Natural beauty was the feature that first attracted 19th century park reformers to the area now known as Pelham Bay Park. They realized that the land needed little alteration in order to play a vital role in their proposed system of Bronx parks. With flowering grassy meadows, saltwater marshes, rocky shores, and dense woodlands, this acreage was stunning in and of itself. In addition, the Park has New York City’s most ecologically diverse habitats, and has been called “unique on this continent” by the Audubon Society. The Park offers urban visitors a rich source of discovery about native ecology and the opportunity for respite and relaxation.
An overview of the natural resources of the Park follows here. Areas that are of interest can be clicked on the list below, or reached by scrolling down.
Bodies of Water
Forests and Woodlands
Geology – Bedrock and Boulders
Islands—Hunter Island and Twin Island
Meadows and Grasslands
Sanctuaries – Hunter Island and Thomas Pell
Wetlands – Salt Marsh and Freshwater Wetlands
Bodies of Water
Pelham Bay Park’s 13-mile shoreline is one of its most distinctive features, offering sublime vistas for the hiker and vital habitat for abundant wildlife species. The dominant surrounding waters of Long Island Sound shape the park’s coastal environment and provide warm sunbathing in the summer at Orchard Beach. The Hutchinson River forms the park’s western border, while Eastchester Bay serves as a division between Rodman’s Neck and the southern area of the Park. The picturesque Lagoon flows between the area of Orchard Beach/Hunter Island and the woodlands where Bartow-Pell Mansion sits. Bartow Creek, Goose Creek, and Turtle Cove offer additional opportunities for being close to the water.
Forests and Woodlands
Although the words are often used interchangeably, there is a difference between woodlands and forests. A forest is thick with trees, the dense canopy allowing little sunlight to trickle through. Woodlands are more open, with trees spaced farther apart allowing more sunlight to reach the ground. Forests often have three distinct layers – an overstory of tall trees, understory of smaller trees and shrubs, and a groundcover of herbaceous plants. Woodlands generally have a thicker underbrush of vines, shrubs and herbs. Pelham Bay Park is well-known for its nearly 800 acres of forest and woodlands.
Hunter Island has the largest continuous forest, including many of the oldest trees. The native forest in its northern section includes Chestnut Oaks, Hickory, Black Locust and Black Cherry, Black Birch, and Tulip Trees. Two patches of evergreen trees here were planted by the Parks Department in 1918 in a reforestation effort and contain some of the tallest trees on the island.
Surrounding The Meadow at Orchard Beach is a different forest of White Poplar, Pin Oak, Black Cherry, Crab Apple, Sumac, Dogwood and Bayberry bushes. Another forest called Wedgewood occupies the northeast corner of the Park, near the border of Westchester County. Rodman’s Neck, known for its active sports fields, is also home to monoculture stands of European alder and white poplar. The area of forest known as Central Woodland – west and north of the Turtle Cove Golf Center – is known for moist woods and swampy tracts with large Sweetgum, Red Maple, and Pin Oak. Large tracts of oak-hickory forest border the greens of the Split Rock Golf Course.
The woodlands in the southern section of Pelham Bay Park is where one of New York City’s “Great Trees” can be found – a large white oak measuring 56” in diameter that is estimated to be over 220 years old. Also in this area, the Huntington Woods, a 41-acre section of the Park once owned by wealthy philanthropist Archer Milton Huntington, has a scattering of mature specimen trees left from the estate that are mixed into a canopy predominant with Black Cherry and Norway Maple, and including Hickories, Oaks, Sassafras and Black Walnut.
Much work has been done throughout the park to restore forest and woodland areas severely degraded by invasive species of shrubs and vines. These are removed and then native tree and shrub species appropriate to the specific location are planted. This has been possible thanks to funding from MillionTreesNY and the dedicated work of the Natural Resources Group, Pelham Bay Park Administration, and numerous volunteers.
Forever Wild is an initiative of the Parks Department to protect and preserve the most ecologically valuable lands in New York City. To learn more about the Forever Wild designation in Pelham Bay Park, visit the park’s website at http://www.nycgovparks.org/greening/nature-preserves.
Geology-Bedrock and Boulders
Pelham Bay Park has a fascinating geology with many surprising features facing Long Island Sound. The Park is home to stunning “glacial erratics,” large boulders deposited some 20,000 years ago by the flow of the Wisconsin Glacier. The massive ice sheet also carved and scoured the underlying rock substrate or bedrock. The park’s bedrock is a complex mix of rocks comprised of both Fordham gneiss and Hartland schist. The rocky coastline around Hunter Island and Twin Island is the southernmost tip of the Hartland Formation, the bedrock that runs along the New England coastline as far north as Maine.
Two of the Park’s most prominent glacial erratics are “Glover’s Rock,” on Orchard Beach Road (a plaque on the boulder commemorates a pivotal Revolutionary War Battle) and “Split Rock,” long associated with legends of Anne Hutchinson, which sits on a small patch between two highways at the northwestern corner of the Park. Other boulders of note are “Sphinx Rock” on the eastern coast of Twin Island, “Grey Mare,” on the northwestern shore of Hunter Island, and “Tilly’s Rock,” along the northeastern coast of Hunter Island.
For the Native Americans who once populated this land, large boulders often served as gathering spots for ceremonial purposes, or as look-outs. For an in-depth look at Pelham Bay Park’s most prominent boulder sites, see the “Nature: Topics” page.
The most well-known islands of the Park are Hunter Island, which was joined to The Bronx mainland in the 1930s when Orchard Beach was constructed, and Twin Island, added when the beach was expanded in the 1940s. Hiking trails, boulder sites, and an abundance of plants and wildlife make these islands popular destinations. (See details regarding these islands below.) In addition, Pelham Bay Park contains many smaller islands such as Hog Island, Cat Briar Island, Two Trees Island, and the Chimney Sweeps in Long Island Sound, and Goose Island on the park’s west side in the Hutchinson River. These islands are important, protected places for waterbirds to breed and nest.
The designated Hunter Island Marine Zoology and Geology Sanctuary includes all of Twin Island, Cat Briar Island, Two Trees Island, and the northern and eastern shoreline of Hunter Island. Sanctuary designation means that plant and wildlife here will be preserved for both study and recreation. Exploration is possible by hiking along the Kazimiroff Nature Trail.
At nearly 220 acres, Hunter Island contains some of the park’s finest habitat – a rocky coastline, tidal wetlands and dense woods, as well as the Park’s highest point, at 90 feet above sea level. Tidal wetlands ring the island’s coast. The north and east shores are part of the Hunter Island Marine Zoology and Geology Sanctuary created in 1967 (see Sanctuaries below).
The island is mostly forested – the largest contiguous forest in the park – dominated by some of the park’s oldest stands of oaks. Other trees dominating the canopy include various Hickories, Tulip Tree, Sassafras, and Black Birch. A lush groundcover of native plants like Wild Geranium and White Wood Aster blanket the forest floor at different times of the year. Hunter Island’s extensive forest supports a rich bird population such as Rose‑breasted Grosbeak, Red‑eyed Vireo, and Eastern Wood Pewee. The island’s two conifer stands attract local species of owls during the winter.
Originally occupied by local Native Americans known as the Siwanoy, Hunter Island was purchased in 1654 by Thomas Pell, an English doctor and businessman from Connecticut. The island was called Pell Island and later Pelican Island until John Hunter purchased it in 1804 and built an elegant mansion on its highest point. Plants that Hunter imported for his gardens, like Periwinkle and Hosta, are still visible. After passing through the hands of several other families, Hunter Island became public parkland in 1888. Once surrounded by water, the island was attached to the mainland in the 1930s when Orchard Beach was built.
The 19-acre area now known as Twin Island features salt marsh and a variety of wildlife including swans, ducks, egrets, osprey, fish, clams and crabs. Twin Island’s unique intertidal marine ecosystem is listed as rare in New York State. This is also a place to spot hawks and woodpeckers. In late winter, Twin Island provides a good viewing place to watch Harbor Seals sunning themselves offshore on Middle Reef, a series of rocks located to the east in Long Island Sound.
Twin Island is also comprised of a small woodland, an abundance of flowers and grasses, and a rocky coast or Hartland Schist, the same bedrock formation found along the New England coastline. The unusually-shaped “Sphinx Rock,” is perched upon the rocky shore here, as seen here in winter.
Water has shaped Pelham Bay Park’s landscape and accounts for nearly 660 acres of its 2,772 acres. When Orchard Beach was built between 1934 and 1938, the original “Pelham Bay” was filled in. The remaining waterway west of the parking lot became known as The Lagoon. In the early 1960s, The Lagoon was widened and dredged to host the 1964 U.S. Olympic Rowing Trials.
The open water is a little‑disturbed environment where fish are plentiful. Fluke, Winter Flounder, and Bluefish run here during their respective seasons. The calm waters, abundant marine life, and thriving salt marsh attract many varieties of birds, such as American Black Duck which is abundant in winter. Wading birds, such as Egrets and Herons, and shorebirds, such as Willets and Killdeer, are found here while migrating Ospreys can be seen plunging into the water to catch fish. The Lagoon is also a popular spot for rowing crews from local schools. Park visitors can use the canoe and kayak launch located in the northwest corner of the Orchard Beach parking lot.
Southwest of Orchard Beach is a 25-acre area known as “The Meadow.” This area was created during the construction of Orchard Beach when soil was scraped from its surface to be used as fill, leaving a shallow ground layer in close proximity to the water table. This process ended up providing an excellent habitat that supports seasonal grasses and wildflowers, butterflies and birds. One can find Switchgrass, Goldenrod, Little Bluestem, Bayberry, and Gamma Grass which is listed as a rare plant by New York State and is the only host plant enjoyed by a rare moth, Amphipoea erepta ryensis. The moth’s only known habitat is Pelham Bay Park.
A place of great natural beauty, The Meadow has been a site of active restoration by Park staff and volunteers. Without such maintenance, meadows and grasslands could become overgrown and slowly transform into woodland or monocultures of vines or non-native plants like Phragmites or mugwort. This succession occurred in an area in the southern part of the Park known as South Meadow, which is now partly forested.
Pelham Bay Park has two Nature Centers, one in the south part of the park and one in the north. The Pelham Bay Nature Center in Pelham South is accessed by entering at Bruckner Boulevard and Wilkinson Avenue. The Orchard Beach Nature Center is located at Section 2, along the boardwalk of the Beach. Although there are no set hours of operation, both Centers are meeting places for Urban Park Ranger activities in all seasons.
Designated by New York City law in 1967, the Thomas Pell Wildlife Sanctuary and the Hunter Island Marine Zoology and Geology Sanctuary protect 489 acres of marshes and forests within Pelham Bay Park. In 1963, when the City began landfill operations on Tallapoosa Point, plans were drawn-up to expand landfill operations west of the Pelham Bridge and north along the Hutchinson River marshes. These actions would have created the City’s second-largest refuse disposal site (Fresh Kills in Staten Island is the largest). Widespread community opposition resulted in the creation of the sanctuaries.
At 375 acres, the Thomas Pell Wildlife Sanctuary is the larger of these two designated areas. The Sanctuary forms the western edge of the Park, encompassing the salt marshes bordering the Hutchinson River, as well as the oak-hickory forests around the Split Rock Golf Course, the wetlands surrounding Goose Creek, and Goose Island to the south in the Hutchinson River. The Split Rock Trail leads through this rich environment of woods and marsh, home to a wide variety of trees, birds, and mammals, including raccoons, ducks, egrets, hawks, and coyotes.
There are three major trails in the Park, as well as numerous other foot paths. Hunter Island is the location of the Kazimiroff Nature Trail, a popular hiking destination that traverses a variety of rich habitats. The trail begins off the Orchard Beach boardwalk near section 2. It was named in 1987 after Dr. Theodore Kazimiroff. A dentist by trade, Kazimiroff was also a dedicated naturalist and local historian who was among the leaders in the effort to stop garbage dumping in the Park in the 1960s. (See “Sanctuaries” above.)
The Siwanoy Trail runs for nearly 3.5 miles and is named for the Native Americans who once lived on this land. The trail begins at the intersection of Shore Road and City Island Road, winds through the Central Woodlands, with offshoots around the Bartow-Pell Mansion and past the Orchard Beach Meadow. It is maintained by the Appalachian Mountain Club in partnership with NYC Parks.
The Split Rock Trail is the shortest and most direct of the named Park trails. It begins near the Bartow Circle and meanders alongside Goose Creek Marsh and its associated woodlands to the northwestern corner of the park, where the great Split Rock sits in a small area at the intersection of the Hutchinson River Parkway and the New England Thruway.
Turtle Cove is an inlet from Eastchester Bay that is located between the Turtle Cove Golf Center on City Island Road and Park Drive (leading to Orchard Beach). The Cove’s habitat has been severely impacted by human intervention. Early in the 20th century, a berm was created across the Cove to establish a rail line to carry horsecars. That berm created a barrier isolating the northern section of the Cove and causing it to become a freshwater habitat. A culvert was placed across the berm to allow salt water to flow through, but it was often clogged and ineffectual. In 2009, Parks began a restoration project to improve the ecosystem by removing non-native invasive trees and vines, and creating a more vibrant salt marsh. The MillionTreesNY initiative planted thousands of new trees and shrubs in surrounding uplands and the Friends of Pelham Bay Park helped plant saltmarsh grass in the northern cove. The berm was breached to increase tidal flow and a footbridge constructed to re-establish foot traffic along the Siwanoy Trail. Herons and egrets are a common sight.
Pelham Bay Park contains both freshwater and saltwater wetlands – invaluable ecosystems that are vital to both humans and wildlife. Wetlands serve a vital role as natural filtration systems. Their self‑cleansing ability and capacity to trap pollutants help improve water quality. Wetlands reduce flooding and erosion, and improve air quality by absorbing carbon dioxide and producing oxygen.
At one time, about half of present-day New York City was wetland – both freshwater and saltwater. As the growing metropolis demanded more space, wetlands, thought to be little more than breeding grounds for pests, were filled with debris and developed. Areas once crossed with freshwater creeks and dotted with ponds have been paved over, their waters diverted into culverts and sewers.
Native Americans stayed here during the warm seasons – fishing, collecting shellfish, hunting, and gathering plants along the inlets. When Europeans arrived, they did some of the same, even harvesting the salt grasses to use as feed for their farm animals in lean winter months.
Pelham Bay Park is home to one of New York City’s largest areas of tidal wetlands, 195 acres of salt marsh that provides migrant shorebirds with a place to rest, feed and breed. The park’s three major marshes – fed by Goose Creek, the Hutchinson River, and the Lagoon – provide salt grasses that are submerged in shallow water part or all of the time, and during low tides, fertile mud flats are exposed. The marshes are habitat for a variety of wildlife, including herons, egrets, gulls, hawks, and raccoons. A good viewing spot is from the footbridge in Turtle Cove. Salt marshes can also be found on the coast of Hunter Island by hiking along the Kazimiroff Nature Trail.
Freshwater wetlands sustain a great number of plants and animals and are influenced by the characteristics of the land beneath them. Soil composition determines a site’s water-holding capabilities and the position of the groundwater table under the soil surface determines if water levels above ground remain relatively constant or dry up quickly.
In Pelham Bay Park, a few small ponds are lined by thick stemmed plants like Cattail and Arrow Alum. Wet meadows in the park, which can be found south of Orchard Beach, have interesting plants like Bulrush and Joe-Pye weed. More often in Pelham, wet or moist forests of Red Maple, Sweetgum and Pin Oak abound. A hike through the Central Woodlands west of Turtle Cove Golf Center or a bike or horse ride north of the golf courses are wonderful sites for wet woods.
Pelham Bay Park contains some of New York City’s most ecologically diverse public parkland, with habitats that include rocky seashore, salt marsh, meadows, and mature natural forest. These play host to a year-round assortment of wildlife that ranges from the White-footed Mouse to the Red-tailed Hawk. The Park is designated as a New York State Significant Coastal Fish and Wildlife Habitat for the array of bird and fish species found here, and because of its location along the Atlantic Flyway, a major migratory route, the park is designated an Important Bird Area by the National Audubon Society.
More than 400 species of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish and insects populate the Park. Crabs can be seen swarming on Orchard Beach in the May-June mating season. Egrets and herons frequent the quiet pools of Turtle Cove and the marshes of the Thomas Pell Refuge. In winter, owls are often spotted on Hunter Island, while Harbor Seals can also be seen in the waters at that time. Mammals are common to all of the park and include raccoons, skunks, cottontails, coyotes, and deer.