Biking the Manhattan Waterfront Greenway
Sunday, July 4, 2010
The idea of biking in Manhattan might bring to mind the surfing scene in the movie "Apocalypse Now," when Lt. Col. Kilgore orders his men to catch waves as mortar fire goes off all around them: insanity-induced whimsy surrounded by a world of potential calamity. Who, after all, would want to bike on a congested island where an errant bus or a maniacal taxi driver could flatten you like a crepe?
A lot of people think that the only place to pedal in the city is Central Park, where you only have to dodge other bikers, joggers and roller bladers. But to truly feel the exhilaration of riding around New York on two wheels, you have to try the Manhattan Waterfront Greenway.
Like many U.S. cities, New York has reconnected with its waterfront over the past decade, converting dilapidated docks and toxic marsh along the rivers into manicured parkland. Snaking through many of these parks is the 32-mile long Greenway, where more than four-fifths of the pedaling is done on bike trails, with only a few short detours onto less traveled city streets.
One warm recent Saturday, I rented bikes with my 13-year-old son, Jake, and my good friend Greg Grobstein (and his son Benjamin), and avid Manhattan biker Alex Cigale. Alex lives in Washington Heights on the northern tip of Manhattan and commutes to his job in Midtown every day by bike.
From 57th Street on the West Side, we headed north on 10th Avenue to 59th Street and down a hill to the opening of the trail. A pod of kayakers was heading off into the middle of the Hudson River, and families were boarding the large Norwegian Cruise Line ship as we started our loop. We soon passed the World War II aircraft carrier museum, USS Intrepid, to our right and a short time later, the large buildings of Chelsea Piers that house an indoor driving range, basketball courts, climbing walls and other active diversions. To our left was another successful reclamation project, the High Line park, a year-old green space on a long-abandoned elevated railway track.
As we passed the curved glass of the Frank Gehry-designed IAC building and entered Hudson River Park, Alex noted that this used to be a "seedy landfill," not gardens overflowing with flowers and gazebos where you can rest in the shade. At Stuyvesant High School, we veered right to bike along the World Financial Center. Sailboats tacked in front of the Statue of Liberty as we passed yachts docked in the harbor and a small Japanese garden, a perfect place to spend an afternoon with a thick book if I weren't so ambitious.
At Battery Park, on the island's southernmost point, long lines of people were waiting to board boats to Ellis Island. We wove our way through the crowds and continued north toward the South Street Seaport, where we noticed a display of antique police cars from all across the country parked in front of the New York City Police Museum. Staring at a 1951 police cruiser in mint condition, I realized that this was one of those unique New York moments one stumbles upon in a city brimming with nonstop entertainment. As Greg noted, "We never would have found this unless we were biking."
When you're not zipping around the city in taxis or subways, you're forced to slow down and appreciate the rough-hewn stone towers that fortify the Brooklyn Bridge. Nearing the Williamsburg Bridge, we saw kids playing Little League and all ages kicking around soccer balls in the many fields of East River Park. North of Houston Street, we cruised on a brand-spanking-new boardwalk, stopping to look across the river at the old Domino Sugar factory in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn.
Just past the tall red-brick apartment buildings of Stuyvesant Town, the trail narrows and hugs the water, and we watched cormorants fly overhead. At 35th Street, we made our first foray onto city streets. On First Avenue, we biked in the bus lanes and weren't bothered by the traffic. We quickly skirted that tall rectangular block known as the United Nations, far more mesmerized by the art deco Chrysler Building to our left. At 54th Street, we followed Alex as he turned right and then ventured north onto lightly traveled Sutton Place. Immediately after ducking under the Queensboro Bridge, we got back on another bike trail.
The Upper East Side portion of the ride was a serene jaunt as we made our way past Gracie Mansion. Here's where the loop got a bit tricky (so be sure to pick up a detailed NYC cycling map from any bike rental store or visitor center before you begin). From 125th Street, we made our way north on streets hugging the Harlem River Drive. At 154th Street, just under the Macombs Dam Bridge, we could see Yankee Stadium across the Harlem River and the old New York Giants Polo Grounds, still a ball field, to the left.
Biking along the Harlem River Greenway, under the steel arch High Bridge, which opened in 1848 as the city's first aqueduct, we spotted recent additions to this part of the waterfront, such as a new boathouse and a children's garden. As the trail ended, we made our way up to the tip of the island along 10th Avenue, making a left onto 218th Street. We could have continued along Dyckman Street to the Hudson River Greenway, but this way, we were able to see the rolling hills of Inwood Hill Park and have lunch at one of my favorite local restaurants, the Indian Road Cafe.
After reenergizing on pastrami Reubens and pressed Cuban sandwiches while listening to a jazz pianist, we climbed through the thick forest of Inwood Hill Park and made a slight detour into Fort Tryon Park to see the Cloisters, a replica of a French monastery that houses the Metropolitan Museum of Art's medieval Europe collection.
Then it was a straight shot along the Hudson on a bike trail under the George Washington Bridge (stop to see the Little Red Lighthouse, circa 1880, directly under it), into Riverside Park, past the 79th Street boathouse and the condos of Trump City. Seven hours later we were back where we'd started with a new appreciation for Manhattan -- and our aching bodies.
Jermanok is the author of Outside Magazine's Adventure Guide to New England. He blogs daily at www.ActiveTravels.com.