Sometimes a walk in the woods or an afternoon hunting for sea critters on a beach is just exactly what you need. Here are some of our favorite nature escapes within 30 to 60 minutes of central Queens, NYC. Last update: August 30, 2021.
Beginning last May, a few months into the pandemic, our family began to venture out of our Jackson Heights apartment to various parks in Queens, desperate for a change of scenery and more space (and grass) in which to play. At first we kept within a 20-minute radius, and we learned to take every precaution we could: avoiding others, wearing masks, using sanitizer, limiting stops to takeout. And we left early in the morning, which meant we encountered far fewer people.
As time passed and the weather warmed, we drove a little farther, and added beaches to the mix. When winter approached, we bundled up and continued to hike, meeting out-of-state family on trails. All of the parks and hikes below make perfect day trips from New York City. They’re within 30 to 60 minutes of Jackson Heights and central Queens in general, and are ideal for any season. Most important, they get you into the natural world fast, and that’s a restorative place to be.
Our advice? Head out early, bring a packed lunch and a towel or blanket, and download the All Trails app if you’re hiking and/or the Seek by iNaturalist app so you can identify the plant and animal species you come across (trust us, it is fun!). These are some of our favorite nature escapes in Queens, Westchester, and Long Island. But we are just getting started: Let us know your favorite nature escapes from NYC in the comments.
Its environmental center is always a hit for birthday parties and weekend visits, but during its temporary closure we’ve gotten to know the beautiful diversity of the park surrounding it, the second-largest in Queens. Thanks to Alley Pond Park’s glacier-carved moraine, there are freshwater and saltwater wetlands, tidal flats, meadows, and forests, with plenty of trails. We liked the trails around the kettle ponds in the south and middle of the park, where we spotted frogs, chipmunks, and lots of birds among the canopy.
Update: APEC is now open, albeit in a different (temporary) location along 76th Ave. During a recent visit the staff was as welcoming as ever to our gaggle of kids, showing them around the animal room and taking several critters out. From this location (and parking lot) you can walk east and access the trails that loop around the kettle ponds.
This one’s no secret, of course, but we’ve rediscovered its beauty off the main paved walking/biking trail on the park’s hilly eastern side, away from the sports fields and playgrounds. There we found fallen logs over streams, carpets of wildflowers, and dirt trails winding through towering century-old oak trees. We parked near the Visitors Center and started exploring the quarter-mile trail around Strack Pond, but then moved our car to Myrtle Avenue to access the hiking trails in that eastern half of the park.
On a more recent hike in Forest Park, we spotted a hawk, some chipmunks, and a tiny bat snoozing in a bush along a trail. We also wandered a bit along the train tracks that diagonally bisect the park—the Lower Montauk Branch of the Long Island Rail Road, which once carried passenger traffic but are now used only for very occasional freight traffic. Keep in mind that the farther north you walk, the closer you are to just crossing Union Turnpike and swinging by Eddie’s Sweet Shop, the oldest ice cream parlor in New York City!
This lovely spot is a true refuge and nature escape from the city—quiet, green, smelling of the sea and totally tranquil aside from the incessant birdsong. (More than 330 bird species—nearly half the species in the Northeast—have been sighted here. Bring your binoculars!). From the main gravel path you have access to a series of little beaches, where we found mussels to collect and some space for a picnic lunch. It’s not too hard to claim an empty spot here, particularly if you go early.
There’s also access to a larger beach on Jamaica Bay, which was filled with tide pools and horseshoe crab shells during our visit. (Note: On a later visit, the bay beach was closed to visitors to promote habitat regeneration.)
Named for a renowned sculptor who lived in the area, this leafy waterfront park is an oasis in residential College Point. Shady paved paths with actual hills wind through towering old-growth trees—our kids loved scooting here. There’s plenty of lawn on which to throw open a blanket, a playground for kids, and lots of benches on the promenade along the East River. We didn’t know this pretty park even existed until last year, and it’s just 25 minutes from our apartment. It will be beautiful in the fall!
If it’s a playground you are looking for, we love Elmhurst Park, Francis Lewis Park (next to the Whitestone Bridge), and of course waterfront Astoria Park and Long Island City’s Gantry Plaza State Park/Hunter’s Point South Park. The latter does get crowded, but there’s enough room along the gorgeous riverfront promenades to spread out. (Don’t miss the Chinelos birria trucks that typically park along Center Blvd.!)
For a glimpse of Gatsby-era New York, check out this beautiful 216-acre preserve on the original Guggenheim estate, its historic imposing mansions and impeccably landscaped grounds. Six well-marked hiking trails through dense woods, a freshwater pond, sea bluffs, and a pretty mile-long beach on the Long Island Sound are among the features worth exploring. It makes for a really, really nice day—bring a picnic lunch and show up early. It’s open from 11am to 6pm, Wed-Sat, and 9am-6pm on Sundays, and costs $15 per car to enter. Last year in May, we left by 2:30 and saw a long line of cars waiting to get in.
Bonus: You can swing by Flushing on your way back to pick up dinner! Or just stop for ice cream at the excellent Max & Mina’s, where the walls are plastered in cereal boxes and the homemade flavors are just as colorful. (Do check its hours before you go; they frequently change.)
Another sprawling, lush former estate (this one of an oil fortune heir), the wooded Welwyn Preserve is a less crowded alternative to Sands Point. It likewise has a lavish mansion (built in 1906), shoreline access, freshwater ponds, and nature trails, though they are wilder than at Sands. There’s also a coastal salt marsh, where our kids delighted in spotting about a hundred crabs scattering around. More than 100 species of birds, small mammals, reptiles, and amphibians may be spotted too.
Close to the parking lot is the Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center of Nassau County—the building is currently closed, but you can walk around the pretty Children’s Memorial Garden, dedicated to the 1.5 million Jewish children killed in the Holocaust. There is also a fascinating collection of abandoned, overgrown, and graffitied greenhouses, which were part of the original estate (but too expensive to restore).
To find the beach from the parking lot, take the wide paved access trail to the left of the main building—it is not marked and just looks like a closed road. It’s about a 10-minute walk, mostly downhill. From the beach walk north and turn right, into the woods, to find the salt marsh, and then pop into any trail that looks interesting (it’s easy to get a little lost here, so that All Trails app comes in handy).
Mercadente beach at Garvies Point
En route to Welwyn Preserve, this is a random pit stop we’ve grown fond of, included here just in case you happen to have kids who are as obsessed with finding critters as ours are. The small crescent-shaped Mercadente beach, which backs up on a newly constructed condo site, is mostly used for fishing and dog walking, and we’ve since learned it’s supposedly for Glen Cove residents only. Oops. Well, no one’s checking and no one will bother you if you swing by for a critter hunt.
At low tide there are lots of crabs, sea snails, steamer clams, razor clams, and a host of things we haven’t yet identified in the muck, plus horseshoe crab shells, sea glass, and other treasures to inspect on the rocky shore. (If this sounds like it would appeal to a kid you know, this catch-and-release collection bucket makes the perfect gift. And maybe a net like this. You’re welcome!)
Bonus: Garvies Point Brewery is right on the access road to this beach and as picnic tables outside for beer sampling. No kids were allowed the last time we checked, but you can take some away and drink stealthily somewhere nearby!
These all (just) cross over the hour-drive mark, but we also like Sunken Meadow State Park (for the beach), Fuchs Pond Preserve (for a short kid-friendly hike), Kings Park Bluff (for the beach and crab collecting), and Wertheim National Wildlife Refuge (for kayaking and canoeing) on Long Island.
Stretching along the Mamaroneck River in White Plains, this rolling forested park has a bunch of trails to explore plus a big playground, golf course (and mini golf), and public pool. You can spend a good half-day hiking at Saxon Woods, or go for an hour and find plenty of rocky outcrops and fallen trees to keep things interesting for little hikers. It’s a wonderful spot to reconnect to nature for a few hours right off the Hutchinson River Parkway.
Three miles of hiking trails wind through forest, meadow, and salt marsh in this county park and wildlife sanctuary in Rye, offering plenty of diversity in landscape. The marshes are the highlight, especially when the golden afternoon sun sets the grasses ablaze against the tranquil blue backdrop of the Milton Harbor on the Long Island Sound.
Our kids delighted in spotting and collecting tons of tiny crabs among the marshy muck (bring wipes for cleaning muddy child hands/arms/legs!); we also saw some beautiful birds, chipmunks, and even a lost baby turtle in the parking lot. The hiking is more suited to a stroll through the woods and along some beautiful waterfront—don’t expect strenuous exercise, but do bring lunch or a snack to enjoy on a rocky outcrop or bench overlooking the sea.
It’s popular and gets crowded, but for good reason: This impeccable place is all quiet countryside, wooded hills and valleys, bubbling streams, colonial stone walls, and pastoral fields. Depending on what trail you’re on, you may encounter panoramic views of the Hudson River, the tranquil Swan Lake, stone bridges crossing the Pocantico River, equestrians on the crushed-stone carriage roads (created by John D. Rockefeller Sr. and Jr. in the first half of the 20th century), or a flock of friendly sheep—the Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture abuts the preserve.
We first got clued into this nature preserve via the Epicenter-NYC newsletter, which touted it as a great alternative to Rockefeller that’s reliably less crowded and just as pretty, similarly varied with a series of lakes. About 15 minutes farther north in Ossining (and about 50 minutes from Queens), the Teatown Lake Reservation is indeed gorgeous and well worth a day trip to explore some of its 15 miles of trails. We had time only for the 1.5-mile lakeside loop, which encircles Teatown Lake (the biggest of the lakes scattered among the preserve) via a rugged trail, but there are plenty of offshoot trails, including one on which we found an ideal picnic spot alongside a frog-filled stream. The easy-to-access loop trail is probably the most popular (and crowded) route—and on busy weekends, like the perfect fall day we visited, the small parking lots fill up. Be patient; you’ll find a spot.
Next time we will arrive earlier and spring for the 3.8-mile three lakes loop—this whole area begs for further exploration. And we will definitely return to nearby Fable: From Farm to Table for our picnic fare: The working farm hosts a market Fridays through Sundays with plenty of fresh bread, local cheese, salami, pesto, fruits and vegetables (if you’re lucky, Thompson’s Cider Mill will also be there with its apple cider, hard cider, doughnuts, and muffins).
This 190-acre county park is a designated biodiversity reserve area, home to many migratory birds, turtles, dragonflies, and more. It’s no wonder there’s a variety of habitats to explore: a lake, mixed hardwood forest, vernal pools, a swamp, a small cascade, remains of quarry operations. Trails are between one- and 2.4-miles long, but they aren’t very well marked—if you’re like us you’ll just wander around for a few miles and find your way out (it’s not too large of a place). Everywhere we hiked was peaceful and pretty, even in January, but the quarry, with its climbable rocks and cliff walk, was the fan favorite among our group.
The pro move for city dwellers is to stop in the Bronx for lunch to go (we love Joe’s Italian Deli); there are a bunch of picnic tables under the trees at the trail entrance.
Another pretty Westchester County park, 236-acre Silver Lake Preserve features about three miles of trails through woodlands alongside the lake, and steep rocky outcrops that bring hikers high above. Small streams dot the rugged landscape; we spotted a snake, frogs, and salamanders on our last visit. Our kids (and their friends!) love the off-trail rock scrambling, but it’s a really enjoyable hike for all ages.
From the parking lot off Old Lake St. (disregard the default Google directions to the parking area), you first meander down Merritt Hill, a historic site marking one of the actions in the Battle of White Plains on Oct. 28, 1776. The beginning part of the trail opens onto a field with a commemorative cannon, and then leads straight down to the lake. Take the Heritage Trail along the northern edge of the lake, and eventually you’ll have the option of going up into the rocky outcrops (follow the sign for Pop’s Cave, which we’ve never successfully located).
The trails get a bit unclear—on one visit we looped back down to the lake trail and retraced our steps out; on another we did a longer hike and kept wandering on the upper route to the west side of the lake, before taking the lake-side path all the way back—but the preserve is not so big that you’ll get lost. (Again, the AllTrails map helps.)
The last time we went, we brought along a stellar cheese selection from Jackson Heights’ Standalone Cheese and found some rocks and fallen logs to picnic on. Recommend!
St. Matthew’s Church Woodlands
I hesitate to share this little gem of a spot in Bedford (northern Westchester), but it’s such a summertime joy for anyone with kids who love catching (and releasing) critters. About an hour away by car, the beautiful woodland area behind St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church (map) has a few hiking trail loops, but the main attraction for anyone with children (or a dog) is the crayfish-filled Beaver Dam River, which is really more of a flowing stream. Find it just at the bottom of the wide gravel road next to the parking lot (you’ll pass a cemetery and a sweet little chapel in the woods).
Our kids came prepared with bathing suits, catch-and-release buckets, and nets, and they caught at least 40 of those crawdads! Plus a few small fish and a frog. It’s a lush, peaceful spot, and there are at least three or four spots you can access the stream if you find the first occupied.
Post critter catching, there are two pretty hikes through dense forest you can access from the stream: the Glebe (6/10 of a mile), which is the loop back to the parking lot, and the Ketchum Sanctuary, composed of two loops that start across the bridge (lower loop trail is 6/10 of a mile; upper loop is 9/10). You take the yellow-marked BRLA connector trail across the stream to find the start of the blue-marked Ketchum Sanctuary trail. The trails are not the best-maintained, but they’re quiet, lush, and provide good opportunity to work those quads a bit going uphill.
On our last visit, we stopped for dinner on the way home at Fortina Pizza in Armonk, which has plenty of outdoor and indoor seating (plus very good wood-fired pizzas and pastas).
Don’t miss our in-depth post about things to do near Greenwood Lake, New York—another fabulous destination just an hour from Queens—as well as in Narrowsburg and Callicoon, which are out of day-trip range but perfect for long weekends away.
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