Introduction to Inwood Hill Park

Inwood Hill Park is at the north end of Manhattan Island. It's a good place to walk, bike, picnic, fly a kite, sit and read, watch birds, play ball, or run around. There are meadows, large wooded areas, soccer and baseball fields, tennis and basketball courts, playgrounds, an urban ecology center, and places where you can walk right down to the river. The wooded areas are all hilly, and some are fairly steep, but there are paved paths and even stairways.

The best and most popular playground is at Indian Road and 214th Street. The playground at Seaman Avenue and 207th Street has just been rebuilt, all cheerful reds and greens, the kind of playground I wish they'd had when I was a kid. There's another playground at the south end of the park, at Dyckman Street and Payson Avenue; I hope it's next for a renovation.

Depending on where in the park you are, it's either the Harlem River or the Hudson, but it's the same water: wide, dark, and beautiful, and sometimes treacherous: the tides run fast. One of the places where you can actually get to the river, at the north end of the park, is the last salt marsh on Manhattan Island, home to herring gulls, mallards, horseshoe crabs, fish, turtles, at least one muskrat, and a variety of migrating waterbirds.

If you want a nice long walk, there are several good ways into the woods. At the southwest corner of the soccer field (which is on the south edge of the salt marsh, about 215th Street), there are two paths up. If you turn right, you'll go along the salt marsh and under the Henry Hudson Bridge, and find yourself above the Hudson River. Walking south from there leads to a choice between a footbridge that takes you to ballfields at the river's edge, and a passage under the highway and deeper into the woods. If you turn left at the edge of the soccer field, the path is a bit steeper. There's a lot of green and some impressive rocks left by the glacier. All these paths are shared with the occasional cyclist.

Coming into the park at 207th Street, there's a steep stairway behind the tennis courts. At the top of the stairs, you can walk left along the ridge, right to an open area with a good view of the neighborhood, or down the other side of the hill. There's another stairway at the southwest corner of the park, at Dyckman and Payson Streets. Once you're in the woods, all the paved paths connect. There are some dirt-and-grass paths that are unofficial, not that the distinction means much; some are convenient shortcuts, and others lead nowhere in particular, or to the edge of a cliff. I like to go up into the hills one way and come down another.

I live next to the salt marsh. It's tidal, mostly mud that is uncovered at low tide except for a wide spot or two and the channels that carry rainwater to the river, with areas of marsh-grass at the edges. Next to that, the edge of the land has marsh elder, willows, a few wild rose bushes, a couple of mulberry trees, and a lot of plants I don't know the name of, plus some of the common dry-land weeds of the area, like mugwort and goldenrod. Most of the willows are old, and some are remarkably persistent: new young trees grown up from the rootsystems left behind when a windstorm blew a hollow tree down, reaching up for the sky again, the young thickets full of sparrows. The year-round waterbirds are mallards, herring gulls, and Canada geese. (It may not be the same mallards year-round, but there are always mallards.)

At the moment (August 2000) the marsh is home to Canada geese, mallards, both great blue and black-crowned night herons, egrets, and red-wing blackbirds,and a wide variety of others. The marsh also contains a turtle or two, plenty of small fish, and crabs. A hawk has been circling overhead, and a neighbor tells me he saw a bald eagle early in August.

On any clear day the view of the Hudson is worth the climb to Overlook Meadow, an open area at the edge of the woods, high above the river, where you can stare at the blue sky and not see any buildings. It's not as bright as it was in the summer, but the river catches the light, and the view across to the Palisades is restful.

The park isn't really a good place for stargazing, because there's too much light, but it's the best in the neighborhood, and good by Manhattan standards: a nice place to stop and look at the stars on a clear night, and dark enough that I got good long looks at Comet Hale-Bopp hanging over the Henry Hudson Bridge (in March) and the hills of the park (in April). It was also a good place to watch a lunar eclipse a few years ago.

Getting there: the easiest way to the park, if you don't live in the neighborhood, is the A train to 207th street. Exit at 207th Street (the back of the train) and walk west two blocks to Seaman Avenue. If you want to visit the marsh, walk into the park and then north along the wall, around the baseball fields, and you'll see it. The 1 and 9 train (215th Street Station) and several buses also stop nearby. From the 1/9, walk north on Tenth Avenue to 218th Street, then turn left (west) across Broadway. It's four blocks to the end of the street, and you're at the park. By bus, from the Bronx, take the Bx12 (take one marked "Inwood") or the Bx7 to Isham (211th Street) and Broadway; from upper Manhattan, take the M100. Driving might work during the week; on weekends and holidays there's nowhere to park, and double-parked cars will be towed.

There's a fenced dog run near the flagpole at Isham Street. There are numerous new signs forbidding unleashed dogs elsewhere, especially on the ballfields, but enforcement is spotty. In other words, if you're bringing a dog to the park, please don't let it run loose elsewhere; if you're worried about loose dogs, however, there are likely to be a few.

Park Events

The Parks Department runs a series of guided walks and other events in the park. For more information, call 1-800-201-PARK or (outside New York State) 1-718-383-6363. Most of these walks start at the Urban Ecology Center: use the park entrance at 218th Street and Indian Road.

The information in the list below is taken from a Parks Department handout; titles are the Parks Department's, but in many cases I've summarized the description. Many of them can, in any case, be fairly described as "the rangers lead a walk in the woods." Some events are repeated, perhaps with slight variations as the seasons progress. In particular, morning walks leave later in late autumn and early winter. (There are also Parks Department events at other parks, especially Central Park; the people answering the 800 number should be able to give you more information, and a list of all these events--from which my listing is taken--is available free at the Urban Ecology Center.)

June 2000

Saturday, June 24, 10 a.m.: Lecture on West Nile Disease, followed by a guided walk. At the Urban Ecology Center.

The exhibits at the Urban Ecology Center give a basic introduction to the local geology and ecology, but are no substitute for actually walking around. (There's also a public bathroom in the center.)

The center's official hours are Wednesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., but they're short-staffed. The center is generally closed when the rangers are leading a walk; they post an expected return time. Also, sometimes there's only one ranger on duty, and if anything happens in the park she'll have to lock up the building to deal with it. The best bet is probably to call first and make sure they'll be open if you're interested in organized activities.

Whether it says "hike" in the description or not, there's a fair amount of walking, some of it on moderately steep terrain, in all these walks. The Rangers aren't trying to wear you out, but if the idea of walking a mile or two over the course of a morning doesn't appeal to you, you might want to just stroll around the low-lying areas of the park on your own. Wear comfortable shoes: the paths are paved, but the paving is old and somewhat crumbly, and you may have to climb over a fallen tree-trunk or two. Many of these walks may not be accessible for wheelchair users: there are tree trunks across some paths, which fell on their own and have been left where they fell in order to keep cars out of the woods; the paving is often worn; and some routes involve stairs. (Gaps have been cut in most of the trunks, but they're on the narrow side.) However, the leaflet says "The Rangers will make every effort to accommodate people with special needs; please give advance notice. Assistive listening systems are available, call one week in advance. (212) 360-2774. TDD: (800) 281-5772."

It's often a few degrees cooler, and somewhat windier, in Inwood Hill Park than in Central Park (which is where the radio weather reports get their information). The walks won't be cancelled for cold weather, but birding walks may be cancelled if it's raining or snowing, and severe weather will keep people out of the woods, with good reason. You don't want to be under a tree in a thunderstorm, and the paths get slippery surprisingly quickly in a heavy rain; some are steep enough to be dangerous in those conditions.

These walks are generally suited to all ages, and you can bring a stroller; a full-sized baby carriage probably isn't a good idea, but consult the park rangers if in doubt. (I know strollers work because I've seen people bring them.)

For the bird-watching walks, bring binoculars, if you have them; people are often willing to share, but will want to look at the bird themselves first, and sometimes the bird will be gone before you get a chance to borrow a pair.

The Parks Department now has an official Web site, but it seems to be longer on fancy graphics than on useful information. (They webmaster seems to know this, but "please be patient" notes don't really make up for loading slowly because of unnecessary graphics.) Finding an individual park requires working through a series of maps, by borough and then by community board, and then tells you the acreage, location, "type" (park), minimal listings for playgrounds, and whether there is a public bathroom. The bathrooms in Inwood Hill Park is located, by the way, near the basketball courts at Isham Street, and in the Urban Ecology Center. Please use it: the woods and salt marsh are not public bathrooms and should not be treated as such. The Parks site does have an event listing, sorted by date within each borough.

I'd appreciate hearing from you if you like this page, or if there's information you want that I'm not providing.

In particular, I've gotten a number of requests for general information about Inwood. There's a Washington Heights and Inwood Web site that seems to be a good general resource, with lists of things like libraries and schools. Other relevant sites may also be found in the Webring listed below.

In the meantime, I'll mention that this is Manhattan, so it's fairly densely populated (mostly six-story apartment buildings), and parking is a problem. The schools are overcrowded, because people are moving to the neighborhood faster than new schools are being built, but I don't know how good they are in other regards. Other than the park and some sporting events at Baker Field (Columbia University football games, high school track, the finals of the Brooklyn Jamaican cricket league, that sort of thing), this isn't a neighborhood people come to unless they know someone who lives here--we don't have fancy restaurants, theatres, or music clubs. But it's a good place to live, you can get food delivered if you're too exhausted to cook (pizza, Chinese, Mexican, Indian, Thai, maybe other things), and you have a choice of two subway lines to take you elsewhere and get you back here.

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Last modified 13 August 2000. Copyright 1996-2000 Vicki Rosenzweig.

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