During the seemingly endless winter of 2014, you’ve undoubtedly fantasized about getting away from it all — perhaps by surfing on Kauai, or biking along Colorado’s mountain trails, or getting in touch with nature at a national wildlife refuge in Florida.
Whatever escape you may dream about, you’re likely to find at least a touch of it in your own backyard ... much of it available for free or at a fraction of what you might have expected to pay.
An incredible array of warm-weather family-oriented activities awaits you in the countless parks and stretches of beautiful beaches right here in Queens, which boasts more parkland than any other borough.
The area that F. Scott Fitzgerald described as “a valley of ashes” in his novel “The Great Gatsby” has evolved into Flushing Meadows Corona Park, a 1,200-acre site that has famously hosted two World’s Fairs, several World Series, and, for five years, even the United Nations General Assembly.
Today, it remains home to the US Open tennis tournament, New York Mets, Queens Theatre, Queens Zoo, Queens Botanical Garden, New York Hall of Science and the recently expanded Queens Museum.
The zoo, operated by the Wildlife Conservation Society, exhibits North American animals on naturalistic grounds, allowing unusual intimacy between animals and visitors. Its Children’s Farm offers exhibitions of domestic animals.
The borough’s keystone park is its largest and busiest. Walk or drive through the park on any summerlike day and you’ll likely find plenty of folks engaged in activities ranging from baseball, soccer, football and basketball to bicycling, running, cricket and even kayaking. An indoor Olympic-size pool is available to members of the Recreation Center of the Department of Parks and Recreation.
The park is accessible from the Grand Central Parkway, Van Wyck Expressway and local streets.
The borough’s second largest park, at approximately 657 acres, is Alley Pond Park, which spans Douglaston to Oakland Gardens and includes the Alley Pond Environmental Center, a year-round education destination for school groups and individuals. The park’s adventure program teaches participants how to canoe, fish and enjoy a natural setting without leaving the city.
The park offers glimpses into New York’s geologic past, its colonial history and its current conservation efforts.
The park also features an obstacle course with rock climbing, a driving range and a mini-golf course. And it has a generous number of playgrounds and barbecue areas. Entrances are on Springfield Boulevard and Union Turnpike.
Forest Park comes in third in overall size and offers the borough’s only horseback riding trail, a four-mile equestrian path that winds through the park’s vast wooded area of 543 acres.
The park is perhaps most famous for its century-old carousel, one of only five within the Parks Department. In the summer, it also hosts free concerts at the George Seuffert Bandshell. A golf course is another popular attraction.
You can get into the park from Myrtle Avenue, Union Turnpike, Woodhaven Boulevard and Park Lane South in Woodhaven.
Among the borough’s other family-friendly outdoor spaces is Astoria Park, located under the Hell Gate Bridge and home to the city’s oldest and largest outdoor swimming pool. In addition to aquatic pleasures, the park boasts an outdoor garden, bocce courts, tennis courts, basketball courts, a bandstand, a running track and a dog run.
Thanks to magnificent views, the park’s benches that dot its perimeter are popular spots year-round. Entrances are on Astoria Park South, 21st Street, Hoyt Avenue and Ditmars Boulevard.
Cunningham Park offers a labyrinth of trails, a delight for the many mountain bikers who frequent the 358-acre site. Besides being home to the borough’s first dedicated off-road cycling space, the park has baseball, soccer and cricket fields, basketball courts and hiking trails.
The park may be accessed from Francis Lewis Boulevard, Union Turnpike and the Horace Harding Expressway.
At 109 acres, Baisley Pond Park is one of the less expansive of the borough’s larger green spaces, but it features facilities for bicycling, cricket, soccer, football, handball, tennis, basketball, running and fishing. If you prefer to spend your leisure time engaged in less athletic endeavors, you might revel in the park’s many peaceful, shady alcoves that are available for picnicking. It also offers an urban natural habitat for the study of plant and animal life. Summertime attractions include the Southern Queens Gospel Fest and puppet shows.
Entrances are on North Conduit Avenue, Baisley Boulevard South and Lake View Boulevard East.
About half the size of Baisley Pond Park is Juniper Valley Park, a 55-acre oasis with tree-lined paths, baseball and soccer fields, tennis courts, a running track and roller-hockey rink. Juniper Valley is also famous for hosting a bocce tournament every fall. The bocce courts are currently closed for re-construction, with renovations expected to be completed in time for the summer crowds.
Access the park from 80th Street, Juniper Boulevard North and South, and Lutheran Avenue.
Also recently upgraded is Highland Park, surrounded by the Jackie Robinson Parkway, Vermont Avenue and Highland Boulevard between Bulwer Place and Cypress Hills Street. Besides offering stunning views of the Ridgewood Reservoir, the Rockaways and the Atlantic Ocean, the park features children’s farm gardens that serve as hands-on classrooms, as well as barbecue areas and tennis, handball and basketball courts.
Fitness enthusiasts can revel in four paths around Queens specifically set aside by the Parks Department for running. They are located in Juniper Valley Park in Middle Village, Kissena Park in Flushing, Phil Rizzuto Park in Richmond Hill and St. Albans Memorial Park.
Dozens of fitness stations are spread among the borough’s recreation areas, with Forest Park, Flushing Meadows Corona Park, Kissena Park and Cunningham Park each offering multiple stations.
If a day at the shore, where sand and surf convene, is more your style, consider the Rockaway Beach and Boardwalk, a year-round refuge for residents and visitors all along the Rockaway Peninsula.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, an estimated $140 million was invested to restore the area to its former glory. Located on the Atlantic Ocean from Beach 9th Street in Far Rockaway to Beach 149th Street in Neponsit, Rockaway boasts beautiful sand and water and a variety of concessions. It is also home to the city’s only legal surfing beach, located from 67th to 69th streets and from 87th to 92nd streets. Playgrounds and an array of outdoor activities are to be found all around.
No wonder the band The Ramones was inspired to pay musical tribute to their hometown mecca: “It’s not hard, not far to reach ... Rock, Rock Rockaway Beach.”
In all, the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation maintains 14 miles of beaches, open from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day. During the season, lifeguards are on duty daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
For further information on these and several other warm-weather attractions around the borough, visit the Parks Department’s official website, nycgovparks.org.