March 21, 2020 – Bronx, NY
Length: Approximately 5 miles
Max elevation: 87 ft. – total elevation gain: approximately 147 ft.
Route type: Circuit
Map: Pelham Bay Park Map
Trailhead parking: Orchard Beach Parking lot – Bronx, NY 10464
Please Note: During the beach season, parking is $8.00 on Mondays through Fridays for cars and vans, and $10.00 on weekends and holidays. Parking is $13 on weekdays, weekends, and holidays for buses, trucks, and commercial vehicles. A senior citizen discount is available on weekdays for patrons aged 65 and older, please bring a valid ID and inquire at the parking lot toll booths. Once the beaches have closed for the year, parking is free.
Hunter Island (also Hunters Island or Hunter’s Island) is a 166-acre peninsula and former island in the Bronx, NY. It is situated on the western end of Long Island Sound, along the sound’s northwestern shore, and is part of Pelham Bay Park in the northeastern part of the Bronx. Hunter Island initially covered 215 acres and was one of the Pelham Islands, the historical name for a group of islands in western Long Island Sound that once belonged to Thomas Pell. The island is connected to another former island, Twin Island, on the northeast.
The Lagoon and the Twin Islands Salt Marsh, offer a wide array of vegetation and wildlife such as ducks, geese, and small crustaceans. The Gray Mare and Mishow are two large boulders that were important during rituals and ceremonies to the Siwanoy, a group of the local Lenape who inhabited this area up until the European arrival in the 17th century.
Hunter Island is located within the northeastern part of the 2,764-acre Pelham Bay Park, in the northeast Bronx, near New York City’s northern border. The island’s flora largely consists of tracts of old-growth forest that existed prior to the settlement of the New York City area, as well as plants introduced by John Hunter in the 19th century. Some of the plants found on Hunter Island are seldom found in other New York City parks. The island contains the Hunter Island Marine Zoology and Geology Sanctuary, established in 1967, and the Kazimiroff Nature Trail and Orchard Beach Environmental Center, which opened in 1986.
The park is operated by the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation (NYC Parks).
Geology – Bedrock and Boulders
Pelham Bay Park has a fascinating geology with many surprising features facing Long Island Sound. The Park is home to stunning “glacial erratics,” large boulders deposited some 20,000 years ago by the flow of the Wisconsin Glacier. The massive ice sheet also carved and scoured the underlying rock substrate or bedrock. The park’s bedrock is a complex mix of rocks comprised of both Fordham gneiss and Hartland schist. The rocky coastline around Hunter Island and Twin Island is the southernmost tip of the Hartland Formation, the bedrock that runs along the New England coastline as far north as Maine.
This island is named for John Hunter (d. 1852), whose family owned the land for nearly 50 years. The Siwanoy Indians, who originally occupied the island, called it Lap-Haa-Waach King, meaning “place of stringing beads,” after the shells they strung together and used for ceremony and currency. In 1654, they sold the land to Thomas Pell (c.1610-1669), for whom Pelham Bay Park is named, and it was called Pell’s Island, and then Pelican Island, until 1804 when John Hunter bought the island for $40,000. He cultivated the land, creating a magnificent garden and mansion. Built in the English Georgian style, the Hunter Mansion held a large collection of fine wines and valuable art. Hunter entertained guests from around the world, including Napoleon Bonaparte’s brother, Joseph of Spain, and President Martin Van Buren (1782-1862).
The home was situated at the highest point on the island, 90 feet above sea level, and had views of Long Island Sound to the east and the hills and woodlands of the Town of Pelham to the north.
Hunter died in 1852 and left his entire estate to his son Elias. When Elias died in 1865, his son, John III, inherited the land and sold Hunter Island to former New York City Mayor Ambrose Kingsland (1804-1878) for $127,501. Hunter Island was owned by several other people until 1889, when the City of New York purchased the land for $324,000. Once the city acquired the land, the Society of Little Mothers used the Hunter Mansion as a children’s welfare house.
In 1937, Parks Commissioner Robert Moses (1888-1981) decided to dredge the sand of the Rockaways to fill LeRoy’s Bay during the construction of Orchard Beach. The Hunter Mansion, which had fallen into disrepair, was also destroyed during construction. When the $8 million project was finished, Hunter Island was connected to Rodman’s Neck, becoming part of Pelham Bay Park, originally designated parkland in 1888.
The Kazimiroff Nature Trail reveals much of the natural beauty of Hunter Island. One can see trees such as the tall Norway spruce and the white pines that provide a habitat for great horned owls. The remnants of the Hunter Mansion garden, as well as fragments of the mansion house foundation and stone walls, are reminders of the large estates that once dotted the park’s shoreline.
The Kazimiroff Nature Trail, named for the noted Bronx naturalist Dr. Theodore Kazimiroff, winds through Hunter Island, one of the most beautiful sections of the 2,764-acre Pelham Bay Park. The trail is not well blazed and with the myriad of trails that criss-cross the island, some of which are wide woods roads that were part of John Hunter’s estate, it can get a little confusing. Hunter Island is surrounded by the Long Island Sound, Orchard Beach, Orchard Beach parking lot and the Lagoon which serve as landmarks to help navigate through the area.
This hike encompasses the outer perimeter of Hunter Island going clockwise. It’s easy to follow and the key is to always stay close to the water. Upon leaving Hunter Island and reaching the Orchard Beach promenade, we turned left and then left again at the Orchard Beach Nature Center. Now on Twin Islands, we followed the trail to Two Trees Island, back to Twin and looped around, coming back to the promenade, reentering Hunter Island and taking an unmarked trail back towards the parking lot.
At the northeast end of the parking lot, look for a paved road that traverses a picnic area and heads towards the woods. Walk along the paved road, passing the “Hunter Island” sign and two metal gate posts. Proceed ahead on the paved road until you see an unmarked footpath that leaves to the left.
Follow this footpath downhill, staying left as you pass other trails that leave to the right. In about 450 yards the trail reaches the lagoon along the southwest border of Hunter Island. Directly across the lagoon, is Bartow-Pell Woods and Shore Road with Pelham Bay and Split Rock Golf Courses just beyond. The high-rise buildings to the left is Co-op City in the Baychester section of the Bronx.
Continue north along the dirt road, keeping the lagoon on your left. As you near a mass of land that juts out from the road you are following, look for a footpath that cuts through some high grass. Follow this footpath through a wet area that soon leads to a rock outcrop at the edge of the lagoon.
This spot is the shortest distance across the lagoon from Hunter Island to the mainland. It was in this area that a causeway once existed connecting the two.
The only entrance to John Hunter’s Island was marked by two tall granite pillars. In 1905 a wooden bridge was constructed, and the old causeway removed, to prevent the channel from filling and in the hope that the tides may eventually wash out the mud.
The lagoon was the site of the 1964 Olympic Rowing trials.
Looking north towards where the lagoon meets the Long Island Sound.
Follow the footpath in a northerly direction until it widens to a woods road. This was the original road from the mainland. As the road turns right, continue ahead a short distance to a large rock outcrop with a 180-degree view of the Long Island Sound.
This is the northernmost point of Hunter Island, and southern Westchester County can be easily viewed from this spot.
The red roofed structure across the sound to the left is the New York Athletic Club at Travers Island, in Pelham, NY.
Slightly northeast, the castles (there are two) of Glen Island Park in New Rochelle are visible in the distance.
Looking northwest across the tidal flats toward Pelham, NY.
Grey Mare, a glacial erratic resembling a horse, sits on marshy land at the northwest point of Hunter Island, near the border with Westchester County. Native Americans reportedly believed that their God or guardian intentionally placed the Grey Mare at that spot and it was a very important Siwanoy ritual site.
When you are ready to proceed, retrace your steps back to the woods road and almost immediately turn left. Follow the road as it skirts the shoreline with views back to the rock outcrop that you just left. Look for another footpath to the left that leads to a wooden plank walkway across a salt marsh.
Taking the trek across this path of planks, brings hikers to an awesome geological area including rocky coast and glacial erratics combined with marshland and tidal pools of the Long Island Sound.
A small offshore island with an arrangement of fractured boulders left by a glacier (sometimes called the Stonehenge of The Bronx) is one of the nicest seascapes in the region. Tilly’s Rock, the largest of the boulders seen here, may have been given its name by campers, after someone called Matilda. The tiny rock island is accessible via a sandbar during low tide.
To the northeast is David’s Island.
Retrace your steps across the planks and return to the woods road, turning left. You may start to see red and/or blue blazes of the Kazimiroff Nature Trail at this point. Follow the blazes or just stay on the road closest to the water, exploring any side trails that lead towards the water.
In the distance, just left of center is Danny Hat Island with Two Tree Island on the far right.
Looking northeast towards Tilly’s Rock (center), with David’s Island beyond (far right).
Two Tree Island across the way.
Columbia Island, which is part of New Rochelle, was owned by CBS in the 1940’s to 1960’s Exactly how large Columbia Island is depends on when measurements are taken. It grows and shrinks with the tide. A small sandy beach beyond the 14-foot sea wall disappears when the tide comes in and reappears, inch by inch, when it goes out. Now a private residence, in June 2019, Columbia Island and nearby Pea island were jointly put on sale with a list price of $13 million.
Return to the woods road and turn left, now the blazes appear more often. Bear left at the fork to remain on the Kazimiroff Nature Trail. Look for a wooden post with blazes an #17 on it. Turn left onto this footpath which leads to a viewpoint from a cliff, over the area you just left.
To the northeast off in the distance is Execution Rocks Lighthouse.
Return to the road, turn left and continue heading south. Soon you’ll cross two wooden footbridges and shortly thereafter come to another rock outcrop to the left with more views.
As you continue south along the road, you’ll come to another wooden post with a #2 painted on it. Walk out to a view over the ruins of the man-made stone bridge that used to connect Hunter Island with West Twin Island.
Continue south along the road and in a short distance you will pass through two metal fence posts on either side of the trail. This is the terminus of the Kazimiroff Nature Trail. Proceed ahead and turn left on the Orchard Beach Promenade. Walk along the promenade, turn left just before the nature center by the Orchard Beach kiosk and onto West Twin Island.
Follow this crushed stone path as it heads northeast along West Twin Island. Soon you’ll come to the other end of the man-made stone bridge and the salt marsh just ahead, with a close-up view of Two Tree Island.
A footpath to the right connects West Twin and East Twin Islands. At times the water is too high to safely ford the crossing without getting wet. If this is the case, retrace your steps back out to the promenade, turn left and walk a short distance to East Twin Island.
Just past the Twin Island Preserve sign and before the informational sign that is just beyond, there is a footpath that leaves to the left. The paved road is your return route. Turn left onto the footpath and follow it down to the sandy beach of East Twin.
Walk along the shoreline until you reach Two Tree Island which is connected to East Twin Island via a thin mudflat landbridge which is submerged at high tide.
Be aware of rising tides in this area. Authorities rescued a man in 2018 after he became stranded on Two Tree Island due to high tide.
View northeast from Two Tree Island with David’s Island in the distance.
Columbia Island as viewed from Two Tree Island.
Looking east from Two Tree Island, Execution Rocks Lighthouse is visible far off in the distance.
Looking back at East Twin Island.
Return to East Twin Island and turn left along its rocky shoreline, looking out to the Long Island Sound.
Don’t forget to peer back at Two Tree Island from your new vantage point.
Perched on the northeastern edge of East Twin Island is the glacial erratic known as Sphinx Rock. A section of the boulder once balanced on top, but broke away and now sits on the ground beside it. An early Parks Department brochure, indicates that the boulder was also known by the name of Lion Rock and may have been a Siwanoy Indian ceremonial site.
From there follow the paved road back out to the Orchard Beach Promenade, turn right and retrace your steps to the Kazimiroff Nature Trail. Almost immediately turn left on an unmarked woods road. Follow this woods road west until you come to the paved road from the beginning of the hike. Turn left on the paved road and follow it back to the Orchard Beach parking lot, where the hike began.
An extremely scenic hike along the shoreline of Hunter Island, with stops at Twin and Two Tree Islands. The views are never ending and a good zoom lens or binoculars are recommended for this hike. Hunter Island is truly one of the jewels of the NYC Parks system.
I have been here numerous times and have seen countless shore birds along with some owls and hawks. On this particular visit, we observed White-tailed Deer, A Great Blue Heron, a hawk and many ducks and geese.
Scenic landscape, historical features, wildlife, Long Island Sound.
Busy area during beach weather.
Take a hike!
- Hunter Island – NYC Parks
- Boulder Sites – Friends of Pelham Bay Park
- Hunter Island Mansion
- Birding in Pelham Bay Park