It finally feels like fall in New York City, which means my family is headed to the hiking trail. At least once a quarter, usually coinciding with the change of seasons, someone in the family decides it's time to escape to the woods for a little urban relief. And really, there's no need to head upstate or to the 'burbs to get that outdoors fix.
Did you know that our fair city is home to over 300 miles of hiking trails through 10,000 acres of unencumbered Mother Nature? We have sampled enough parks around NYC to confidently share this list of trails that vary in length, scenery, and difficulty (including those just right for little legs), and that reward hikers with views of water, bridges, and yes, that gorgeous fall foliage. Whatever borough you call home, my boy, who helped to compile this list, and I hope you will have a blast lacing up and hitting the trails. Note: He is too young to share mommy's byline.
A hike in Van Cortlandt Park treats you to old forest, bridge crossings, and water views. Photo by Rich Mitchell via Flickr.
Old Putnam Trail – Van Cortlandt Park, the Bronx
At the top of our list (and on the map) is the Old Putnam Trail in Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. New York City's third largest park has it all: swimming pool in the summer, ice skating in winter, awesome playgrounds, a museum, and one of our favorite NYC hikes. The 1.5 mile hike starts at the Van Cortlandt Golf Course parking lot, which is especially convenient for drivers (the nearest subway is less than a mile away). This hike through beautiful old forest runs along an old former railroad route, resulting in a nice wide path. The Putnam Trail intersects other pretty trails if you decide to venture further. We especially love crossing the small bridge that takes visitors over the Van Cortlandt Lake and offers views of the Bronx skyline. We bring a picnic, even when we hike in the winter (we sure do!). Bathrooms can be found throughout the park.
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The Kazimiroff Trail runs through several types of habitats on Hunter Island, including wetlands. Photo by Julia Manzerova via Flickr.
Kazimiroff Trail – Pelham Bay, the Bronx
The Kazimiroff Trail in Pelham Bay Park is another excellent family hike in the Bronx. Located on Hunter Island, one of the best parts of this trail is the varied topography: spruce and pine tree filled forest in the center, surrounded by wetlands, a lagoon, a salt marsh, and Orchard Beach. Although Pelham Bay Park is three times the size of Central Park, the 189-acre Hunter Island portion of the park makes for a more intimate experience and this trail is just beautiful. There are options to make the hike shorter or longer, depending on your family's interests and abilities. There are several historic elements along the trail, including remnants of the Hunters Mansion and important landmarks dating back to the era of the native Lenape culture. Park in the Orchard Beach parking lot, with restrooms and playgrounds nearby.
Take in pretty views as you hoof it up the namesake terrain at Inwood Hill Park: a giant hill. Photo by Teri Tynes via Flickr.
Inwood Hill Park Hiking Trail – Inwood
Inwood Hill Park Hiking Trail in Manhattan is the most ambitious hike on our list and probably one of our favorites, because what can be better than hiking through New York City's only natural forest? My kids love to run up boulders along the way and explore every nook and cranny of this trail, which truly makes you feel as if you've left the city behind and stepped into the Hudson Valley. The first time we visited Inwood Hill Park, we departed from the Nature Center and walked along the marked trail until Overlook Meadow. You'll want to pause there to take in the awesome views of the Hudson River from the top of the hill. You can stop there and turn back if you have a tired little one. You might also head down and under the Henry Hudson Bridge for more beautiful views. The trail is located in the Northwest side of Inwood Hill Park and is conveniently located close to several subway lines. Restrooms are located within the park near the playgrounds.
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Alley Pond Park offers many easy trails that wind through the forest. Photo by Tia Keenen via Instagram.
Alley Pond Giant – Bayside, Queens
If Queens is on the itinerary, a visit to Alley Pond Park is a must. There are loads of activities and hikes to choose from in this park, but our favorite is the Alley Pond Giant. This trail takes you by an enormous tulip tree, considered the largest living organism in the city! The tree tops out at 133.8 feet, and is 18.6 feet wide. It's worth the walk to see this giant in person. We typically come to the Alley Pond Park for the zip line and ropes course, a thrilling destination for most kids, so to come down from the adrenaline rush of a morning spent adventuring, we enjoy this lovely stroll among some of the city's oldest trees and sweet ponds. You can find the entrance to the Tulip Tree Trail at the Cloverdale Boulevard east entrance, along with parking.
Stroll through the Brooklyn Salt Marsh. Photo by Peter T. via Flickr.
Brooklyn Salt Marsh – Marine Park, Brooklyn
Explore the Brooklyn Salt Marsh in Marine Park for a light hike. The almost one-mile loop takes you through a small slice of this 500 acre preserve. The terrain is very mild and the views along Gerritsen Creek and Manhattan in the distance are lovely. You will likely see osprey soaring overhead and gorgeous old trees. You can even take a stroller along the trail, though be warned that it's flattened gravel, not paved. Consider joining an Urban Park Ranger-led hike to get more out of the experience. Bonus: Parking across the street and access to public restrooms. Downside: Accessing the Brooklyn Salt Marsh without a car is inconvenient.
Take the Shore Parkway Greenway Trail straight onto Plumb Beach. Photo by Christopher Wassif via Instagram.
Shore Parkway Greenway Trail – Marine Park, Brooklyn
Hiking along Plumb Beach, part of the wonderful Gateway National Recreation Area, is our little family secret. Sure, you may have visited the actual beach, but we don't think as many have walked along the Plumb Beach portion of Jamaica Bay's Shore Parkway Greenway Trail. The entire trail is 12 miles long. A close botanist friend told us to expect gorgeous colors at Plumb Beach this fall, and we can't wait to head out there. Just keep in mind that certain portions of the trail are filled with runners and speedy bikers, making it a bit busy for kids. We've found the lovely dunes walk and lesser trails that run perpendicular to the paved trail just right. There is a parking lot at Plumb Beach just off the Belt Parkway and public restrooms, though they aren't usually the cleanest.
Conference House Park Blue Trail – Tottenville, Staten Island
The Conference House Park in Staten Island was a lucky discovery. We were poking around the NYC Parks' site and came upon this terrific video of an Urban Park Ranger actually walking the trail and sharing highlights. I was so captivated, we dashed there on our next "get me out of the city" family emergency. Our preference is to park in the lot adjacent to the Biddle House. From there, we walk along the blue trail through the forest, past several historic homes, an area rich in Native American history, until we reach the beach. If the tide is in, we swing north for a few minutes until we hit the Lenape Playground before heading back along the path to the car. The walk to the beach is about one mile. Walking along the sand is also an option if your family has the energy. There are public restrooms at the main entrance, as well as another parking lot.
With over 12 miles of kid-friendly greenspace and hiking trails, La Tourette Park is a treasure. Photo by Kyra Stoddart
LaTourette Park — Greenbelt, Staten Island
Nestled in the center of Staten Island, the Greenbelt area is a treasure trove of trails and resources for kids of all ages and interests. We hiked the Nature Center Trail because we had small children, so a 0.85 mile loop seemed like the perfect distance (there are tons more trails for more seasoned hikers or older kids listed here). We meandered down the trail to the left of the building and were led down a kid-friendly wood-chipped path through a wooded area with lots of stumps, logs, rocks, and critters to keep the kids interested. Check the hours of the Nature Center before you make your plans: There are fantastic planned activities available for families, but limited hours when it's not peak season. The day we went, the Nature Center was closed, so we were without bathrooms—something to keep in mind when you plan your hike.
Thain Family Forest — Bronx Park, the Bronx
The New York Botanical Garden offers a hike back in time through their old growth forest. Follow Native American hunting trails that have been around for centuries, and see marks left by glaciers. The forest has been able to adapt for thousands of years, and offers some unforgettable sights. There are trees that have been living since the American Revolution surrounded by New York's largest spread of uncut forest. The garden offers weekly bird walks, as well as plant talks (though these may be geared more toward the parents than the kids). Get your children excited about history on a long walk through this incredible NYC resource. They only ask one favor: Don't climb the trees!
If your family loves hiking, the New York City Parks department puts on a variety of fantastic hiking-related events that are worth checking out. Find more NYC hiking trails on the city's site, too.
A version of this story was originally published in 2016; it has since been updated. Mariko Zapf contributed additional reporting.