Take the A train to the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge for an urban national park considered to be one of the most important bird sanctuaries on the east coast.
Distance: 4.5 miles
Map: See bottom of page
Quick advice: You should always bring buy spray on a hike, but for Jamaica Bay it is particularly necessary. The closer to sunrise or sunset you go, the more unbearable the mosquitoes get. DEET is highly recommended.
Get on a Far Rockaway-bound A train. Make sure you don't get on the Ozone Park-Lefferts Boulevard branch; this won't take you where we're going. Basically, there are two different types of A trains that split off in different directions at a certain point (which I find more than a little confusing but that's the MTA for you). After a long ride out you'll get some pretty awesome views as the subway glides over Jamaica Bay.
Get off the train at the coming stop - Broad Channel - an island on the bay that feels more like a remote beach town than NYC. Once off the train, follow E 6th Rd to Cross Bay Blvd. Cross the boulevard, turn right, and after about 10 minutes you'll reach the wildlife refuge (signified by fancy National Parks signs).
1. I highly recommend taking a pit stop in the visitor center before you start your hike - it has cool facts about the park, A/C, and bathrooms! Also take advantage of the nice picnic area if you brought food.
2. Exiting from the back of the visitor center, go to your left and you'll find a boardwalk leading out to the first view of the day. Here you'll see a vast salt marsh home to a stunning number of birds -- this wildlife refuge is visited by hundreds of species every year! If you really like birds, come here during spring and fall migrations for the best experience.
3. Backtrack to the visitor center and turn left onto the West Pond Trail. At the start of the trail you'll pass through meadows full of wildflowers, which attract colorful butterflies. You're not hallucinating if you see a cactus growing alongside the trail - the sandy soil creates desert-like conditions that this plant loves.
4. As you keep walking you'll get expansive views of Jamaica Bay's salt marshes to the left left. This fragile ecosystem has been of utmost importance to protect in recent years, because of its ability to improve water quality and protect the surrounding communities from severe storms.
5. Coming up on your right is West Pond, which had a rough 2012 after a breach caused by Hurricane Sandy allowed saltwater from the bay to pour into this once freshwater pond. Fortunately, the breach has recently been repaired by the National Parks Service and the pond's ecosystem is slowly recovering.
6. As the path curves around, you'll have more views of West Pond on your right as well as the hazy Manhattan skyline to your left. During June, diamondback terrapins can be seen coming ashore to lay their eggs in the sand.
7. Eventually you'll escape the exposed West Pond Trail and return to the shade. Turn right here and continue straight to return to the visitor center. For a quick detour however, turn left and you'll soon come to a tall platform home to nesting ospreys. These "fish hawks" have been remarkably successful at the wildlife refuge.
8. If you're here in the summer and you've had enough of the heat or bugs at this point, you can call it a day and return to the A train. If you've got a little more energy left in the tank though, it's worth it to cross the street and pick up the trail here for more nature and opportunities to spot wildlife.
9. Follow the trail through woods of ferns and birch trees. After about 5 minutes, look for a right turn. Now you'll travel through a swamp of tall reeds and come to a T. Turn right here and continue straight ahead to reach East Pond. This long stretch of open water is sometimes covered with birds. You'll also see the A train as it glides along the other side of the pond.
10. Leaving East Pond behind, turn around and keep straight until you see a boardwalk on your right. This leads to a bird blind on Big John's Pond, where you're likely to spot more birds such as green herons and the resident barn owls (sometimes they peek out of the bird house).
11. Once you've had your fill of bird watching for one day, continue on the path and take a left at the clearing up ahead. Continue straight and you'll soon find yourself back at the visitor center for a fitting conclusion to this hike.