Destination Playground: Riverbank State Park in Harlem
When I mentioned to a fellow uptown Manhattan mom that I was planning on writing about Riverbank State Park, she begged me to keep this Harlem gem a secret. Although well known in our area, this elevated 28-acre park is worth traveling to, but right now it’s mostly frequented by locals.
In truth, the playgrounds aren’t all that: There are two small ones with the standard equipment, plus a separate sprinkler area. What makes Riverbank so special are its stunning Hudson River views and amazing facilities, including two pools, a skating rink, tennis and basketball courts, running track, theaters, shady picnic tables, 150-seat restaurant and kid-designed carousel.
Since Riverbank is built on top of the North River Wastewater Treatment Plant, some of the area has a rather bleak industrial look. Even the buildings that house the various attractions aren’t much to gaze at. But don’t let that deter you: There’s so much to do at Riverbank, you can spend the whole day here.
To get to Riverbank, which stretches from 137th to 145th Streets, you have to cross over the West Side Highway. The stroll across the 145th Street bridge at the main entrance gives you a taste of the park’s amazing views. Although there is a sign posted that states bicycles and scooters aren't allowed inside, judging from the number of cyclists I’ve observed here, many folks ignore this rule. Pets are also prohibited, and I've never seen any dog walkers.
At the northern end of the park, you’ll find the Totally Kid Carousel, which is a true original. Artist Milo Mottola based his designs on children's drawings of animals, so the creatures are all funky and colorful. While the merry-go-round is stunning, so are the views you get while riding, especially of the George Washington Bridge. At $1 a pop, it’s also the cheapest carousel in town. Make sure you bring singles: You have to buy a ticket from a machine that doesn’t make change. Open June to October: Wednesday and Thursday 11am-3pm, Friday and Sunday 1-6pm and Saturday 1-8pm.
Nearby is Riverbank Grill, a nice-looking restaurant with a casual menu, and indoor and outdoor seating. My daughter and I have yet to eat here—we bring our own food, since there are so many picnic tables (which are often rented on summer weekends) and grassy areas where we can lay a blanket. However, Riverbank Grill looks like it could be fun for brunch.
One of my daughter’s favorite things to do at Riverbank is slip a quarter into the coin-operated viewfinders so she can marvel at New Jersey while I hold her up (lucky me). These are pretty fun, and she can get a closer look at the GWB.
Head south and you’ll see the five buildings that house Riverbank’s sports and cultural facilities. Even though we’ve visited the park many times, we still haven’t seen all of them! We have tried the indoor Olympic-size pool, which is open year-round and tends to appeal to more serious swimmers. Kids who want to splash around are better off hitting the smaller outdoor pool, which has a separate wading area for preschoolers. (It's open until Labor Day.) As you can imagine, this pool gets crowded on weekends, especially in the afternoon. To enter either pool, you must buy tickets: $2 for adults, $1 for children ages 5-15 and free for kids under 5.
The covered rink is also a favorite stop for my family. In the winter, it’s a great place to ice-skate, rarely crowded and with a roof to protect skaters from snow or hail. In the summer, it turns into a roller rink, and admission is just $1.50. Skate rental is $6 per day and all kids can borrow helmets for free. Inside this building, you’ll also find an inexpensive if kind of gnarly snack bar. Your children may not complain about soggy reheated chicken fingers, but you can bring better from home.
Since my daughter is just six, we haven’t taken advantage of many of Riverbank’s other attractions, like the four tennis courts, four basketball courts, softball field, four paddle ball courts and 400-meter, eight-lane running track with a soccer field. Joining the gym here sure sounds attractive: Membership is only $200 per year.
Riverbank also hosts cultural events in its 800-seat indoor theater, its 400-seat outdoor amphitheater, which is located at water level, and at other locations on the grounds.
The park also offers very affordable kids' offerings: Summer camp is just $500—for the entire summer. I don’t know any families that have done this camp personally, but I’ve seen the kids running around the grounds and they look pretty happy. Classes are also quite inexpensive, ranging from $5-$165 per session. My daughter’s classmates have taken ballet there for years, and they pay approximately $50 per semester, so the classes are definitely worth investigating. Unfortunately, getting information online or even over the phone is tough (no one ever answers!). I’ve found that going to Riverbank is the best way to get the scoop. Hit the visitors' center to pick up brochures or better yet, speak to someone in person.
Riverbank State Park is located between 137th and 145th Streets along the Hudson River. The main entrance is on 145th Street and Riverside Drive.
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