Gazing out on Orchard Beach in the Bronx
Daniel Dorsa
Gazing out on Orchard Beach in the Bronx
Gazing out on Orchard Beach in the Bronx (Photo: Daniel Dorsa)

A Longtime Resident Reveals His Favorite Natural Places to Explore in New York City

You might not about outdoor adventure in New York City. But you should. With 51 nature preserves and 520 miles of coastline, there are hidden worlds of natural wonders to explore. Here's how to find them.

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I hope never to take a plane again. I’ve flown in my share, and I never collected miles, so I don’t have any to use up. To me, rewarding frequent fliers with miles is like giving well-behaved inmates the perk of spending more time in jail. I remember when comedians used to make jokes about airplane food—if only! Now the semi-undeclared civil war that our country is currently engaged in takes place vividly and luridly in the aisles of commercial flights, with cursing, spitting, brawling, and the assault of flight attendants. I want to miss as much of this rage-filled period of our history as I can.

Today I do my traveling on foot, aided by public transportation. I live in New Jersey, and a great wilderness for adventures lies about 15 miles east. New York City, blessed in its geography like no place else, contains expanses of wild urban outdoors that very few know about. Yes, you can rock-climb in Central Park or kayak on the Hudson River and surf or windsurf at Rockaway Beach, but that’s not the kind of adventuring I’m after. I used to fish all over the city, and have taken the subway under the East River to a favorite spot to catch striped bass—that almost unheard-of technique of catching fish by first going beneath them. Nowadays I don’t fish so much. Instead I go looking for the hidden wild places in the middle of everything, places you might see every day without imagining how wild they are.

Sometimes I get up early in the morning and walk to the commuter train and catch the 4:54 to Penn Station. From there I take the subway to a far-flung stop and get out and ramble all day through woods and weed zones and under elevated highways and along waterfronts within the city limits, where I’ve seen deer, wild turkeys, feral cats, dog packs, hawks, fish, seals, large rats, coal-black squirrels, and not many other people. Those humans I do come across generally seem half-wild themselves. Walking on a jetty on the ocean side of Queens, I saw a guy in black bathing trunks and rubber slippers who was fishing with a trident, moving in and out among the rocks and incoming waves. He assumed a position of ambush, crouched with his trident raised. Never had I seen anybody fish like that. His basic English sufficed for him to tell me that this is the way he used to fish in the Mediterranean Sea when he was growing up on Malta.

Over the centuries, humans have changed the landscape, but there is only so much they can do to it in a place like New York, where big ecosystems meet. The ocean is still in the same basic location, relative to the shore, that it’s been in since the last glaciers melted, about 14,000 years ago. In 1972, the federal government created the 26,607-acre Gateway National Recreation Area—preserving huge tracts of land in parts of New York City and Monmouth County, New Jersey—out of the land-ocean interface, mostly because urban residents didn’t have a lot of options. Might as well give the geography a name, and an official recreational status, and pretend we have some control (sea-level rise, take note).

Breezy Point in Queens
Breezy Point in Queens (Daniel Dorsa)
people playing softball at a New York park
New York parks provide vital green-space for recreation. (Daniel Dorsa)

The ocean impinges on New York and keeps it from getting too civilized. After Hurricane Sandy, Staten Island’s beaches transcended any I’ve ever seen for natural-urban chaos. I go back there from time to time to remember. Two barrier beaches, like swinging barroom doors, flank the entry to Greater New York Harbor: Rockaway Beach to the east, and Sandy Hook, in New Jersey, to the south.

During Sandy, these focused the storm surge between them and sent it roaring at Staten Island. From where the surge hit, next to a residential area, you can see the two barrier beaches on the horizon. The stretch of water in between, pointing right at you, is like God’s raceway. The surge came down this massive sea avenue and hit the beach at high tide. It blew out houses front to back so that nothing remained of them but the frame of the floors and the staircase, like the three lines of the letter Z. Dock pilings and boats and yachts and room-size pieces of styrofoam and buoys and every kind of plastic and phragmites reeds and seemingly two billion plastic bags swarmed the former shoreline. The shreds left by the surging waters bedecked the branches of trees far inland.

What drew me to that beach originally, before the hurricane, was the horseshoe crab. There’s a historical marker (still surviving) that says the beach is known for that animal—but I never saw many there. The best place for horseshoe crabs, I discovered, is along the city’s coast to the north, in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. At Plumb Beach, the horseshoe crabs come up on the sand at the edge of the waves and mate on the full-moon night closest to Memorial Day and on the nights just before and after it. The scene is passionate and prehistoric. As a species, the horseshoe crab has been around for 450 million years. It got here by riding the land when it moved to its present position via continental drift.

Brush grows densely near the beach. A major highway, the Belt Parkway, parallels the shore. Paths run through the brush, and scores of feral cats live in there. Horseshoe crabs look like army helmets with rattail files for tails. When they emerge from the waves and start mating, headlights from the nearby traffic gleam on them and the moon provides the ancient ambient light. Horseshoe crabs are among the very few animals that evolved to their present form on an early try and then neither went extinct nor changed much. They are so old, their blood is based on copper, not iron; they bleed blue.

At the height of their week or so of mating, they throng the beach every night. They have their fans—people who love everything about horseshoe crabs. But it’s possible to get away from the crowded part of the beach and wander farther along it until you can imagine you are by yourself in the late Ordovician period of the Paleozoic era. The crabs are rubbing up against each other, usually several males per larger female, their shells making hollow, scraping, lustful sounds. Meanwhile, across Sheepshead Bay, planes streak their lights across the water as they land at JFK Airport.

Once when I was coming in on a plane, I swear I saw an abandoned stadium whose former playing field had become overgrown with bushes and saplings. Its tiers of seats rose around the upwelling greenery, waiting to be taken over themselves. I never found that ghost stadium or saw it again from a plane. Maybe I hallucinated it. From the air I did see Flushing Airport, abandoned since 1984, in the farther regions of Queens. When I went looking for that on the ground, I discovered wetlands reclaiming its runways and sketchy foundations where the last of its Quonset-hut airplane hangars had been torn down. The pale gray tarmac extended into the weed-filled distance, grasses colonizing its cracks. Cartoonish pheasants peeked out and set their heads forward like gearshift knobs and scampered across.

Inwood Hill Park
You never know what you'll find in some parts of the woods. (Daniel Dorsa)
Inwood Hill Park
Inwood Hill Park has the largest old-growth forest in Manhattan. (Daniel Dorsa)

Manhattan, one of the most built-up places on earth, has few neglected acres. But at the far north end of the island, there are places too hilly to build on where the contours of the landscape haven’t been changed. An artist friend of mine finds all kinds of old stuff on the ground in the parks there when he wanders off the main trails. Once, in some moss, he found a clay pipe that was made in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1848, according to a stamp on it. I have found three Indian trade beads (two blue, one green) in upper Manhattan myself, with my friend’s help. You have to look in the pockets of runoff dirt that collect in little hollows after a rain.

The wildest places in all the five boroughs to my mind are in the Bronx, which also contains the city’s only freshwater river, the Bronx River. Elevated highways and railroad viaducts cross the Bronx River valley, and here and there along it you find no-person’s lands. Again, trails wind through the weeds, with the resonant traffic making the background noise. Ropes hang down from the bridge structures in certain places. I’m told that kids climb up there and swing from the ropes and try to knock each other into the river, but I’ve never seen that myself.

What I encounter mostly is daunting trash—things like discarded syringes with little pale-orange rubber corks on the needles’ ends, and elaborately damaged Citi Bikes, and the remains of small homeless encampments. Once I found a trip wire made of fishing monofilament running through the weeds. It encircled a makeshift yard around a plywood and cardboard hut. No one appeared to be home. Up above, on the railroad viaduct, the Amtrak Acela from Boston passed quickly by.

I go out exploring in all weather. One winter, in Pelham Bay Park, in the Bronx’s northeast corner, I went in search of an ossuary that an amateur archaeologist discovered in the 1960s. An ossuary is a place where bones are buried when a grave has to be moved. Bones are collected from the original burial site and reinterred somewhere else. Native people of the Lenape tribe moved their ancestors’ bones when settlement encroached. The archaeologist’s description of the ossuary’s location, in a paper he wrote, was so confusing that I decided he must have been confusing on purpose, to discourage relic hunters.

As I was scanning around in a pine forest, frustrated, a man with a walking stick passing on a nearby trail told me there was a bald eagle just up ahead, feeding on the carcass of a deer. I went the direction he pointed, turned a bend in the trail, and saw the deer. It lay on its left side as if in a hollow. The eagle had disappeared, though I felt its presence and almost heard its wings. The side of the deer accessible to scavengers had been picked as clean as an anatomical display. Its rib bones curved in an orderly fashion. The other side remained frozen and untouched against the ground.

Over the centuries, humans have changed the landscape, but there is only so much they can do to it in a place like New York, where big ecosystems meet.

I’ve seen fields of healthy, knee-high poison ivy that stretched for half-acres, and groves cordoned off with plastic tape because of the danger of Lyme-disease-carrying deer ticks, and abandoned, overgrown commuter-train stations turned into gang headquarters, apparently, with defiant graffiti on the walls and scary, naked, defaced mannequins on broken chairs—all in the Bronx.

But the most intriguing city wilderness, one that I wish I could have shrunk myself to explore, was in Midtown. I was walking on 57th Street on a sunny day when I saw a three- or four-year-old boy squatting on his haunches and looking down a subway grate. Sunlight fell on the grate in a bright shaft, the way it does among the skyscrapers. When the sun makes its way through the obstacles and high-rise shadows, it can focus like a spotlight beam.

A grown-up, paying no attention, took the boy’s hand and made him come along. The boy stood reluctantly and went, still looking back. I bent down among the hurrying pedestrians to try and see what he had seen. Beyond the grate, in a space about four feet below it, the sun lit up a scene that was reticulated by the shadow of the bars. A basic city tree around here is the ailanthus; it’s weedy and hardy and grows wherever a piece of disturbed earth will give it a chance. On a level place at the bottom of this under-the-sidewalk subway air vent or whatever it was, hundreds of ailanthus seedlings had sprouted, like a tiny rainforest as seen from a helicopter. In the filtered light, their many leaves glowed a thriving green.

The floor of this forest was composed entirely of cigarette butts. Hundreds and hundreds of butts lay scattered this way and that, some with brown filter tips, some with white filter tips, some unfiltered—a who-knows-how-long accumulation—at the feet of the ailanthus saplings. A bottle cap or two added some species diversity. The mini landscape was like a pristine ecosystem on another planet. It had been noticed and wondered at by no other human, probably, except for the boy. There was something bright and hopeful and new-world about it. I imagined rappelling down into it and exploring it.