RECOMMENDED: Full guide to outdoor activities for kids in NYC
Whether they pick them up from the sidewalk, on the way to school or plunge into a pile of them; brightly hued, crunchy leaves can provide hours of amusement for kids. This autumn, take the family for a stroll through these NYC parks, gardens and other locales to see the New York fall foliage at its most brilliant. Along with apple picking and harvest festival events, it's one of our favorite things to do in NYC with kids in the fall. We've rounded up the top spots both in the city and outside NYC, so tuck a heavy book in your bag for preserving your little one's colorful finds and set out for the locations below.
At just over a half-mile long, Tulip Tree Trail is a great place to spot this species. The park is home to what's purported to be the oldest and largest tulip poplar in the city (called the "Alley Pond Giant"), at a towering 133.8 feet tall. Other varieties that you'll spot within the Queens green space include white oak, red maple and sassafras trees, which turn yellow and red.
Start at the Conservatory Water, near the entrance at Fifth Avenue and 72nd Street, where you can spot hawthorn trees covered in red berries. Then continue to the 38-acre Ramble in the middle of the park, where you'll find a large tupelo tree, at the southern end of an area known as Tupelo Meadow; the leaves appear in various shades—red, yellow and purple—throughout the season. Continue your nature trek in the North Woods, a rustic landscape alongside the Ravine featuring brooks, various oaks, elm, red maple and black cherry—enter at the eastern edge of the Pool (between 100th and 103rd Streets) and follow the trails north. Near the Great Hill, look for European beech trees, whose leaves turn a warm shade of orangey-red.
Consisting of 2,800 acres of interconnected open space in suburban Staten Island, the Greenbelt offers 35 miles of trails through parks and woodland. Start your expedition at the Nature Center, where you can pick up a copy of the trail map (which can also be downloaded from the website) and talk to naturalists. The eight-mile Yellow trail passes the ironically named Moses' Mountain, which was created from debris from Robert Moses's nixed plan to construct a highway through the area. From the 260-foot hill, you get a panoramic view of the surrounding treetops—the mix of oaks, sweet gum, tulip, sassafras and red maple provide a blaze of autumnal color. On the other side of the Mountain, cross Manor Road and head back into the woods toward the 90-acre High Rock Park, where you'll glimpse ponds and clusters of red maple.
For the best leaf-spotting, get lost in the garden's Thain Family Forest. The 250-acre woodland area is the city's largest patch of old-growth forest (with some trees dating to the 19th century), and numerous species—including a high concentration of oak, red maple and tulip trees—can be found within the site. Keep an eye out for sweet gums, whose star-shaped leaves turn red and purple as autumn progresses, and scarlet oak trees, which are rich in tannins and display brilliant shades of orange and red. To learn more, head to the garden for two Fall Forest Weekends, which include guided foliage-themed tours among other activities.
Sugar and red maples—which you can spot around the park's lake—are the first trees to change, turning orange and red, respectively. The rest of the park's foliage should follow by late October, with species like elm, sour gum and sassafras all displaying fall colors. Head to the Ravine, a densely wooded area at the center of the park, for the highest concentration of plants. Seen enough trees? Climb the hill behind the Audubon Center; there you'll find a wildlife garden filled with plants such as holly shrubs, whose berries also transform in cooler weather.
This enormous Bronx park can overwhelm, with more than 1,000 acres (and an estimated 80,000 trees) within its borders. But that also makes it ideal for leaf-peepers, who can see species such as oak, sweet gum, and hickory displaying rust and orange leaves. For superlative views, take a stroll along the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail, a 1.1-mile nature walk built atop a former tunnel that shuttled water from the Croton Reservoir down to New York City. Check out tulip and maple trees in shades of goldenrod and scarlet.
Vivid foliage is in evidence as soon as you enter the grounds of Wave Hill—look out for a golden larch south of the main entrance. It's best viewed from beneath its branches on a clear day when the sun shines through the gilded leaves, says horticultural interpreter Charles Day, who leads foliage walks on November 5 at 2pm (free with admission). A katsura tree on the lawn south of the Glyndor Gallery has heart-shaped leaves that turn pale yellow on the tree, and once fallen, emit a fragrance similar to caramel. In the Wild Garden small trees such as cutleaf sumac (copper-orange), dogwood (red) and shadbush (orange) contrast beautifully with evergreens and late-blooming asters in blue, purple and pink. Also look out for for the narrow upright English oak, whose leaves turn coppery brown, near the gazebo. Take a seat in the open-sided structure to admire the fiery palette of the New Jersey Palisades on the other side of the Hudson—the pristine oak-hickory forest is scattered with maples, sweet and sour gums, black birch and tulip trees, resulting in an impressionist patchwork of rich hues. If you still crave more, venture into Wave Hill's eight-acre woodland to stroll amid sugar maple and hickory trees.
Just a short drive from the city, Bear Mountain State Park (Palisades Pkwy or Route 9W North, Bear Mountain, NY; 845-786-2701, nysparks.com) makes a gorgeous day trip for families. The mountain lights up in red, yellow and orange when autumn rolls around, and there are plenty of hiking trails suitable for families with little ones. To get a great view of the colors from afar, skip the car travel and hop aboard Circle Line's Bear Mountain Cruise (212-563-3200, circleline42.com; $65, children $40), available on Saturdays and Sundays, September 26 through November 1. The Hudson Dayliner cruises up the Hudson from NYC, providing views of Riverside Church, Grant's Tomb, The Little Red Lighthouse, and the GW Bridge along the way. Families will enjoy live German music and food on board, then explore the mountain at their leisure for 3 hours before returning to the city (2.5 hour ride each way). Don't forget to stop by the merry-go-round, featuring 42 hand-carved animals like a black bear, deer, raccoon and skunk!
Though Long Island is better known as a summertime beach destination, there are plenty of reasons to head east after Labor Day. Sunken Meadow State Park (Rte 25A at Sunken Meadow Pkwy, Kings Park, NY; 631-269-4333, nysparks.com) is just 50 miles outside of the city, and offers dazzling views of Long Island Sound and even a slice of Connecticut in the distance. The park’s diverse topography allows you to view the seasonal changes in a variety of settings, from beachfront to bluff top. And because the cold weather hits Long Island later than upstate New York, procrastinating sightseers can plan their trips well into October. The fall harvest season is also a great time to make your way to Long Island Wine Country (liwines.com) to visit the tasting rooms of more than three dozen local wineries.
Think of Walkway Over the Hudson (87 Haviland Rd at Rte 9W, Highland, NY; 845-454-9649, walkway.org) as Poughkeepsie’s answer to the High Line. The former railroad overpass is more than a mile long, making it the world’s longest elevated pedestrian bridge. And smack dab in the middle—perched 212 feet above the Hudson River and surrounded by the Catskills—is where you’ll find a spectacular, 360-degree view of fall in all its colorful glory along the banks of the river. If hoofing it isn’t your style, board Empire Cruise Lines's Mystère for a two-hour sightseeing cruise (29 N Water St between Dutchess Ave and Main St, Poughkeepsie, NY; 866-797-9024, empirecruiselines.com. $20–$25, children ages 5–12 $12–$17; June through Oct). Your captain will also point out some of the area’s stately mansions, photo-worthy lighthouses and other historic sites.
There’s no denying that the autumnal colors of Central Park have a lot of charm. But 90 miles north of midtown, the Shawangunk Mountains Scenic Byway (mtnscenicbyway.org), an 88-mile loop between Kerhonkson and New Paltz, NY, offers drive-by gawkers some of the state’s most picturesque views, with rustic farmlands and mountain vistas you won’t find in Manhattan. The prime leaf-spotting happens as you ascend into the Shawangunk Mountains, which rise more than 2,000 feet above sea level. Keep your camera handy during the 10.4-mile stretch of mountain road—complete with hairpin turns and switchbacks—that begins in Kerhonkson, where Route 44/55 meets Route 209. Along the way you’ll pass two back-to-back overlooks, each with imposing views of the Rondout Valley and the Catskill Mountains. If you feel the need to stretch your legs, pay a visit to the Minnewaska State Park Preserve (5281 Route 44-55, Kerhonkson, NY; 845-255-0752, nysparks.com), where you can walk, cycle, hike to a waterfall or rock climb.
No car? No problem. Pack a weekend bag and take a bucolic four-and-a-half hour ride from Penn Station to Utica, NY, aboard Amtrak’s Empire Service (amtrak.com; $62–$234). Spend the night at the century-old Hotel Utica (102 Lafayette St between Washington and Seneca Sts, Utica, NY; 877-906-1912, hotelutica.com; nightly rates from $149), then head back to the station in the morning for another train ride, this time on the Adirondack Scenic Railroad’s Fall Foliage Train (adirondackrr.com; $29.50–$39.50). You’ll go past rivers and through the Adirondack foothills on this five-hour trek, which can be booked with (begins Thurs, Sept 3 9:30am; through Oct 24) or without (begins Sun, Sept 13 11:30am; through Oct 18) a four-hour layover at Thendara Station; if you choose to stop there, you can explore the Adirondack Park (visitadirondacks.com), the country’s largest National Historic Landmark.
For another weekend-long excursion, head to Hammondsport, NY, in the Finger Lakes. Book a room at the octagonal Black Sheep Inn (8329 Pleasant Valley Rd between Beers Hill and Germania Rds, Hammondsport, NY; 607-368-8471, stayblacksheepinn.com; nightly rates from $159) and let the B&B’s proprietors do all the heavy lifting for you. The inn’s Finger Lakes Fall Foliage package ($90 per person on top of room rate), available from September through early November, includes a harvest cooler stocked with local meats, cheeses, sweets and more, plus stainless-steel bottles to keep hot chocolate nice and warm as you enjoy the views in the backyard. The family can sit around a campfire (weather permitting) and toast s'mores after a day of sightseeing.