy shores perfect for beachcombing. s
    andy-hook.com

    BIGGEST WAVES

    Long Beach Park | Nassau
    County

    Get your surf groove on at this
    five-mile stretch of sandy white beach, the westernmost of the outer barrier
    islands off of Long Island’s south shore. An hour’s ride on the LIRR, Long
    Beach boasts some of the most killer waves around. Sign up interested
    youngsters (ages five and up) for lessons at Skudin Surf.
    longbeachny.org

    MOST SWIMMING OPTIONS

    Jones Beach | Wantagh

    This world-class swimming hub boasts 6.5
    miles of ocean beach, a gentler bathing area ideal for little ones and two
    swimming pools. When you tire of the backstroke, head to the boardwalk for a
    round of miniature golf or visit the Theodore Roosevelt Nature Center. It’s an
    hour and fifteen minutes via the LIRR to Freeport, where buses pick you up and drop
    you off right at the beach.
    nysparks.com

    WORTH THE TREK

    Robert Moses Beach | Fire
    Island

    While it lacks in proximity, it makes up
    for it in spades by being calmer, cleaner and less crowded than its more
    conveniently located counterparts. Offering five miles of beautiful ocean
    beaches, as well as amenities like chair and umbrella rentals, concessions and
    restrooms with showers, Robert Moses Beach is the perfect summer daytrip
    destination. (Though, that easternmost stretch called Lighthouse Beach is
    clothing-optional.)
    nysparks.com


    CAMPING

    COOLEST CAMPING FOR
    KIDS

    Urban Park Rangers |
    nycgovparks.org

    Fridays and Saturdays in July and
    August, families can join the Urban Park Rangers for an overnight camping
    experience in New York City. The night includes a cookout and other evening
    activities like stargazing, nocturnal walks, orienteering, nature crafts,
    campfires, fishing and bird-watching. The program is free, but registration is
    required and campers are chosen by a lottery system. Participating locations
    include:

    oVan Cortlandt Park | Bronx

    oMarine Park | Brooklyn

    oCentral Park | Manhattan

    oAlley Pond Park | Queens

    oHigh Rock Park | Staten Island

    MOST MAGICAL STARGAZING

    The City That Never Sleeps is not the
    ideal venue for aspiring astronomers, but there are still a couple of places
    that offer the least light pollution—perfect for spotting shooting stars.

    oFloyd Bennett Field | Gateway National
    Recreation Center | Brooklyn

    nps.gov/gate

    oGreat Kills Park | Staten Island

     


     

    BEST PLACE TO SNOOZE
    WITH ANIMALS

    Family Overnight Safari |
    Bronx Zoo

    This popular family event books up early
    and features a picnic dinner, hands-on animal experiences, scavenger hunts, games,
    sing-alongs, guided walks and a sea lion wake-up call.
    wcs.org


    NATURE

    BEST FOR BIRD-WATCHING

    Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge | Gateway National
    Recreation Area | Queens

     

    Look for long-legged waders like egrets,
    herons and ibises; shorebirds like sandpipers and plovers; and a variety of
    songbirds such as olive-sided flycatchers and blue grosbeaks at this bird
    sanctuary—one of the largest in the northeastern United States.
    nyharborparks.org

    MOST MAGNIFICENT TREE

    Magnolia Tree Earth Center |
    Brooklyn

    The 40-foot Magnolia grandiflora at this
    nature center was declared a living landmark in 1970 and is an excellent way to
    teach your kids about the importance of trees (and sadly, their rarity) in
    urban landscapes.
    nycgovparks.org

    PERFECT RAINY DAY
    ACTIVITY IN CENTRAL PARK

    Charles A. Dana Discovery
    Center
    | Central Park | Manhattan

    The kids had their heart set on
    exploring Central Park, but it’s raining cats and dogs. Now what? Dash between
    the raindrops to the Charles A. Dana Discovery Center for a perfect (not to
    mention, dry) view of the 11-acre Harlem Meer and learn all about the wildlife
    found there, including great egrets, cormorants and bullfrogs.
    centralparknyc.org

    BEST NATURE CENTER IN
    DISGUISE

    The Henry Luce Nature
    Observatory at Belvedere Castle
    | Central Park | Manhattan

    From this vantage point, you can view
    migrating hawks and monarch butterflies, turtles sunning themselves on pond rocks
    and birds flitting about the Ramble. Plus, there’s plenty to see inside the
    Woodlands and Water Discovery Room.
    centralparknyc.org

    OLDIE BUT A GOODIE

    Alley Pond Environmental
    Center
    | Alley Pond Park | Queens

    Tucked inside the 635-acre Alley Pond
    Park, this nature center—which opened in the ’70s— was one of the city’s first
    of its kind. Its Animal Room lets kids get up close and personal with the likes
    of Bernie the Corn Snake, Loke the Prairie Dog and Henry the Ring-Necked Dove. It
    boasts a myriad of family programs including nature walks on the Alley Pond
    Nature Trail, nature photography classes, animal care training and stargazing
    workshops.
    alleypond.com

    GREAT FOR BAT-WATCHING

    Bats abound in the city, but during the
    day they stay tucked away, hanging upside down and hiding from predators. The
    best time to see them is in the summertime at dusk, especially on humid
    evenings. Here’s where to go to catch a glimpse of these furry, flying
    creatures:

    oThe
    Gerritsen Creek Nature Trail | Marine Park | Brooklyn 

     


     

    oThe
    Great Hill | Central Park | Manhattan 

     


     

    oJamaica
    Bay Wildlife Refuge | Gateway National Recreational Area | Queens 

    nps.gov/gate

    oSpring
    Pond | Blue Heron Park | Staten Island 

     


     

    THE BEST OF BOTANICAL
    GARDENS

    New York Botanical Garden |
    Bronx

    Oh, the many reasons to visit this
    massive, gorgeous garden this summer: the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory, the
    country’s largest Victorian glasshouse; the Everett Children’s Adventure Garden
    featuring a boulder maze, hedge maze, a natural wetland and Discovery Center;
    and the Ruth Rea Howell Family Garden—where kids can dig, plant and grow in one
    of the many hands-on gardening activities on offer.
    nybg.org

    Brooklyn Botanic Garden |
    Brooklyn

    This oasis is home to the country’s
    longest operating Children’s Garden (it opened in 1914) and its 52 acres are
    the perfect size to explore with young ones. Go in June when the Cranford Rose
    Garden’s blooms are at their most magnificent.
    bbg.org

    Queens Botanical Garden |
    Queens

    The Bee Garden houses plants and trees
    that attract bees or flavor honey—if nothing else, it provides an ample
    opportunity to have that proverbial talk with your kids (wink, nudge). The
    shady Woodland Garden, with its woodchip-covered walking trails and streams,
    will make the whole fam forget that you’re actually smack dab in the middle of
    Flushing.
    queensbotanical.org

    Snug Harbor Cultural Center
    and Botanical Garden
    | Staten Island

    Children will love the Connie Gretz
    Secret Garden, a charming space inspired by the 1911 children’s classic of the
    same name featuring a turreted castle and a hedge maze leading to its very own
    secret, brick-walled garden of dogwoods, roses, and other blooming trees and
    flowers.
    snug-harbor.org

    MOST ECLECTIC COMMUNITY
    GARDEN

    Liz Christy Garden | Lower
    East Side | Manhattan

    Located on the northeast corner of
    Bowery and Houston Streets, the city’s oldest community garden houses: a pond
    home to fish and red-eared slider turtles, a wildflower habitat, wooden
    furniture perfect for afternoon storytime, a grape arbor, a grove of weeping
    birch trees, fruit trees, a dawn redwood, vegetable gardens, berries, herbs and
    hundreds of flowers. After racking up 20 hours volunteering, your family is
    granted a key.
    lizchristygarden.us

    MOST SCENIC BIKING

    Here’s a sampling of some of the most
    family-friendly biking opportunities in all five boroughs. Don’t forget your
    helmets!
    nycbikemaps.com

    Pelham Bay Park and Orchard
    Beach | Bronx

    A moderate 6.25-mile round trip that takes
    you through a mix of woodlands, beaches, bays, saltwater marshes and meadows.

    Owl’s Head Park to the
    Verrazano-Narrows Bridge | Brooklyn

    An easy 4.5-mile round trip that offers
    stellar ocean views and cooling breezes on even the hottest days.

    79th Street to the Little Red Lighthouse | Manhattan

     

    A moderate 10-mile round trip that
    parallels the Hudson River and takes you to the lighthouse immortalized in the
    1942 children’s classic,
    The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray
    Bridge.

    Alley Pond Park to Fort Totten and Little Bay Park |
    Queens

     

    A simple, scenic 6.5-mile round trip
    that takes you around Fort Totten, a Civil War fortress.

    Silver Lake Park | Staten
    Island

    An easy 1.3-mile loop that offers views
    of Silver Lake’s ducks, gulls and cormorants.

    NEW & NEAT
    NATURE-MINDED EXHIBIT

    Field Station: Dinosaurs |
    Laurel Hill Park | Secaucus, New Jersey

    Just opening to the public, and the only
    permanent exhibition of its kind,
    Field Station: Dinosaurs boasts over
    30 life-sized animatronic dinos set against the backdrop of the New Jersey
    Meadowlands (less than ten minutes from NYC) and lying at the base of a
    150-million-year-old rock formation. Puppet and game shows, plus an archaeology
    site where kids can dig for reproduced fossils, are sure to please.
    fieldstationdinosaurs.com


    For more family adventures, see The Great (Local) Outdoors: Part II.

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