Article and photos by Nora Lowe
As the weather warms, the calls of songbirds, cicadas, and spring peepers are becoming audible even through closed windows. The beams of the sun pierce persistently through drawn curtains, and the sweet scent of pollen draws us outside.
It’s hard to resist the grip of cabin fever during a normal year, but with the extended administration of advanced placement (AP) examinations, it can be even harder to concentrate. However, with the conclusion of the AP exams at Byram Hills and a decrease in final exam administration from previous years, consider closing the textbook and opening the front door.
The list of benefits of spending time in and exploring the great outdoors is quite lengthy. Its positive effect on mental health and state of mind has been recorded for hundreds of years. Today, scientific research has demonstrated that the environment’s role in stress reduction is more than psychological—it’s physical. That’s why doctors are increasingly prescribing time outside because the relaxing stimuli (e.g., the sound of birds chirping or rushing water) resets our fight or flight response. Sometimes called “park prescriptions,” spending time in nature can even help us live longer (PBS NewsHour). Because of its effect on mediating anxiety and PTSD, park prescriptions are sometimes used to help veterans too. According to Yale Environment 360 (a publication of the Yale’s School of the Environment), spending time in nature “can lower blood pressure and stress hormone levels, reduce nervous system arousal, enhance immune system function, increase self-esteem, reduce anxiety, and improve mood.”
So, how can you get outside? Spending time in your backyard and residential neighborhoods is certainly effective, but to become truly immersed in the sights and sounds of nature, it’s best to go for a hike at a local preserve or park. It can understandably be difficult to decide on a location, so below, I’ve highlighted a few of my favorite family-friendly hiking spots in Westchester County.
Located in Mt. Kisco and composed of 640 acres of land, there’s no shortage of trails to explore at Westmoreland. There are options for both a casual walk (my favorite is the “Easy Loop” trail), with slight inclines and clear footing, and more intense hiking with steeper slopes and more bumpy terrain. Wheeler Field is a lovely spot to stop for a rest, replete with blooming wildflowers and even wild onions. The scarlet tanager’s song can often be heard there, and there are birdhouses that are home to wren, bluebirds, and tree swallows nest.
A must-see program at Westmoreland is their bird banding. A registered bird banding site, Westmoreland captures and releases local avifauna after recording important information such as weight, age, sex, and species.
Inside the sanctuary itself is housed an array of interesting animals to learn about. From the blue-tongued skink to the corn snakes, and even two rabbits (affectionately named Skittles and Houdini), viewing the animals is a fun activity for younger and older audiences.
Senior Griffen Nenner is interning at Westmoreland as part of the Byram Hills senior internship program, and explains his favorite things about the sanctuary: “the trails are very well kept, the signs are constantly being checked to make sure they’re accurate, the center has tons of animals (we just got 16 baby ducks), and it’s about 600 acres, so you’re free to roam the trails.” In terms of logistics, he comments, “there’s no dogs allowed, though, and it’s right down Chestnut Ridge, so it’s relatively near town.”
The Greenwich Audubon Center is also renowned for its bird conservation efforts, as demonstrated through its annual Hawk Watch Festival, a celebratory event revolving around sighting red-tailed hawks and other hawk variants.
Visible from the main entrance is one of my favorite locations, the meadow. Used in the summer for games of tag at their nature camp, Audubon’s meadow is chock-full of wildlife: snails, butterflies, and nesting birds to name a few.
For younger children, the “Nature Play Trail” is a fan favorite. It is a winding trail that includes slides and tunnels nestled into the hillside. There is also a “Story Loop” which includes excerpts from picture books posted on the borders of the trails along the way. Additionally, the Story Loop is wheelchair accessible. In view are an apple orchard and a historic ground cellar. Another activity children usually enjoy is pond scooping at Georgie’s Pond, which sometimes reveals frogs, toads, tadpoles, water striders, and other interesting pond creatures.
One feature of Audubon that is especially notable is the accessibility of its streams. With plenty of room along the bank, and many bridges, sometimes crayfish are visible, and the sound of babbling brooks is of course relaxing. Junior Sebastian Vasquez, who was a counselor in training (CIT) at Audubon’s summer camp a few years ago, says, “I really liked how there were a lot of aquatic areas. Also, there’s a big variety of places to hike, like the meadows, the woods, and the lake.”
My favorite trail is the “Lake Trail.” It includes a bridge which crosses Mead Lake, a beautiful sight in the summer with the lilies on the lily pads blooming. Just across the bridge and to the left is a large rock, fondly dubbed Mossy Rock, which is an excellent place to stop for lunch while viewing the scenery. Junior Emily Pizzorusso was also a CIT at Audubon a few years ago. She reflects, “The Audubon in Greenwich has made me appreciate the beauty of nature. Hiking along the trails is so relaxing and scenic!”’
Many Armonk residents are not aware that we have a nature preserve right in town! The Eugene and Agnes Meyer Preserve’s hallmark is its winding meadow paths. Beware if you have allergies—pollen abounds here, and so do pollinators.
The beautiful thing about this preserve is that its meadows look distinct in each season. In warmer weather, there are seas of yellow flowers. In fall, the grass turns a crisp brown. In winter, snow blankets the paths.
Located in Rye, the Jay Estate is a unique location because it offers both historic and nature-based activities. There are various exhibits available, and John Jay’s original home still stands.
A short walk away is the shoreline of the Long Island Sound. The stroll along the rocks adjacent to the water is serene and makes for a perfect place to stop for lunch while admiring boats passing by. Additionally, keep an eye out for rarer bird species living in these sandy environments.
Found in West Harrison, this preserve is notable for the lake that inspired its name, as well as a rock quarry (these rocks were actually used to construct the Kensico Dam).
At 190 acres, this preserve is medium-sized (larger than the Jay Heritage Center, but smaller than Westmoreland). The landscape is also characterized by the remnants of glacial movement.
This location is memorable for its vernal pools, which are pools of water that accumulate seasonally and provide a specific habitat for distinct flora and fauna, especially salamanders. My favorite element of the Cranberry Lake Preserve is their mountain laurel flowers that dot the shrubs alongside the trails.
In Bedford, the Mianus River Gorge houses some of the last remaining old-growth forests in the Northeast. There are a few miles of hiking trails available that enable hikers to walk beneath these trees.
This preserve also includes a quarry that consists of mica, quartz, and feldspar. There are multiple scenic river overlook points.
Pound Ridge is the largest park in Westchester County. Though farmers settled this land, it was originally inhabited by Indigenous peoples (the greater municipality was occupied by the Siwanoy and Kitchawong Indians, according to the Pound Ridge Historical Society). The Wampus Elementary School students have traditionally visited this site to learn about Native American life.
Ward Pound Ridge has diverse habitats to explore, considering its vast size, spanning meadows, ponds, and woodlands.
This summer, consider visiting one of the abovementioned sites to de-stress while appreciating all that nature has to offer.
The locations I have reviewed here are only the tip of the iceberg. Visit Westchester County’s Hiking and Biking Guide for more recommendations.