At long last, the interminable Polar Vortex is behind us, and you can go outside without being gripped by a desire to murder a meteorologist, or worse, move to Miami. And to celebrate this (no doubt temporary) respite from snow, we've rounded up some of the most sublime places in the city to stand outside, soak up some of that elusive sunshine and perhaps spot an animal that isn't munching on your morning croissant. Enjoy it now, friends, before El Nino washes away what's left of the natural world! Here are our favorite outdoor spots; leave yours, and preferred sunscreen brands, in the comments.
Courtesy Brett Weinstein's flickr
JAMAICA BAY WILDLIFE REFUGE: This Queens park is a haven for birdwatchers, salt marsh eco-life enthusiasts and pretty much anyone who'd rather see turtles frolic IRL than have to flush them down the toilet in your apartment. The refuge, which is part of the Gateway National Recreation Area, sits on 14.3 square miles of marshland and is intermittently home to over 300 bird species.
There are a number of trails available for hiking, along with sunset tours, boat trips, woods, water ponds, horseshoe crabs, turtles, butterflies and dozens of other animals and reptiles you probably don't get to hang out with in the urban jungle. And though Jamaica Bay sustained significant damage during Hurricane Sandy, rehabilitation efforts have gotten it back on its feet, if not completely restored to its former glory.
Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge is located at West Pond near Cross Bay Boulevard in Broad Channel, Queens (718-318-4340, nps.gov/gate).
Courtesy michbunny's flickr
STATEN ISLAND GREENBELT: The Greenbelt is the city's second biggest collection of public parks, with trails, wetlands and wooded areas covering 2,800 acres in the center of the borough. There's plenty of wildlife here, with reptiles, amphibians, birds, deer, chipmunks and fish alike flocking to find refuge in the landscape and waters.
Hikers, bikers, walkers and runners can take on the preserve's six main trails, which wind through rough terrain, ponds, woods and open fields; curious botanists can also learn more about the area's history and ecology at the Greenbelt Nature Center, and there's a seasonal carousel for kiddies at Willowbrook Park that includes a PANDA to ride. A PANDA. (Not a real panda, but beggars can't be choosers, and the world's most adorable animal is still a sight to behold in ceramic form.)
The Staten Island Greenbelt is located on 2,800-acres in the center of Staten Island; the Greenbelt Nature Conservancy is located at 700 Rockland Avenue (718-667-2165, sigreenbelt.org).
MUSCOTA MARSH: Muscota Marsh is a relative newcomer to the city's nature-scape, having made its Inwood debut this January. But this lovely space, located on an acre by the Harlem River, boasts beautiful walking paths, wetlands, marshland and, hopefully once winter thaws, a bevy of plant and animal life the likes of snowy egrets and harbor seals.
There's also a dock for kayaks and canoes (though you'll have to bring your own, sadly), picnic areas, and views of Spuyten Duyvil and the Palisades. Do note that the park was built by Columbia University and may be inundated with petri dish-wielding biology majors during the school year, so try to swing by in the summer months if you can.
Muscota Marsh is located at West 218th Street and Indian Road in Inwood (nycgovparks.org).
HUNTER ISLAND IN PELHAM BAY PARK: Hunter Island's name is a bit of a misnomer—though the 97 square mile space was once an actual island, it's since been connected to the Bronx's mainland via landfill. But the area, poised on the edge of the Long Island Sound, has retained its idyllic nature, boasting a half-moon beach, an oak forest, nature trails, play areas, promenades and an array of flora, fauna and wildlife. Take a stroll along the 189-acre Kazimiroff Nature Trail and see if you can spot the remnants of the Hunter mansion, where former island owner John Hunter lived until his death in 1852.
Hunter Island is located along the Long Island Sound in Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx (nycgovparks.org).
Courtesy Dan Nguyen's flickr
CARL SCHURZ PARK: This one is for the canine-lovers—Carl Schurz Park has some of the best dog runs in the city—one for large doggies and another for small—and the area is always lush with adorable four-legged animals scampering around and nipping at one another. Doggies aside, the Yorkville park features lovely gardens, green lawns and walking path; an East River promenade for pedestrians and bikers that affords great views of Queens and beyond; plus a statue of Peter Pan, pine trees and plenty more pretty sights for flower-starved Manhattanites.
You can set your children free in the park's playground and hockey rinks then wander along the waterfront, or station yourself outside Gracie Mansion in hopes of spotting Dante de Blasio's afro—the newly in-use mayor's home is located on the park's grounds.
Carl Schurz Park is located at 1624 York Avenue between 85th and 86th Streets on the Upper East Side (646-781-9100, carlschurzparknyc.org).
Courtesy Aonghais MacInnes's flickr
RAVINE/MIDWOOD IN PROSPECT PARK: Prospect Park's got plenty of outdoor space for nature fiends, but it tends to overcrowd with the baby carriage-pushing set on pleasant spring and summer days. Thankfully, the Ravine/Midwood section located toward the park's center is still serene enough for solo outside wandering. The Ravine, wedged between Long Meadow and the Nethermead, is the most rocky section of the park, with "hiking" paths, waterfalls and woodlands similar to what you might find in the Adirondack Mountains. The Midwood is Brooklyn's oldest forest, featuring centuries-old (and super tall) trees, hiking paths and animal habitats that existed long before the bars, bespoke hat shops and Baby Bjorns moved in.
The Ravine/Midwood area is located near the center of Prospect Park, 95 Prospect Park West in Brooklyn (718-965-8951, prospectpark.org).
Courtesy wallyg's flickr
LOUIS VALENTINO JR. PARK AND PIER: At a mere 4.5 acres, this little community park doesn't offer much in terms of size. Thankfully, the view from the pier more than makes up for the acreage, offering a spectacular shot of the New York Harbor and the Statue of Liberty, which is only about a mile and a half away. The long pier's got plenty of room for fishing and free kayaking when the weather's warm (DON'T EAT THE FISH), plus there's grassy, flowered space nearby for strolling and picnicking. If you like a little somber reflection with your sun, note that the park is named after Brooklyn firefighter Louis J. Valentino, Jr., who was killed in 1996 during a three-alarm Flatlands fire.
Valentino Pier is located at Coffey and Ferris Streets in Red Hook, Brooklyn (nycgovparks.org).
OWL'S HEAD PARK: This Bay Ridge oasis is one of the most peaceful spots in the city, sporting 25 acres of quiet lawns, rustic paths, massive trees, and fields. There's a also playground for young children, a dog run and a number of basketball courts and baseball fields, if you're into that sort of thing. But if you're looking for a break from all that commotion, there's plenty of natural-ish landscape to wander through, not to mention the stellar view of Lower Manhattan, Staten Island and the Statue of Liberty you can glimpse from the park's pier. Bonus points: the hilly park is the best place to go sledding in the winter, making it a solid outdoor option with or without summer sun.
Owl's Head Park is located at Colonial Road and 68th Street in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn (nycgovparks.org).
Courtesy Atomische*Tom Giebel's flickr
FOREST PARK: This huge (nearly 507 acres) Woodhaven park has everything a nature-seeking human dreams about, like hills, trees, bridle paths, leaf-strewn jogging/walking paths, a golf course, playgrounds, a running track, hundreds of trees—the list goes on and on. There's also an historic carousel that finally reopened, after being shuttered for a seeming eternity (four years—all those kids are grown up now!), and Jonah Hill may have sat on or near it. Just do yourself a favor and stick to daytime strolls and runs here, since the park has a spotty history when it comes to crime.
Forest Park is located at Myrtle Avenue and Woodhaven Boulevard in Woodhaven, Queens (nycgovparks.org).
FIGMENT at Governors Island (via Scoboco's Flickr)
GOVERNORS ISLAND: This one's kind of a gimme, but let's face it—it was a beautiful day for outdoorsy folk when Governors Island finally opened to the public, and we will never give it back, no matter how little time we're allowed to spend there. The seasonal park reopens this Memorial Day weekend with another 30 acres of public space added to its repertoire, making over 50 acres of the 172-acre island accessible to hordes of bikers, walkers, tourists, Civil War reenactment enthusiasts and Jay Gatsby wannabes citywide. The new acreage also offers a 360 degree view of New York Harbor, the Statue of Liberty and Downtown Manhattan.
Governors Island is located in the New York Harbor, and can be accessed by a free Brooklyn and Manhattan ferry and by the East River Ferry; visit govisland.com for details.