Every once in a while it’s great for the family to escape the busyness of city life and connect with nature. Thankfully, the fam doesn’t have to travel to some far-flung place. That’s right, instead of schlepping upstate for some fresh air and outdoor fun, swap your shoes for some hiking boots and enjoy a family hike in one of NYC’s iconic parks that’s sure to create Instagram-worthy family memories. What’s more, it’s an activity you can do almost all year round.
With 300 miles of trails and 10,000 acres of wild and undisturbed natural areas, the family’s outdoor adventure will be part family bonding, part exercise, and part educational as you explore glacial potholes, bedrock, and different types of wildlife—all without leaving the city. Don’t forget to wear layers, sunscreen, and to pack lots of water—and trail mix!
To learn more about the awesome hiking opportunities in NYC and how families can make the most of their experience when they hit the trails, we caught up with Bonnie McGuire, the director of the Urban Park Rangers.
Why is hiking a good activity for families and kids?
Not only is hiking a fun way to exercise, it also allows kids [and families] to explore nature and to learn about the environment. I’d suggest taking a pair of binoculars and stopping to watch for wildlife. There are more than 600 types of native animal species in New York City, so you’re bound to spot a few on any hike!
Why are NYC parks a great place to hike?
Our parks offer hiking trails of varying difficulty and scenery—from challenging terrain to leisurely, paved paths. There’s a trail for all families, abilities, and seasons.
Do you have any general recommendations for where to hike based on skill level?
- Beginner hikers: Start out in Prospect Park in Brooklyn or Central Park in Manhattan.
- Intermediate hikers: Visit Marine Park in Brooklyn or Inwood Hill Park in Manhattan.
- Advanced hikers: Check out The Greenbelt in Staten Island, boasting more than 35 miles of marked hiking trails, Van Cortlandt Park and Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx, or Alley Pond Park in Queens.
What are the best trails or parks for beginner hikers ages 12 and under in each borough?
- Brooklyn: The Salt Marsh Nature Trail at Marine Park is a loop of the Gerritsen Creek and is a favorite for local families and bird watchers.
- Manhattan: Central Park has some uphill trails that lead through The Ramble and up to the Belvedere Castle, where there is a scenic view of Turtle Pond.
- Queens: A hike through Kissena Park will show kids many different species of trees, both native and exotic.
- Staten Island: While hiking in Blue Heron Park, you’ll see several ponds near the Blue Heron Nature Center, which often holds kid-friendly activities such as nature-related scavenger hunts, crafts, and games.
- The Bronx: The John Kieran Trail at Van Cortlandt Park makes for a nice, scenic hike along the Van Cortlandt Lake, showcasing many species of waterfowl and trees.
For experienced hikers looking for a challenge, which trail should they take on?
The White Trail in The Greenbelt is a fantastic and challenging trail. It starts in Great Kills Park on Hylan Blvd. and ends in Willowbrook Park on the other side of Staten Island. The trail will take you through ravines, new and old forests, across streams, and up and down hills. The trail is about 7.6 miles long and highlights a great range of habitats.
Note that the hike entails several short stints that are on the roads, and about mid-way through the trek, there is an opportunity to jump to another trail and take a short detour to the Greenbelt Nature Center for a water and restroom break. Here’s a map of The Greenbelt trails, including the White Trail.
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For young hikers looking to improve their skills, what are some things they can do?
- If you’re new to hiking, start simple and go from there.
- As you gain experience, invest in some sturdy hiking boots that will support your ankles.
- To up the fun level and educational value of each hike, challenge yourself. Learn to identify a new species of plant or animal each time you hike.
- Always encourage friends and family to join you on hikes!
Are there any options for families who prefer to hike with an expert?
For families who prefer a guided trek, they can hike with our Urban Park Rangers during our free Weekend Adventures programs.
Our Urban Park Rangers’ Weekend Adventures aim to connect New Yorkers with nature through activities like canoeing, camping, and guided bird watching. Whether you’re just beginning or advanced, the Rangers have programs for all levels of interest and ability. The programs are geared towards families, and a few programs are designed for very young kids who are a certain age. It’s a great way to expose children to new adventures under the expert guidance of the Rangers. Adults can also try new activities and bond with their family.
What should kids bring with them when they go hiking?
Kids should wear hiking shoes or boots as they are made specifically for the forest terrain. In addition, bring a trail map, a backpack with some water, snacks, and a sweater or jacket. And a pair of binoculars and/or a field guide that contains information on trees, birds, insects, and geology; it will make wildlife watching more interesting.
What are some safety guidelines new hikers should follow when they hit the trail?
- Stay on the trail. One of the easiest ways to get lost is to venture off the trail.
- Never eat any berries, fruit, or plants you see in the park regardless of what wild animals you may see eating it.
- Learn how to read a map and trail markers.
- Pay attention to warning signs. They are there for your safety.
- Be prepared. Take a backpack with some snacks, extra water, and a jacket. It may be warm right now, but a swift weather system can easily take you by surprise.
For more information on hiking in NYC parks, visit nycgovparks.org.