It’s hard to imagine New York City without Central Park. Opened in 1867 as the country’s first landscaped public park, today this iconic green space is an essential piece of life in the big city. Locals use it on a daily basis for quick escapes from the concrete jungle and active types run, bike, walk around the six-mile loop at all hours of the day. Not to mention that it’s on every visitor’s must-see list. But dig deeper into the history and wander the lesser known paths across the entire 843 acres, and you’ll quickly discover there’s much more to this urban oasis then meets the eye. We’ve uncovered a list of secrets and quirky facts, from hidden architecture and magical clocks to surprising animals and protected nature sanctuaries, to give you a whole new view of this New York icon. To find out even more, check out our video Secrets in the City: Central Park.
One with Nature
Just a few feet from bustling 59th Street is the Hallett Nature Sanctuary, a little-known, four-acre preserve in the southeastern quadrant of the park. This lush pocket of green space is the only section completely off limits to visitors and is packed with black cherry and black locust trees along with a host of wildlife. There’s a large duck pond, and it’s an important route on the Atlantic Flyaway migration pattern for several birds. In 2006, a 35-pound coyote was spotted in the sanctuary, leading to the nickname “Hal.” To keep this urban oasis thriving in the delicate park ecosystem, it’s only accessible to the public by free guided tours which take place several times per year. Call 212-794-4064 for more details.
Rock of Ages
The park may have opened in 1857, but the forces of nature behind the shaping of the landscape have been going on for millions, if not billions of years. Countless outcrops, bluffs and exposed boulders dot the park and offer a glimpse of the geology that has played a key role in the design and use. Though geologists may geek out on this kind of rock history, it’s important information to grasp to help you understand what you’re seeing as you explore the park. Most of the exposed bedrock in the park is either Manhattan or Hartland schist. Over 10,000 years ago, glaciers that covered the entire area began to recede, and many of the boulders that we see now came from this giant mass of ice. Today, rock climbers couldn’t be happier — an outcrop called Rat Rock in the southwestern corner of the park is a favorite spot for bouldering that draws people from all over the world.
Located right on Fifth Avenue and Museum Mile, Conservatory Garden is a gorgeous spot to step off the city streets for a breath of fresh air. Constructed as part of the WPA program, this six-acre garden opened in 1937 on the spot where a conservatory once stood that housed the plantings used for the rest of the park by the head gardener. The beauty starts at the entrance. The Vanderbilt Gate was made in Paris and is considered one of the most beautiful works of iron in the city as it used to rest on the outside of a Fifth Avenue Gilded Age mansion. Inside the gates you’ll find three distinct sections divided into Italian, French and English-style gardens. Come in April and May, and you’ll witness over 20,000 gorgeous tulips in full bloom. It’s only open from 8 am until dusk, so if you want to experience this slice of lush space, plan accordingly, especially during fall and winter when the sun sets a lot earlier than the warmer months.
The British Are Coming
You could walk around the main road for decades and never even notice the oldest building in Central Park hidden on a cliff on the north end. But venture off the main road near Warrior’s Gate at Powell Boulevard (7th Avenue) and climb up a steep, dirt path, and you’ll find The Blockhouse, which dates back to 1814. It might not be much to look at — it really does look like a huge block — but it’s a reminder of New York’s past. It’s one of the last remaining fortifications that was used to protect the city from the British army during the War of 1812.
The actual animals at the Central Park Zoo may be the main attraction, but slow down when you are passing the three-tier Delacorte Musical Clock sitting atop the arcade marking the border between the Children’s Zoo and Wildlife Center. The whimsical timepiece puts on an elaborate show every 30 minutes between 8am and 6pm. Watch as the bronze animals — a bear, goat, hippo, elephant, penguin and kangaroo — twirl around the clock playing musical instruments while two monkeys perched atop bang hammers on a large bell. If you want a bigger show, come at the top of the hour, when the animals dance around and play even longer. The clock has a repertoire of 44 nursery-rhyme songs and holiday tunes that change depending on the season. You can see the seasonal song list here: nycgovparks.org
Contending for the most breathtaking structures in the park are the 36 bridges and arches that link the various “landscapes” within the park. Constructed of various materials from wood to cast iron to stone, no two are alike. But can you imagine the park without them? We can’t either, so it’s shocking that the system of bridges and arches were not part of Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux’s original plan. After the pair won the design competition in 1858, public opinion still had an effect on what would become the final design of the park. August Belmont, financier and thoroughbred breeder, for whom Belmont Stakes is named after, advocated for a much longer bridal trail in Central Park that was originally planned, as well as for separate systems for equestrian, pedestrian and carriage traffic throughout the park. After much political maneuvering between the park’s designers and the Belmont supporters, the extension of the bridal trail and separate traffic systems were created. As a result, Vaux and Olmsted added the 36 bridges and arches into their design. A favorite is the cast iron Bridge No. 24. It floats effortlessly above the bridal trail, allowing joggers and walkers to access the Reservoir without having to contend with the occasional horse rider below.
In 2013, a Revolutionary War cannon that had been sitting idle in a Randall’s Park warehouse for decades was being cleaned by park conservators when they noticed something was amiss. It was fully loaded with the cannonball and gun powder. The situation was so dangerous that the NYPD bomb squad had to be called in to help professionally disarm this antique weapon. Luckily, it never went off, because it was on public display from 1865 to the 1970s, including a long stint overlooking the Harlem Meer at the location that was once Fort Clinton. Soon it will become an attraction once again at its former home, however this time, there’s no threat of a discharge.
Putting on a Show
The Statue of Liberty may be the most famous European import delivered to New York, but it’s not the only one. The Swedish Cottage is now a permanent fixture in Central Park, but it has a fascinating story behind its arrival. Originally built in Sweden using native materials in 1871 as a model schoolhouse, it was disassembled, shipped to America, and then rebuilt as part of the Sweden’s exhibition for the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. Olmsted, loved the little schoolhouse so much, he convinced the city to buy it and had it moved to Central Park the following year. Puppet shows have been performed here since 1947 and a full marionette theater was built inside the cottage in 1973.
Home Sweet Home
Before Central Park was turned into a public space, approximately 1,600 people lived in shanty towns across the rambling acreage. Residents came from a variety of backgrounds including Irish pig farmers and German gardeners along with residents of Seneca Village, an African-American village that was located around where 7th Avenue and 82nd Street would be today. There was even a school, St. Vincent’s Academy, that had to move to the Bronx to make way for construction. Though these citizens called the park home, they were all evicted under eminent domain laws during 1857. However, residents haven’t completely disappeared from the landscape. Over the years, many people have made the park their unofficial home. In 2010, an official census (known as Tract 143) found 25 current inhabitants who live in the park, a surprising increase of 39 percent over the 2000 count.
Take a trip to upstate New York right in the heart of the city with a hike through the secluded North Woods. Olmsted and Vaux modeled this 90-acre wooded refuge after the beautiful Adirondack Mountains that lie over 200 miles to the north. As you stroll through, you’ll hear flowing creeks, gushing waterfalls, chirping birds, and other sounds of the forest. At the heart of the North Woods is the The Ravine, one of the most peaceful and scenic spots in all of New York, perfect for a long respite or bird watching.
Coyotes, Snapping Turtles and Bats…Oh My
Although you won’t find sheep wandering Central Park’s sprawling Sheep Meadow anymore, you’ll still find an incredible array of animals in the park if you keep a sharp eye. At the Charles A. Dana Discovery Center you can learn about the flora and fauna of the park or borrow a pole and try your luck with catch-and-release fishing in the Harlem Meer. Snag a largemouth bass, carp, sunfish, or pickerel that share the swampy waters with snapping turtles, crayfish, and frogs plus birds like geese, ducks, herons, egrets, sandpipers, and even swans during the colder months. Watch out for the scary-looking snakehead fish that has been recently spotted in the Meer. These predators are voracious and endanger the aquatic ecosystem. As Central Park sits along the Atlantic Flyway migratory route, birders travel from all over the world to spot the over 275 species of native and exotic birds that either call the park home or stop in during their spring and fall migrations. Spotting a red-tailed hawk or one of the elusive screech owls is a thrill. Other animals that love the lush landscape (and tasty tidbits left in the park’s trash cans) include raccoons, squirrels, feral cats, and bats. Bizarre (and unsettling) sightings occur as well, like a two-foot gator in 2001, Hal the Coyote in 2006 and a boa snake in 2007. And don’t forget Central Park’s insects. Some of the least creepy are dragonflies, butterflies and moths, and visiting the park at dusk during the summer months is magical when the fireflies blink in and out in the darkening park.