Exploring The Hidden Mysteries of Inwood Hill Park
Manhattan’s largest and unheralded forestland, Inwood Hill Park, quietly rests at the northern tip of the urban island– but the park’s rocky hills, marsh, caves, and panoramic views of the Hudson River will surprise those who haven’t ventured to the end of the A train for a visit.
Inwood is a natural forest with unkempt brushwood and fallen timber unlike its manicured counterpart, Central Park. The sun barely breaks through the towering tree canopy; overgrown, paved paths are one’s only guidance through this wild forest. Steep, folded hills spring up as you travel deeper into the park, and glacial potholes mark the hills–the results of icy, stone-carrying whirlpools that drilled into the rocks over the course of thousands of years.
Established in 1926, the city bought and assembled the park in pieces after a recession drained local landowners. Covering 196 acres, Inwood has become a haven for hikers, mycologists, and birders. On sunny weekends, families enjoy picnics on the grassy fields near the park’s tidal salt marsh.
Most of the Inwood Hill Park is largely untouched by the wars and development that took place when Europeans first encountered Native American Tribes on the northern portion of the island in the 17th and 18th centuries. Today, a hiking trail and the Hudson River Bike Trail offer visitors chances to appreciate large stretches of the park’s natural beauty in an environmentally friendly manner. (Because Urban Park Rangers launched a bald eagle release project in the park in 2002, it’s now also one of the best places to spot a bald eagle in the City.)
From the park, you can see Marble Hill, Manhattan’s northernmost and only neighborhood that’s attached to the mainland. Before part of the Spuyten Duyvil Creek was filled in 1895, Marble Hill was physically part of the borough. A more navigable canal was dug to connect the creek with the Harlem River, effectively making Manhattan an island instead of a peninsula.
While Inwood boasts ample opportunities for modern recreation (with athletic fields, playgrounds, dog runs, and a barbecue area working in harmony with the park’s natural assets,) a stroll through the park is also a walk through history. The Lenape tribe inhabited the area for around 10,000 years before Europeans arrived. Inwood was the site of the largest Native American village in Manhattan, an enclave referred to as ‘Shorakapok’, which means “by the water” in Algonquin. Archaeologists have found 8,000-year-old tools in the park’s caves, most of which have been sealed off by the park service. Native Americans never lived in the cold, damp caves, but their 52-degree average temperature made them useful for natural refrigeration.
Mugwort–one of the most common plants in Manhattan–lines the park’s paths. The plant was brought to the New World by the Dutch to make beer; today, runners stuff their shoes with mugwort to relieve aching feet. The tulip tree, so called because the Dutch thought its leaves looked like tulip petals, is also scattered throughout the park. It’s easy to spot these tall, sturdy trees, which the Lenape used to make giant canoes– so big that early Dutch settlers reported seeing 60 people in one dugout.
During the 1800’s, New York’s elite built their mansions near the scenic, wooded hills. Today all that remains are the foundations of the stately homes that once dotted the landscape. English ivy covers the bushes and tree trunks–remnants of the elite’s grand Victorian gardens. The pathways are actually old carriage roads that used to wind through the upscale neighborhood, which today are used for recreation and sport.
Visitors can experience the untamed beauty and rich history of Inwood Hill Park during the annual event, Drums Along The Hudson: A Native American Festival and Multicultural Celebration, which takes place on Sunday, June 14 from 11am-6pm. Drummers and dancers will host a powwow to celebrate the culture of the Lenape people– the first people to live in New York City as we know it.
To learn more about “Drums Along The Hudson”, go here.