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Trails

Putnam Trail

The Putnam Trail is located on the western edge of Van Cortlandt Lake and along Tibbetts Brook. The 1.5–mile trail occupies the old rail bed of the New York Central Railroad’s Putnam Division. Construction of the rail line began in 1870 and took ten years. The last passenger service on the line ended in 1958; however some freight continued to be carried on the line until the early 1980’s. Throughout the trail, hikers will notice the former rail line’s passages integrated into the park’s landscape — iron bridge structures at the trail’s south end and large underpasses below the roadways that weave through the park.

An entrance to the trail is in the northwest corner of a large parking lot along Van Cortland Park South. Just south of this entrance are the remnants of an old passenger platform. From this point moving north, the trail is frequently used and a wide dirt and grass corridor allows easy passage on foot or on bicycle. South of this point the trail is heavily overgrown.

As the trail stretches northward there are several connections to the John Kieran Nature Trail. Further north, the trail crosses a small bridge that spans an arm of Van Cortlandt Lake. Across the lake are views of the Bronx skyline and the impressive golf course club house. Van Cortlandt is the largest freshwater lake in the Bronx. This manmade lake was created during the 1690s when Tibbetts Brook was dammed to power a gristmill and is home to ducks, geese, swans and other waterfowl.

Among the unusual sights along the Putnam Trail are 13 large stone pedestals erected along the western side of the trail near a connecting trail to the Park’s Parade Ground. Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt placed the stone slabs along New York Central’s Putnam Division as an experiment. Stone samples were sent to the location from quarries across the northeast to determine which material would be the most impervious to weathering. The choice building material would be used to erect Grand Central Station in New York City. In the end, the second southern most stone, Indiana limestone, was chosen not for its durability but because it was cheaper to transport.

At the Westchester County line, the Putnam Trail joins the South County Trailway, an asphalt paved trail extending for 2.35 miles to Redmond Park in Yonkers.

Old Croton Aqueduct Trail

old croton aqueduct trail logo

The 1.1 mile Old Croton Aqueduct Trail covers the tunnel built during the 1830s and 40s in response to an inadequate water supply for a rapidly expanding New York City population which was suffering the hardships associated with lack of fresh water, such as epidemics and fires. Designed by engineer John B. Jervis, the aqueduct was an engineering marvel, extending 42 miles from the Croton Reservoir to Bryant Park. Its magnificent design featured a gradual pitch along the entire length, it required no pumps, with a flow of water that was entirely gravity fed, a design based on principles dating from Roman times. Builders had to maintain this steady grade through challenging terrain, cutting into hillsides, setting it level on the ground, tunneling through rock, and carrying it over valleys and streams on massive stone and earth embankments – even across bridges. The tunnel opened in 1842 and was used until 1897, when an adjacent tunnel replaced it.

The Old Croton Aqueduct Trail introduces park visitors to the area’s geology and some of the most unique forests in New York City, featuring majestic tulip trees, sugar maples, and American sycamores. When walking the trail, look for the telltale mound encasing the tunnel. In reading these physical “clues” along the trail, an understanding of how the tunnel engages the landscape deepens the trail experience. In 1974, the trail was placed on the New York State and National Register of Historic Places.

John Muir Trail

The John Muir Nature Trail (established in 1997) is Van Cortlandt’s only east–west path, traversing the steep terrain at the park’s center. Park visitors can hike the 1.5–mile path between Broadway and Van Cortlandt Park East. For a full visual description, take a virtual walk on the trail.

John Kieran Nature Trail

The John Keiran Nature Trail, established in 1987, exposes visitors to some of the park’s most scenic natural highlights along its 1.25 mile stretch, beginning with Van Cortlandt Lake.

John Kieran (1892–1981) was a writer and amateur naturalist who loved Van Cortlandt Park. Born in the Bronx, Kieran attended City College and Fordham University. In 1915, he began his career as a sportswriter for The New York Times. Over the next thirty years, he wrote for various other New York newspapers, and served on the expert panel for the radio show Information, Please. Nature was of the utmost importance to Kieran, especially the swamps and woods of Van Cortlandt Park. He wrote several books and articles including A Natural History of New York City for which he received the John Burroughs Medal in 1960. This work remains an invaluable reference to the city’s wildlife and wilderness during the first part of the 20th century.

Trail Highlights

This trail offers a view into the tremendous variety of plant and animal life in the park. The trail loops through freshwater wetlands where mallard and wood ducks can be found by the lake, and red–winged blackbirds and great egrets flock amongst the common reed. Different species of chipmunks and squirrels dart through New York fern and Virginia knotweed. Other plants are arrow arum, duckweed, buttonbush, and one particularly special tree, the gray birch. This species can take on an odd appearance, as it does here, with a five–trunk base. Very early in the gray birch’s life, it was damaged, perhaps by a hungry rabbit or a brushfire. The tree managed to survive by sprouting the several trunks that matured into the tree that stands today. Some interesting insects that inhabit this area are the birch leaf miner, waterstrider, and a variety of brightly colored dragonflies.

The Parade Ground, along the trail, was once a principal settlement of the Native Americans who lived in this area. The Lenape people had their main planting fields here, and the Van Cortlandts used the area for the same purpose. In 1890, the field was re–graded for use as a training area for Squadron A of the National Guard. The site was used for war games and polo matches, especially in 1917–1918 when the U.S. Army encamped here to train troops for World War I. Today, the Parade Ground is a major recreation area for baseball, cricket, soccer and cross–country running meets.

Where the John Kieran Trail combines with the Putnam Trail, visitors can see 13 stone pillars standing in the woods. The New York Central Railroad placed the different types of stone here to determine which would be most durable for use as the façade of Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan. They chose the stone that was the cheapest to transport along their rail lines: Indiana limestone (the two pillars on the far right).

Also along the trail is the site of a cemetery from the 1700s. Prominent families from the village of Kingsbridge were buried here, including the Ackermans, Berriens, Betts, and Tippetts. The grave markers are now gone and a stand of trees has grown up in their place. The site is recognizable by an iron pipe rail fence.

Cass Gallagher Nature Trail

The Cass Gallagher Nature Trail runs for 1.4 miles and serves the Northwest Forest off Broadway and Mosholu Avenue. It was dedicated in 1984 in memory of a longtime Bronx resident and devoted environmentalist who was committed to the park’s protection and enhancement.