Van Cortlandt Hike with HikeNYC

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This hike is written and photographed by NYC Native, Galen Oettel, founder of HikeNYC. HikeNYC finds nature trails near you in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, and Staten Island.


Van Cortlandt Park

The city's third largest park offers a little of everything: miles of hiking trails, wetlands full of life, and long stretches of quiet forest in the Bronx.

Vault Hill

Vault Hill


Quick Info:

Distance: 4 miles

Difficulty: Strenuous

Getting there:

Take the 1 train to 242nd St, its last stop. Exit the station on the Van Cortlandt Park side and use the the staircase on the right, which will drop you off right at the entrance to the park.

The hike:

Boardwalk through a swamp

Boardwalk through a swamp

1. Enter the park and head straight past a grassy barbecue area. Soon you'll come to a junction; keep left and pick up a boardwalk leading through a swamp alive with birds.

2. Coming out the other end of the swamp, make a slight right and continue ahead to a sign pointing toward Van Cortlandt Lake. Turn right here and you'll come to a blue bridge offering nice views of Van Cortlandt Lake. There's a good chance you'll see a heron or an egret hunting along the lakeshore!

Van Cortlandt Lake

Van Cortlandt Lake

3. Cross the blue bridge and continue on the path until you see a trail on your right. This will take you through some woods along the lake.

4. After about 5 minutes this trail ends back at the main path. Turn right and cross the bridge ahead, offering a scenic view of a marsh home to giant snapping turtles that look like they should've gone extinct with the dinosaurs.

Bridge over the marsh

Bridge over the marsh

5. Continue on the main path for a minute and then turn left onto an obscure trail, which crosses a bridge and brings you by a stream. Go right here and you'll come up to a vast field called the Parade Grounds.

6. Turn right onto the path here, then go right again onto the cross country path (signified by the tortoise and the hare sign). If you're hiking while there's a race going on, you may have to dodge some runners.

7. Pick up the trail coming up on the left and head up Vault Hill (now the real hiking begins). After you pass a few boulders, keep to your left. You'll soon see an overgrown burial ground and then come to a rocky overlook of the distant NYC Skyline. Sometimes this spot is occupied by rock climbers.

8. Continue past the rocks and follow the trail here, bringing you back to the cross country path. Turn left here and follow the cross country path for a few minutes until you come to a bridge leading over a busy highway.

9. Once across the bridge, the sound of cars will quickly fade as you enter the vast Northwest Forest. Head left and you'll come to a clearing with bathrooms.

Swamp in the Northwest Forest

Swamp in the Northwest Forest

10. Now take the road to your left, heading downhill toward a red barn. Right before you reach the barn though, pick up the Equestrian Trail on your right (the sign for this will be facing away from you).

11. After a few minutes on the Equestrian Trail (where I have yet to see a horse), pick up a narrower trail on your left, signified by blue NYC Parks markers. Follow this trail as it leads up and down hills and then through a swamp.

12. Eventually you'll come to a lush swamp full life.

13. Continue straight to follow the Blue Trail. Now you'll start to gain elevation, get ready for the hardest part of the hike!

14. Continue straight uphill, crossing three paths, until you eventually come to a T. If you're not sweating yet, you should be the one running HikeNYC!

Northwest Forest 1.jpg

15. Turn right at this T and you'll come to the cross country path. For a quick detour, turn left here and continue straight to a rocky outcrop overlooking the surrounding forest. Now double back and continue on the Blue Trail.

17. After a few minutes you'll cross a path and the trail will lead up through cool rock formations. Watch out for a dramatic cliff face on your right.

18. After a little while longer, the Blue Trail will head down some steps and drop you off at a path. Now take a left and then a right. Soon you'll be back in familiar territory, with the bathroom and highway bridge to the left.

19. Re-cross the highway bridge, taking you back to Vault Hill. Now take a left, following the cross country path through a beautiful grove of sassafras trees. In a few minutes, turn right at a fork and you'll pass through a meadow filled with bees and butterflies.

20. Cross the Cross Country Trail and you'll come to a split. Take a left and follow the trail downhill. This will drop you off back at the Cross Country Trail. Now take a right and you'll come to the Parade Grounds.

20. Turn left at the Parade Grounds and follow the path along the field. Take a left when you come to a fork by tennis courts. As you approach the boardwalk from before, take a right to explore a beautiful swamp area. You're likely to see lots of bunnies here!

21. Now return to the path and cross back over the boardwalk. Take a right and you'll soon return to the 1 train.

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