Ready for a wintery adventure up north this month? You don’t have to leave the confines of New York City to find a great spot for some snowy fun. Put on your woolies and head up to Pelham Bay Park, a coastal retreat of rolling hills, forests, and miles of rocky coast located in the northeast Bronx.
At 2,772 acres, Pelham Bay Park is the City’s largest green space. After a snowfall, the park is all whitespace. A fresh blanket of snow transforms Pelham Bay Park into a winter playground with fun opportunities for everyone – whether you’re looking for a long snowy trek, a quiet spot for winter birding, an open field for snowman fetes, or perfect winter scenery to practice your amateur photography.
Winter hiking is popular at Pelham. Trails are everywhere, come in all shapes and sizes, and traverse every section of the park. My favorite spot is Hunter Island, just north of Orchard Beach. Although it’s not truly an island any more – it’s joined to the mainland via the beach parking lot – the site has many choice trails that take you to the heart of the forest. For city kids who don’t know what phrases like “winter’s silence” or “snow falling on cedars” mean – Hunter Island’s forest will provide the perfect lesson.
One major path circles Hunter Island’s edge, offering scenic views of yellow-tinged marsh grass, big blue skies, white-capped waters, and the gleam of ice-coated boulders. If the setting makes you think you’re in New England, there’s a reason. Pelham Bay Park has the southernmost outcropping of Hartland Schist – the same rocky substrate that makes up the shoreline of Massachusetts and Connecticut.
For a different kind of winter work-out, strap on some snowshoes or cross-country skis. When snow depths are eight inches or more, snowshoes can provide a new, safe, and relatively inexpensive way to exercise.
Pelham Bay Park’s rolling terrain makes it an ideal place for the budding snowshoe enthusiast and the multitude of trails prove challenging enough for more experienced users. Just think – hundreds of years ago, snowshoes were the primary mode of transport in snow-heaped regions like ours. Nearly every Native American culture in cold climates developed its own particular shape of snowshoe, and the method was quickly adopted by the Europeans who settled here.
For winter exploration at a faster pace, cross-country skiing provides a good aerobic workout. In Pelham Bay Park, skiers prefer the bridle path because it has long, wide trail sections that provide a smooth run. You can strap on your skis in the rear of the Pelham/Split Rock golf course parking lot and start out on the trail section that begins under the railroad overpass. Another access point for a shorter run is by the Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum. Explore the trail, and when you get back, explore the lifestyles of those who once lived in this 19th century estate.
Winter at the beach? You bet! Hard-core runners and casual strollers who don’t mind the brisk winds are at Orchard Beach every day, enjoying the mile-long promenade. You may not be able to frolic in the waves, but the blank canvas of new-fallen snow is perfect for snow forts or snow angels, depending on your mood.
If you’ve got kids in tow, the beach is a good place to take a short nature hike on nearby Twin Island (also not a real island). Look for nuthatches and chickadees in the woods, and waterfowl like black ducks and buffleheads in the inlets. There’s even a great place to see harbor seals sunning themselves on the distant rocks of Middle Reef.
The days are shorter so leave yourself adequate time since winter hikes take longer. Always hike or ski with a buddy. Check on the weather conditions before you go. Bring water – you can still get dehydrated in cold weather. Dress warmly and in layers. Wear waterproof boots. And download a map to plan your visit.
Winter is a beautiful season. Go explore Pelham Bay Park. Go Park!
Marianne Anderson is the NYC Parks Administrator of Pelham Bay Park.