I admit it, photographically, New York City bored me. I’m not proud of it. As a resident, the bright shiny thing called Manhattan faded after 18+ years. Until recently that is, when something changed and the old spark returned.
It happened unexpectedly one morning a few weeks back when I was by The Lake in Central Park at sunrise to admire the Fall leaves. I’d been a zillion times before—not always at sunrise mind you—but for some reason that day I turned left when I typically turned right, and all of a sudden I saw it differently—both literally and figuratively. I explored paths and bridges I never knew existed and saw wildlife I only glanced at before in passing. I took my time and allowed myself to wander. It was awesome. Suddenly I was a newbie in my own city and I challenged myself to go back at sunrise six more times over the following two weeks to drink it in and photograph.
Each time that I returned, I marveled at how the lake transformed from one day to the next. One morning it was overcast and mysterious, a perfect setting for a scene in The Dark Knight. The next day the lake was a vibrant burst of color, the sun bathing the water and the surrounding skyscrapers in a peachy glow. It was as if after years of seeing the lake in black and white, I’d unlocked its secrets in Technicolor.
(It’s obvious, I know, I took the City for granted. I rarely left my comfort zone – now forever to be referred to as my “boring” zone. I allowed my life and work to pigeon-hole me into a routine that made the city seem dull and lifeless. I didn’t approach it as Susan the traveler, I approached it as Susan the jaded New Yorker.)
If you’re like me, a New Yorker that needs a little inspiration or you’re a visitor with NYC in your future, I’ve mapped out my route below. You’re not likely to see exactly what I saw with the change in weather and seasons, but that doesn’t really matter does it? No matter when you go, it’ll be worth the trip.
Enter the park through the Central Park West and 72nd Street entrance. You can’t miss it. The quickest route to the lake is through Strawberry Fields, an area dedicated to the late John Lennon. The Dakota, his home and where he was killed, is only a few hundred feet away. Except for a sunrise visit, expect to find Strawberry Fields crowded with travelers, it’s a guaranteed stop on most walking tours which draws a multitude of “street entrepreneurs” looking to cash in on the tourist trade. You’ll see musicians, painters, the occasional graffiti artist, choir groups and a comic who makes money selling customized jokes. I prefer Strawberry Fields in the early morning when it’s peaceful, sans the inevitable chaos and where the serenity feels more in keeping with a tribute than the circus it’s become.
Follow the path through Strawberry fields to the bottom of a hill where you’ll hit West Drive, one of the main streets that runs through the park. It’s closed to cars in the am but there’s plenty of people traffic. You’d be surprised how much action there is in Central Park at sunrise. It’s nothing like the afternoon, or 10am for that matter, but it’s surprisingly lively considering it’s only 6:30am. At this time, it’s mainly New Yorkers out and about. There’s a ton of joggers and cyclists and a helluva lot of dog lovers who take advantage of the no-leashes-before-9am rule to play with their pups. (Side note:If you’re not familiar with cyclists in Central Park, just assume they’re trying to kill you when you cross the road and move quickly. If you assume they’ll yield to pedestrians you may find yourself in the hospital. I’m only half-joking when I say this.)
Once you cross West Drive go left on the paved walkway until you see another path veer right towards the water and a covered bench (see photo above). It’s in this area that for over 20 years on summer Saturdays, hundreds of people come to hear David Ippolito, aka The Guitar Man, sing, including yours truly. If you’re in the park in warm weather he’s a must-see. Continue on until you see a dirt path that leads towards a large rock formation that juts out into the water called the Hernshead.
Hernshead & the Ladies Pavilion
Next to the Hernshead lies the Ladies’ Pavilion, an amazing gazebo-like structure built in 1871. It originally stood as a shelter at the park’s 59th street entrance but was later moved to the interior in 1912. It’s a hot-spot for lovers, nature hounds and personal trainers looking to motivate their sleepy clients. The Hernshead became an instant favorite of mine. It’s a perfect vantage point to capture beautiful images of the lake, various views of the city and the Oak Bridge. It’s also one of the best places to photograph flocks of mallards, huge geese—think toddler size—and pigeons that love to congregate on the rocks yet leave them surprisingly poop-free.
The Oak Bridge
A short walk from the Hernshead, moving clockwise around the lake, you’ll cross over the Balcony Bridge that supports the West Drive. Follow the paved path closest to the water and you’ll reach the Oak Bridge. The original bridge made of white oak, hence the name, deteriorated and was repairs many times over the years, 2009 it was completely recreated from original drawings and historic photographs. The stone abutments and supports for the bridge are all that are left of the first structure.
Canopied by dense trees, Oak bridge spans Bank Rock Bay and leads to 38 acres of woodland called the Ramble. It’s a perfect place for bird watchers and I saw several blue jays and cardinals during every visit. From here there is a spectacular view of the southern tip of the lake and the skyscrapers beyond. Turn left off the bridge and you’ll find a narrow dirt path that runs along the Bay. There, the diffused light passing through the leaves made for some beautiful pictures of reflections that remind me more of watercolors than photographs.
Head back towards the Oak Bridge from the Bank Rock Bay trail to a series of paved paths that lead into the Ramble. Take the first left, climb a set of stairs, and you’ll be on top of the Ramble Stone Arch. If you go straight, the path will curve around and take you under the arch.
The No-Name Rocky Peninsula
Using the walkway on top of the Ramble Stone Bridge, follow the downhill, winding path towards a small rocky peninsula across from and on the diagonal to the Hernshead. Visitors and bird lovers alike feed the ducks, geese, and mallards from these outcroppings and the birds have learned to travel between the two in a blink of an eye to scoop up their share. On more than one occasion I was left photographing duck butt when a visitor on the other side broke out a loaf of bread.
Continuing to move clockwise around the paths nearest the lake, your next stop will be The Gill, one of the prettiest spots in Central Park in my opinion. Here a stream flows down through a ravine of boulders that leads to an adorable rustic wood bridge. Plus it’s the home of a delightful array of plants alive with color and texture.
The Duck Fort
Where do all the ducks go after a yummy breakfast of Wonder Bread and seeds? The Duck Fort of course!
Situated under the umbrella of a fallen tree, past The Gill and headed on the path towards Bow Bridge, I found a family of mallards snoozing around 9am. Ala the Exorcist their heads were turned backwards, eyes closed, their bills tucked sweetly under their feathers, while standing on one leg like a ballet dancer. Occasionally others would fly in or paddle over, making their way to the fort to hunker down and catch some ZZZZs..
The birds slept for a long time and then, as if a bell only the birds could hear went off, they all woke up. They shuffled about, preened themselves and then eventually paddled off to parts unknown.
Continuing south along the Ramble path you’ll come to one of the most recognizable bridges in New York’s Central Park. The Bow Bridge. Photographed countless times and featured in many films, the bridge links the Ramble woodlands with Cherry Hill. I’ve walked on Bow bridge countless times before but always starting from the opposite direction. In recent months the south side has been under some small repairs and the construction is decidedly ugly. Walking towards it from the Ramble Woodland’s side, the renovations aren’t immediately visible and the bridge looks absolutely beautiful.
(Bow Bridge is another Central Park location I recommend seeing in the early morning for a variety of reasons: The light is better and there are far fewer people to get in your shot, but enough people if you want someone in your picture.)
The Ramble Path
When you hit the Bow Bridge you have two options: Cross over into Cherry Hill and head towards Bethesda Terrace—my usual haunt—or continue walking on the Ramble side. Since I was in exploratory mode, I hit the Ramble trail. Along this route I found new angles from which to view the Bow Bridge, Bethesda Terrace and the world-famous Boat House, not to mention two of the cutest, plumpest squirrels on the planet!
Bethesda Terrace & Cherry Hill
After the Ramble path, I skirted around the back of the Boathouse and made my way to Bethesda Terrace.
When I spoke earlier about deciding to turn left instead of taking my usual right, my right always led to Bethesda Terrace. The terrace is an iconic “New York” attraction and, thankfully, large enough to handle a lot of travelers without it feeling as if it’s overrun. I didn’t spend as much time on the Terrace or nearby Cherry Hill in this recent adventure because I’ve been countless times before and already written about a few of those visits. (To check those out, click here) That being said, I didn’t want to leave them out just because they were part of my “boring” past. They’re way too special to ignore.
Moving west, Cherry Hill is next, and the end of the tour before walking back through Strawberry Fields and finally home. Across a manicured lawn is the south end of Bow Bridge next to a lovely walkway that skirts the lake and connects to various dirt paths that will take you closer to the water’s edge. Here, there are a series of benches that are perfect for a lazy afternoon spent reading. Plus, if you’re on the prowl for a special someone who likes pets, this is where you’ll find them. The paths in this section are regularly frequented by the dog-lover set.
The Lesson Learned
I’ve always known that New York is a special place. That millions of people come from around the world come just to walk it’s streets, meet its people and for some, document it all through photography. I realized that as I continue to explore its many facets, I have to be willing to forget what I already know and discover it anew. It’s what I was after when I started my feature Rediscovering New York a year or so ago, but it never really clicked in my soul until The Lake. I look forward to embracing my new-found curiosity in the months to come.
For anyone that wants to retrace my steps, I’ve created a map below for guidance. Have fun!
To view more Rediscovering New York Posts
*Details regarding the history of The Lake and its structures in Central Park were taken from the Official Central Park website.