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).