Feel like spending some time in the country? Well, you don't have to leave the city limits. Just hop on the subway and head to the wooded wonderland of Van Cortlandt Park. Located in the northwest Bronx, the 1146-acre park includes several Forever Wild Preserves, miles of peaceful nature trails and lots of places to go cycling, hiking and horseback riding.
The southern part of the park is more landscaped, and is always bustling with local families. You can easily spend the whole day here: There's a swimming pool, a golf course, barbecue grills, a historic museum and, of course, lots of nature. And after romping in one of the four playgrounds, kids can learn about the park's plants, flowers and creatures at the Urban Park Rangers' Nature Center.
If you do plan an outing to Van Cortlandt Park, keep in mind, it's huge! There's no way to cover it all on foot in one day (trust me I tried... with my six-year-old in tow). All of the park’s main attractions are conveniently clustered around transit hubs or parking lots. So set out with a manageable itinerary. You can always come back and visit again next weekend!
Here are 12 fun (and mostly free) things to do with kids in Van Cortlandt Park.
There are five trails located in the northern part of Van Cortlandt Park. They're all just over a mile long, but some are more challenging than others. Since I was with my son, I avoided the John Muir Nature Trail, which includes steep inclines, and opted for the Cass Gallagher Nature Trail through the Forever Wild nature preserve. It wasn't too steep and was well groomed, so we had no trouble following it. I was hoping we'd spot one of the white-tailed deer or coyotes that call the park home, but we only saw chipmunks and squirrels.
Ride a Bike
Although the Putnam Trail accommodates pedestrians, it's also the park's official bike path. The mostly wooded 1.5-mile route runs adjacent to the now-defunct New York Central Railroad’s Putnam Division rail bed, so you can check out cool remnants like old underpasses and steel bridges. You should definitely make a pit stop by the Parade Ground to see Cornelius Vanderbilt's 13 giant slabs of stone. The railroad entrepreneur had the different types of stone placed there so he could test which would be durable enough to use for Grand Central Terminal. (He eventually chose Indiana limestone.) There aren't any bike rentals spots in or near the park, so be sure to bring your own.
Go Horseback Riding
The park is home to the 21-acre Riverdale Stables, which offers horseback riding lessons, after-school programs and summer camp for kids. Lessons must be reserved in advance and are $40-$100 per sessions, depending on level and length.
Although there's no miniature golf, there are two public golf courses. Run by the Parks Department, the Van Cortlandt Park Golf Course is the oldest public course in the country. Although there is a weekday child's rate of $7.75, rates for adults are pretty steep and lessons aren't offered for kids.
The nine-hole Mosholu Golf Course & Driving Range seems to be a better option for families. Although the rates online are different, I called and was told that drop-in golf costs $7.50 for kids and $22.50 for adults if you live in NYC. (You have to buy an inexpensive permit.) Mosholu is also home to The First Tee of Metropolitan New York, which specializes in teaching young people how to golf. Kids can register for summer or fall golf programs. Hurry: Registration starts soon.
Hit the Pool
Near the park’s West 242nd Street entrance is an aquatics area with two free outdoor pools: a large one for swimming and a smaller wading pool for kids. Like all NYC Parks pools, they're open seasonally and have strict rules.
Van Cortlandt Park is a hot spot for neighborhood leagues thanks to its numerous baseball, soccer, cricket, handball, basketball, bocce, football and ruby fields, which are located in or near the 66-acre Parade Ground. The park also boasts running tracks and outdoor fitness equipment.
Romp in a Playground
With so much to do in the park, my son and I never made it to any of the four playgrounds. Three of them are located along Van Cortlandt Park South and are easily accessible via mass transit. The Southwest Playground is near the entrance to the park, the Classic Playground intentionally has the look and feel of a Robert Moses-era play spot and the golf-themed Sachkerah Woods Playground is near the Mosholu course. Up in the northern wooded area you'll find the Woodlawn Playground, which has equipment for kids with special needs.
Explore the Van Cortlandt Nature Center
If your kids are interested in nature, you definitely want to spend some time here. The center has lots of displays about urban forests, live animals to watch, pelts to feel and books to read. The Urban Park Rangers we met when we visited were totally engaging and let my son help feed the caged reptiles. Out back, there's a small but charming garden.
Step Back in Time
Built in the 18th century, the Van Cortlandt House is the oldest home in the Bronx. George Washington used it as one of his many headquarters during the Revolutionary War, and it was turned into a museum way back in 1897. While its hours aren't posted on the website, a posting on the door says it's open Tuesday-Friday 10am-3pm, and Saturday-Sunday 11am-4pm. I am a historic house geek (really!) and have wanted to visit this one for years, but we arrived at 4:14pm. Next time.
Enjoy a Barbecue or Picnic
Van Cortlandt Park has plenty of open space, plus a pair of designated picnic areas with barbecue grills. The first is near the West 242nd Street entrance near the pool. This was the most crowded area I encountered during my visit, so arrive early if you want to snag a grill. You can also try the Shandler Barbecue Area on the eastern side of the park near Jerome Avenue.
Van Cortlandt Lake is the largest body of fresh water in the borough. It was created when Tibbets Brook was damned up in the 1600s. You can go catch-and-release fishing here, but you'll need to bring your own pole, unless you visit when there's a scheduled fishing event. Regardless of whether you cast a line, the lake is a beautiful place and will give you the illusion of having left the city.
Join an Organized Activity
The Van Cortlandt Park Conservancy and the NYC Parks Department sponsor lots of wonderful outdoor events all year round. Most of the activities are free and great for families, including camping, fishing, swimming, canoeing, birding, hiking and cycling. SummerStage also hosts performances here, and the Van Cortlandt House Museum has activities. While the summer season is winding down, there will be fall fun too. Check the calendar to see what's coming up next.
Van Cortlandt Park is located between Van Cortlandt Park South and City Line, and Jerome Avenue and Broadway. It's easily accessible by the 1 and 4 subway lines. Click here for directions.