If you’ve ever wondered what a ghost town feels like, a weekday trip to Pelham Bay Park in early spring will give you a fairly good idea. It has the feel of a place that time has forgotten—with a crumbling mansion (under renovation) and a fenced-in Depression-era bathhouse that gives off an eerie atmosphere. The fact that it was once the site of local Lenape Indian camps and a former burial ground only adds to the vibe.
Pelham sits on a whopping 2,764 acres on the eastern shore of the Bronx, just a hop north of New York City. It's the perfect place for folks looking to get away from the noisy city bustle, just south of the Westchester County suburbs. The park has views of Pelham Bay, Eastchester Bay, Hutchinson River, and a lagoon.
While you’ll find as much space and quiet at Pelham as you could possibly ask for, there are signs of life here and there. Along a stretch of beachfront, withered old men can be found sitting in their folding chairs wistfully looking out at the horizon; the occasional group of students on a field trip will file by on the way to the playground or the nature center; and there are handfuls of solemn fisherman setting up lines at various spots.
The main thing to remember when you head over to Pelham is that it is a massive, rambling site—it has a footprint three times the size of Central Park. For city dwellers who’ve done Central Park to death, Pelham is a great alternative with a seemingly endless list of activities and sites that will take multiple visits to exhaust: from miles (and miles) of salty shoreline, to marshes and mud flats, nature trails and a wildlife sanctuary, paved biking trails, monuments, and relics, and even gardens, golf courses, an equestrian center, bridle paths, batting cages, and a beach.
Follow signs for Orchard Beach and you’ll find the best spot to park. In the summer there is a fee to park ($7 on weekdays and $9 on the weekend) in the main lot but in the spring the cashier booths and much of the lot sit empty. From Orchard Beach you can explore the other sections of the park easily by foot or bike.
If what you are looking for is an easy and beautiful trail run through tidal wetlands and woodlands, with a dash of beach and little elevation, you’ll be in the right place. There are three main trails: the Kazimiroff Trail, Siwanoy Trail, and Split Rock Trail.
The Kazimiroff Nature Trail is a natural wonder found on Hunter Island (though it is now a peninsula). A canopy of soaring treetops and branches shooting in just about every direction will surround you as soon as you hit the trail—tall Norway spruce, white pines, and oak (white, red and black), according to the park. The access point for the trail is right near the northern end of the Orchard Beach parking lot, past the playground. When you exit the trail you’ll be about 50 yards away from Pelham’s crescent shaped beach, which stretches for a little over a mile, and which is ideal for adding a slightly softer terrain at the end of your workout. There is also a paved walkway wrapping around the entire beachfront, if you prefer firmer footing.
The trails through the island are easy to follow and wide. The Kazimiroff trail is perfect for a side-by-side run with a running partner, and you'll never be bumping shoulders or moving into single file, and as you run you’ll have unlimited access to glorious water vistas. The trails have some minor inclines and descents and while the terrain has some rocks, it is mostly easy to wander through. You may see a few other runners or a dog walkers as you go (I even saw a woman walking a ferret on a leash—speaking of strange and eerie) but the woods are peaceful and you can run for stretches blissfully alone and able to focus on nothing but nature—and that’s the point of Pelham.
Two other trails are worth hitting if you are looking for more varied terrain: The Siwanoy and the Split Rock Trails. The Siwanoy Trail, a 1.5 mile hike that runs through a 23-acre forest southwest of Orchard Beach. The trail will meander past the Bartow-Pell Mansion, which is covered in scaffolding, and then onto the adjacent Bartow-Pell Woodlands.
The Split Rock Trail starts near the Bartow Traffic circle just south of the Split Rock Golf Course and Pelham Golf Course. Just follow signs for the golf course once you pull out of the Orchard Beach parking lot. The trail leads you past the Goose Creek Marsh and to the Thomas Pell Wildlife Sanctuary, which runs along the western edge of the park looking out onto the Hutchinson River.
If you are looking for a two-wheeled workout, there is also a two-lane, paved bike path that will allow you to glide past a majority of the park’s offerings. Pulling out of Orchard Beach, you’ll run parallel to Park Drive and then have to decide whether to head eastward or westward on City Island Road.
Heading southeast at the City Island traffic circle will take you past the Meadow area and to a short bridge that leads out of the park and into City Island. But be careful, the bridge is under renovation and traffic lanes have been rerouted. If you head west on City Island road, you’ll pass the Central Woodland area and hit Pelham Bridge Road. Turn north on Pelham Bridge Road, go around the Barlow traffic circle and connect with Shore Drive and you’ll have a little less than a two-mile stretch past the golf courses to the park’s northern edge.
If you go just a little past the park's boundary you'll find Shore Park on your left. Picnic benches provide the perfect place to take a break and soak in the views as you look into Pelham Bay Park. Since the bike path is not a loop, you’ll have to turn around and head back on the same path to return to Orchard Beach.
If you’re looking for directions or information while in Pelham Bay Park, you’ll won’t find much on site or online. The best map is on the Friends of Pelham Bay site. There are few signs and even less information once you get there. A stop in the rundown building which looks like it might be an information station, might actually yield a woman (standing next to a two foot tall replica of a squirrel), saying to look online for information.
There are clean, well maintained bathrooms in a building right off the beach if you need to make a pit stop before or after your adventure.
When you finish exploring the park, follow the signs for City Island and you’ll find plenty of local eateries—with seafood options, of course. On the way there you will pass by Turtle Cove, which houses batting cages, mini-golf, and a golf range. There is also a café on site if you want to grab some lunch for the road.
Once summer arrives and the beach opens, Pelham will take on far more life with the arrival of beachgoers, and opportunities to canoe and kayak. So take advantage of these fleeting spring days for a truly surreal experience at this unique New York gem.