Van Cortlandt Park

Updated: Feb 9, 2021

The city's third largest park offers miles of hiking trails and long stretches of quiet forest in the Bronx.

Quick Info:

Distance: 4 miles

Difficulty: Strenuous

Map: See bottom of page

The commute:

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

The hike:

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.

Boardwalk through a swamp (1)

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 chance you'll see an egret or heron hunting along the lakeshore!

Van Cortlandt Lake (2)

3. Cross the blue bridge and follow the path until you see a trail to your right. This will take you through 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.

Snapping turtle in the marsh (4)

5. Continue on the main path for a moment, then turn left onto an obscure trail leading over a wooden board. You'll now cross the marsh again, which is a good place to look for green herons and wood ducks. Just pretend that there isn't a golf course on the other side of you...

6. Go right at the split ahead 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).

7. Jump on the trail to your left, bringing you up Vault Hill (now the real hiking begins). After you pass a few boulders, keep to your left. Pass an overgrown burial ground to reach a rocky overlook of the distant NYC Skyline. You're not too far from Westchester at this point!

8. Continue past the rocks and follow the trail here, bringing you back to the cross country path. Turn left and follow this 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. 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 to a lush swamp.

Swamp in the Northwest Forest (12)

13. Continue following 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!

15. Turn right at this T and you'll come back to the cross country path. For a quick detour, turn left here and continue straight to a rocky outcrop overlooking the surrounding forest. This view is best during Winter.

Rocky outcrop in the Northwest Forest (15)

16. Now double back and continue on the Blue Trail. After a few minutes you'll cross a path and the Blue Trail will lead up through cool rock formations. Watch out for a dramatic cliff face on your right.

Cliff face in the Northwest Forest (16)

17. 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.

18. Re-cross the highway bridge, taking you back to Vault Hill. Go left, following the cross country path through a beautiful grove of sassafras trees. Can you find all three distinct leaf-shapes?

19. In a few minutes, turn right at a fork and you'll pass through an overgrown meadow.

20. Cross the Cross Country Trail ahead 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 detour by going right to explore a beautiful swamp area. You're likely to see lots of rabbits around 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.