My family has long thought of Central Park as our backyard. And while we've romped across most of its 843 acres, and enjoy an occasional visit to the zoo or our favorite playground on the southern end, we're just as happy to leave that portion of the park to the tourists.
Instead, you'll find us exploring above 100th Street, in the northern reaches of the park, which are just wooded enough to make you forget the urban jungle for a bit. A recently-announced $150 million dollar renovation project will update the aging pool and skating rink at Central Park's Harlem Meer, while creating new trails and restoring the landscape—but there's no reason to wait until that project's estimated 2024 completion date to enjoy this beautiful parkland.
From a babbling stream, to renovated playgrounds, rolling meadows, perfectly manicured gardens, and the wild of the North Woods, here are 10 things to love about Central Park's northern edge.
Wander through the stone bridges and marvel at their beauty.
1. The North Woods
This 40-acre forest retreat spans a good portion of the north and west sections of Central Park, stretching from 101st Street north to the Park's edge at 110th Street. Well worn paths take you along a stream, under soaring, gravity-defying stone bridges, past babbling waterfalls, and up and down hills. Fall is a particularly stunning time to visit as the foliage bursts with beautiful colors. We love to spot fish and turtles in the water. In the Ravine section of the North Woods, felled trees create habitats for the wildlife that calls the area home. There are loads of birds, and careful eyes will spot raccoons, too. We always like to try to spy them in the treetops taking their daytime siestas!
Take some quiet time to appreciate the stunning Conservatory Garden.
2. The Conservatory Garden
A stark contrast to the wild of the North Woods, the Conservatory Garden is a 6-acre formal garden that stretches from 104th to 106th Streets along Fifth Avenue. It's actually a trio of gardens—in distinct French, Italian, and English styles—guarded by the Vanderbilt Gate, which dates to 1894 and originally stood at the entrance to the Vanderbilt Estate at 58th and Fifth.
Designated a quiet zone, the Conservatory Garden is stunning in any season, though spring is hard to beat. Walk the crabapple-tree-lined alleys in the Italian-style garden, and stop to admire the grand pergola dripping with beautiful wisteria blooms, framing a view toward the central fountain. On the northern end, in the French section, you'll find The Three Dancing Maidens fountain and ever-changing planting beds full of seasonal blooms. To the south, in the English garden, you'll find the Frances Hodgson Burnett Memorial Fountain with its border of planting beds, a tribute to the author of The Secret Garden. Pro parenting tip: The bathrooms here are usually the best-maintained in this section of the park!
Head to the Discovery Center to make a plan for a day of exploring Central Park.
3. Charles A. Dana Discovery Center and Harlem Meer
The Charles A. Dana Discovery Center serves as the visitor's center for this section of the park. Beyond offering information, it also hosts rotating exhibitions. In the past, we've seen exhibits about the fish that call the Meer home, and currently there's a history of the Park's role in military installations on display. The Discovery Center lends discovery kits, lawn games, and even fishing poles for catch-and-release fun, making it a great starting-off point for a Central Park adventure. The Harlem Meer, which surrounds the Discovery Center, is home to a vibrant ecosystem and an even more colorful crowd. Pack a picnic and a blanket and relax on its shore for a day of watching the people, the waterfowl, and the turtles!
This rink is a great first skating experience for little ones.
4. Lasker Rink & Pool
On the southern edge of the Meer, you'll find Lasker Rink & Pool. Offering recreation in any season, it's a FREE NYC Parks Department pool during the summer. Come winter, it houses a pair of ice skating rinks. Beyond offering learn-to-skate programs, partnering with local schools for weekday ice time, and offering public open-skate times, it also teams up with local orgs like Ice Hockey in Harlem and Figure Skating in Harlem to offer on-ice recreation and opportunities for competition.
The city recently announced plans for a grand, $150-million reconstruction of the rink and pool, creating a sparkling new recreational facility that connects the Harlem Meer and the Ravine. The project is expected to break ground in 2021 and be completed in 2024—but there's no word yet on when the Lasker Rink facility will close, so expect to enjoy it for a few more seasons to come.
There is no shortage of playgrounds in Central Park!
The area above 100th Street houses a whopping five playgrounds, and two even rank among our top playgrounds in Central Park. The oldest of the bunch is the Robert Bendheim Playground at 100th Street and Fifth Avenue, beloved for its large jungle gym and sand area. The Bernard Family Playground was renovated in 2018 and offers a lovely view of the Meer, plus age-appropriate play for toddlers and preschoolers. Further north, you'll find my kids' favorite, the East 110th Street Playground, which attracts an older crowd and a more wild style of play. At the Park's northwest corner, you'll find the West 110th Street Playground, which makes for a good spot if you have different-aged kids. A trio of concentric circles house big-and-little kid climbers with a water play area in the middle. Another all-ages pleaser is the Tarr Family Playground on 100th Street and Central Park West. There is ample sand, fun sprinklers, big-kid climbers, and a fun pyramid to scale before swishing down the fast slides.
6. The Great Hill
Located just north of 103rd Street on the west side of the Park, the Great Hill is one of the Park's highest points. Originally meant to provide a view of the Hudson River and New Jersey Palisades to the west, that view has faded with the passage of time and the growth of Morningside Heights, but this spot is still a lovely destination, with a quarter-mile track encircling a grassy lawn. With on-site bathrooms, it's a great spot for a picnic or the annual Great Jazz on the Great Hill concert.
You can stop by the North Meadow Recreation Center to borrow a field day kit.
7. The North Meadow
Many a sports parent knows the recreation opportunities here. With baseball, softball, and soccer fields competing for space, there's seemingly always something happening on The North Meadow. If there's room to stage your own game, stop by the North Meadow Recreation Center to borrow a field day kit. The East Meadow nearby also offers plenty of space for romping and active recreation.
8. History and Architecture
Two structures that predate Central Park can be found near its northern end. Fort Clinton was once a military installation for the British in the Revolutionary War, and was later taken over by the Americans prior to the War of 1812. Standing on a high, rocky outcropping, its strategic advantage is easy to see, even though it's no longer a full-fledged fort. Today, Fort Clinton is marked by a circle of rustic benches surrounding a pair of cannons that survived its battle-scarred past. Other vestiges of the Park's military history include Nutter's Battery, Fort Fish, and the Blockhouse, which is the oldest remaining structure in the park.
Architecture lovers will surely appreciate the soaring arches in this section of the park, which include The Huddlestone Arch. Designed by Calvert Vaux, this arch, located at mid-park and 105th Street, is built of huge, uncut boulders, held together by nothing but gravity. The Glen Span Arch stands above the North Wood's stream and provides a grand entry into this scenic glen. Nearby, you'll find the Springbanks Arch, which my children affectionately refer to as "the echo cave," thanks to their many attempts to scream into its walls and elicit, you guessed it, an echo!
If you really want to sled in NYC Central Park is the place to do it!
9. Great Sleddng Hills
When a big snowstorm hits, you'll find my family perched above the sledding hill at 100th Street and Central Park West. While it's our favorite to careen down, it's far from the only one in this section of the park. The hill at 106th Street and Fifth Avenue always draws a crowd, as does the Great Hill.
10. Family Programming and Events
There are tons of opportunities to learn more about this section of the Park thanks to the Central Park Conservatory's Tours and Family Walks, which include everything from history-focused tours of military installations to fall foliage walks and introductory birding talks. But we're also big fans of the regular annual events that take place around the Harlem Meer, including the Halloween Parade and Pumpkin Flotilla each Halloween, the annual tree lighting, which sets a floating display of trees alight in the middle of The Meer, and the summertime Harlem Meer Performance Festival. Another can't miss annual event: New York Classical Theatre's annual Shakespeare performances, during which actors roam the area surrounding the Pool, making for a more active audience experience that's perfect for kids.
Northern Central Park is easily accessible by the B/C trains along Central Park West or the 2/3 trains at the 110th Street/Central Park North stop. The M1, M2, M3 and M4 buses all run nearby, too.
A previous version of this story was published in 2007. Anna Fader contributed to its reporting.
Photos by the author