the urbanist

The Urbanist’s Guide to Approachable, Unusual Hikes

Avoid the day-tripper crowds at these expert-recommended trails.

The Sugarloaf Hill–Osborn Loop Trail. Photo: Courtesy of Melissa Goodwin
The Sugarloaf Hill–Osborn Loop Trail. Photo: Courtesy of Melissa Goodwin

So many more New Yorkers are hiking this summer. In order to avoid the dozens of other people who had the same idea to spend their Saturday at Bear Mountain, we talked to three rangers and three frequent hikers and found a selection of surprising, slightly less popular options (including one with a pen of poison-ivy-eating goats) that are suitable for even the least experienced of hikers.

Avoid Breakneck Ridge. Longtime popular hiking spots like Harriman State Park, Bear Mountain, Minnewaska State Park Preserve, and Breakneck Ridge are especially overrun at the moment. “We open at 9 a.m., and there are hundreds of cars waiting to get in,” says Eric Humphrey, manager of Minnewaska State Park Preserve. “So even coming early isn’t necessarily the best solution.” With the pandemic crowds in mind, in June, the New York State Parks Department released the NY State Parks Explorer app, which features more than 246 parks, historical sites, and recreation trails as well as details on when they’re open, what amenities are available, and directions. The app makes it easy to find less-busy alternatives — rangers suggest searching in the section called “Hidden Gems” (one recommendation there: Sterling Forest State Park, where hikers can see songbirds, hawks, and the occasional black bear).

If you’re carless, pick something accessible by train. Melissa “Click” Goodwin, a Brooklyn-based hiking guide and founder of Girl Gotta Hike, recommends the Sugarloaf Hill–Osborn Loop Trail, which starts in the parking lot at the Garrison Metro-North station, is mostly flat, and features abandoned buildings and graffiti. Afterward, she says, stop at nearby Dolly’s for a soft-shell-crab roll. Or take the same train to Tarrytown, where you can grab a taxi to the entrance of Rockefeller State Park Preserve, a former country estate of the Rockefeller family with 45 miles of 16-foot-wide paths. Fifty minutes north, there’s the Fishkill Ridge Trail, which is an 11-minute taxi ride from the Beacon station and known for its steep upward climb (and oft-circling turkey vultures, bald eagles, and falcons), and the significantly easier Riverfront Trail in Long Dock Park, which abuts the Beacon stop and passes by a factory that once churned out bricks (some of which of which ended up in the Empire State Building and Rockefeller Center).

If you have a car, drive to Dutchess County. Mike Todd, founder of Hike the Hudson Valley, likes the 14,000-acre Fahnestock State Park (a 90-minute drive from the city) and, in particular, the 1.5-mile-long, kid-friendly Pelton Pond Trail. The parking lot generally has spots, he says, and there are often beavers congregated around the pond. For a slightly longer hike, Todd recommends heading to the nearby Staatsburgh State Historic Site, where the 65-room Beaux-Arts Mills Mansion marks the beginning of a trail that goes right up against the Hudson River — so close you can dip your feet in. If you don’t mind a slightly longer drive (about two hours), take the ADA-compliant Ashokan Rail Trail in Ulster County, recommended by Rita Shaheen, director of parks at Scenic Hudson. The entrance has a pen of goats, which are brought out to eat poison ivy on the property.

Don’t count out New Jersey. The New York–New Jersey Trail Conference is an excellent resource for finding less-populous hikes as close to the New York state line as Ringwood State Park and as far as Washington Crossing (which hugs the border of Pennsylvania), according to Justin Bailey, a New York State licensed hiking guide. The site recommends against visiting the typically overrun Wawayanda State Park. Instead, try the Ringwood Manor Trail, an 80-minute drive from the city. About a two-hour loop, it starts at a 210-year-old Federal-style estate of iron magnates Peter Cooper and Abram S. Hewitt. And if you want to swim, the nearby 3.5-mile Monument Trail Loop off Route 23 features access to the famously clear-watered Lake Marcia.

Or just hike in the city. In Brooklyn, there’s the Ravine in Prospect Park, which was designed by Olmsted and Vaux with the Adirondacks in mind, winds through waterfalls and a small gorge and is considered Brooklyn’s sole forest. Or take the ferry to Staten Island and hike through High Rock Park, a 2,800-acre conservancy with six walking trails. Tara Abell, Vulture editor and Staten Island native, recommends the relatively flat 12-mile Blue Trail, which “is so wooded you feel like you’re upstate” and takes you to Todt Hill, one of the highest points on the Eastern Seaboard. And if you want to end up in Manhattan, there’s the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail, which starts in Yonkers and runs 26 miles to Cortlandt. To access it from the city, take the 4 train to Woodlawn, then Westchester’s Country 20 Bee-Line bus to Central Park Avenue. It’s worth taking the three-and-a-half-hour (completely flat) walk from Yonkers to Tarrytown, where you can easily pop out onto Sunnyside Lane to peek into Washington Irving’s estate and, a mile north, railroad magnate Jay Gould’s Gothic Revival mansion, where you can see the half-destroyed remains of a Lord & Burnham greenhouse and a garden that contains 500 roses set in three concentric rings.

*This article appears in the August 3, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

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The Urbanist’s Guide to Approachable, Unusual Hikes