Destination Tips

The Incomparable Beauty of The Lake in Central Park (Photo-Essay)

View of the west side of The Lake in Central Park, NYCView of the west side of The Lake in Central Park, NYC

The rising sun bathes the west side of The Lake in Central Park peachy glow

View down Central Park West toward the famous San Remo Apartments

As I enter the park at 72nd Street I look North down Central Park West toward the famous San Remo Apartments

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.

The Lake

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.

Panorama of the view of the southern end of Central Park Lake in New York City

The morning blue-hour baths the lake and the skyscrapers in the background in a stunning shade of cobalt. This is the path off West Drive leading toward the Hernshead and the area where “The Guitar Man” entertains crowds every summer

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.

View of rustic wood shelter on the Lake in Central Park from the Hernshead in NYC

View from the Hernshead across the lake towards a rustic wood shelter placed their for visitors to sit and enjoy the view

Canadian Goose flaps its wings in the Lake in Central Park in NYC

After giving itself a bath, this Canadian Goose gave me a show when it flapped its wings to dry off

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.

Pigeons fly in front of the Oak Bridge as viewed from the Hernshead in Central Park in NYC

The Oak Bridge from the Hernshead

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.

Oak Bridge in Central Park in New York City

Seen from the paved path leading away from the Hernshead

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.

Mallards, ducks, geese and pigeons on the lake in Central Park in NYC

Near the Oak Bridge, another rocky peninsula comes into view. It’s another waterfowl favorite and mine as well!

 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.

View from the Hernshead of the Oak Bridge in Central Park, NYC

A view from atop the rocks of the Hernshead. In the distance you can see the Oak Bridge and on the right you can see the pigeons flying to the small rocky peninsula

A mallard chases another out of the water on the lake in Central Park, NYC

I’m not sure if they were playing or if it was a display of dominance but the mallard on the right was chased right out of the water.

 The Gill

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 Gill in Central Park, NYC

A gorgeous little spot I never knew existed before my exploration.

The Central Park West skyline as seen from The Gill

For a millisecond the sun shone through the clouds and created some of the most beautiful light on the skyline

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.

Mallards in The Lake in Central Park, NYC

A mallard plops in the water after a nice nap on a log

Bow Bridge

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.)

Bow Bridge in Central Park, NYC

Bow Bridge seen from the Ramble Woodlands side facing Cherry Hill

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!

Very plump and precocious squirrels I spotted along the Ramble trail next to the Lake in Central Park, NYC

Two very plump squirrels I spotted along the Ramble trail next to the Lake

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.

Bethesda Fountain the Milton Tile ceiling at Bethesda Terrace

A classic shot from the arcade on Bethesda Terrace taken a million times over.  Who am I to mess with tradition? Check out the gorgeous Milton Tile ceiling installed in the 1800’s and restored in 2000. What stories these babies could tell!

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.

Bow Bridge looking west towards the San Remo Apartment towers in New York City

A glorious morning filled with deep rich colors, the Bow Bridge and the San Remo towers

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.

The Map

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.

50 replies »

  1. Hi Susan, eine wunderschöne Sammlung von Bildern. Ich war 1996 mit einer Reisegruppe in NYC und wir haben auch den Central Park besucht.Es war eine wunderschöne Zeit in einer solch großen Stadt einen der schönsten Park`s der Welt zu sehen. Ich werde Deinen Blog in Zukunft oft besuchen.
    Mit lieben Grüßen aus germany Uli Schmidt

      • Hi Susan, a beautiful collection of images. I was in 1996 with a tour group in NYC and we also have the Central Park besucht.Es war a great time in a great city Sölch one of the finest Park`s the world to see. I’m on my blog in the future often visit.
        With kind regards from Germany Uli Schmid

    • It’s so easy to stop seeing everything local. I STILL have to remind myself to see it through a traveler’s eyes. When I do, I’m always glad I did. Thank you very much for checking out the blog and I hope you return. 🙂

  2. That would be great. I think Stacy Fischer (Visual Venturing, ABFriday Forum) and I were planning to be up there in May so it would be very cool if we could go out on joint shoot with you.

  3. Well, Susan. So good to see these great images, even if it took you 18-plus years to catch the fever;-) All kidding aside, this is is a wonderful post and the images are fantastic. In addition, the details on the locations was especially helpful as there were several paths I haven’t been to (e.g., the Oak Bridge, the Gill) but have now been added to my list for the next time I’m up there. Can’t way to see the next installment.

    • Hey Robin – Thanks a million.. maybe when you visit next we can shoot together! 🙂 P.S. Leanne is going to stay with me for a couple days in May and we’re going to go to the Penitentiary I wrote about. Perhaps you can join us or meet us in NYC for some shooting.

    • Hi Alexander.. It’s so true. I think it would be impossible to find anything major there that hasn’t already found its way to FB a zillion times over. LOL.. Thank you very much for your kind words and I am thrilled you liked the piece. 🙂 Please come back again.

  4. Hey Susan, gorgeous pics, as ever. I hate to suggest this, but maybe the reason you got a little bored of Manhattan is because Manhattan gets… well… a little boring? There are so many fun visuals outside of “the city” … I don’t know… like the weird and beautiful tranquility of Coney Island during/after a snowfall. Or the post-industrial factoryscapes of Long Island City. Or bustling scenes of local Polish/Russian/Greek/Indian businesses in Greenpoint/Brighton Beach/Astoria/Jackson Heights. Or those crazy, elevated, outdoors, tight curves on the subway system, like at Smith ‘n’ 9th in Brooklyn, and Court House Rd in Queens? Flea markets? Local street food? Rivers of GREEN cabs, not yellow ones….
    Then again, in this weather, maybe you should just stay in bed 🙂

    • LOL..James.. I’m also a bit lazy when I’m home..(I kinda left that part of the equation out of the whole shebang) I can go 24/7 on a trip and need to find that energy here in the city. This Central Park shoot was the first glimpse of motivating in NYC like I do when on a trip.

      You’re absolutely right.. there are tons of places to go and I need to get on it. I intend to check out Coney Island this winter -that’s been on my to-do list for awhile, just not when it’s wet and freezing like today. After a snow would be lovely. I also have to get myself into gear on the street stuff. I don’t know the other boroughs that well (read that as not at all) and need to expand my horizons. Thanks for the recs above. I did enjoy Brooklyn Bridge Park this summer ( especially for night photography and plan to head out there during a snowfall, when we finally get it. I would love to capture the NYC skyline on a snowy day.

      Thank you for checking out the pics and your kind comments. Hope you’re well.

  5. These images proves that if we open our eyes to our surroundings there is beauty in our own backyards, You just have to look around sometimes. We often get caught up in having to travel to exotic locations (doesn’t hurt having New York out back) to get great images. There is beauty to be captured everywhere.

  6. Your photographs are stunning. I am returning to NYC in the Spring to meet up with some friends from back home in Scotland. It will be their first time there so I am playing tour guide, which is a bit daft since I will be a tourist there myself. One of the things I want to do is have a good explore of Central Park as I have never been there at that time of year.

    • Happy to help with ideas once you get closer to your arrival date. So glad you enjoyed the photo-essay..I had a lot of fun shooting it. I think you will love Central Park, it’s not to be missed. 🙂

      • Thank you. I might take you up on that offer. The last time I was in NYC was in February with my husband and kids. That time, amongst other things, we walked the west side of Central Park. I think I might persuade my friends to amble through the East side when I am there in the Spring. I expect they will want to do the highlights like Times Square, the Empire State Building and Grand Central Station so it will be nice to slow the pace down a bit and stroll through the park.

      • Sounds like a good plan. Will your kids be with you? I only ask because if they are not you might be able to take a day trip to the Penitentiary we spoke about. I remember your kids were a bit young for the place. right?

    • Hi Mary-
      Many thanks. I had a great time shooting those photos. It’s a shame however that my new enthusiasm has been met with sucky sucky weather in NYC. Cold and rainy. I can’t wait for it to perk up so I can focus on a new location…somewhere in the city. :))

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