How to Enjoy Autumn Leaves in New York City's Central Park

Autumn Leaves
Autumn Leaves

No time to get out of the city to experience the breathtaking changing colors of the autumn leaves? New York City is a leaf peepers paradise, offering several superb spots for appreciating this wonder of nature. Riverside Park, Ft. Tyron Park and Prospect Park all provide a beautiful backdrop of fall colors, but it's Central Park that sets the standard and offers the most dramatic and diverse collection of trees featuring a rainbow of hues. The colors can reach their peak anytime between the last weeks of October and the last weeks of November depending on the climatic conditions, so it's best to check with the park rangers to find out exactly where in the process the foliage stands before starting out. There's usually one weekend in the season when the colors are at their most brilliant and not to be missed.

Things You'll Need

  • Comfortable walking shoes. Different stands of trees with different colored leaves are scattered throughout the park. In order to experience it all, you'll definitely have to do some walking.
  • Bring your camera.

American Elms are one of the most common trees throughout Central Park with oblong, serrated edge leaves that range from 3 to 6 inches long. The leaves change from dark green to brilliant yellow as they reach their peak and then to gold before they flutter to the ground. Considered one of the park's most graceful species, massive yet delicate, the major stands can be found along the Mall/Literary Walk mid-park from 66th to 72nd Streets, at the East Meadow, inside the Park at 99th Street and Fifth Avenue and at the North Meadow, mid-park from 97th to 102nd Streets.

The Callary Pear is one of the park's more recent species, planted extensively since the 1960's due to its hardiness and easy tolerance for pollution and de-icing salt. It also makes a statement in the fall with 3-inch, heart-shaped leaves turning from shiny green to deep orange and red. The most significant stands can be found at Grand Army Plaza, Fifth Avenue at 59th Street and Duke Ellington Circle, Fifth Avenue at 110th Street.

The Flowering Dogwood is one of the most spectacular small ornamental trees in the park's collection, as strikingly beautiful in the spring with its showy display of pink flowers as it is in autumn with its red berries and 5-inch, oval shaped, reddish-purple foliage. Flowering Dogwoods can be found in several areas of the park including the southwest shore of Pond at 59th Street and Sixth Avenue, at East 85th Street on the Rhododendron Mile, on the east side from 66th to 72nd Street and in the Shakespeare Garden, on the west side between 79th and 80th Streets.

The Norway Maple is a tall tree with a lush canopy of five-lobed, sharply pointed, dark green leaves that turn a deep yellow in the fall. Significant stands of Norway Maples can be found at the top of Cedar Hill at East 79th Street, at West 81st Street adjacent to the bridle path, at East 93rd Street between the running track and bridle path and south of Sheep Meadow.

The Pin Oak is the most common oak in Central Park, easily identified by its unique silhouette. The trunk is straight, the upper branches reach to the sky, the middle branches reach out horizontally and the lower branches droop towards the ground. The leaves are up to 6 inches long with 7 to 9 deep lobes featuring pointed tips. In fall, the leaves turn red, russet and bronze. Ubiquitous, Pin Oaks can be found at Strawberry Fields, surrounding the 59th Street Pond, shading the East Green and Dairy lawn, by the East 98th Street entrance to East Meadow and at 101st Street and East Drive.

The Red Oak is the second most common tree and a species native to Central Park. As the park is restored to its native habitat, invasive non-native species are replaced with Red Oaks, which grow fast and tall. The leaves are 7 to 11 inches long with bristle-tipped lobes, turning from dark green to be russet. Red Oaks predominate around Kerbs Boathouse and adjacent to the bridle path and along West Drive.

Silver Linden is a stately, shade tree that grows into a symmetrical, oval crown. The heart-shaped leaves are 2 to 5 inches long, dark green on top and silvery underneath that turn a mellow yellow in the fall. You'll find the trees across from the Boathouse at East 74th Street, on both sides of the East Drive at East 83rd Street and shading the Great Lawn.

The Willow Oak is finely textured, with thin leaves and branches. It adapts well to the urban environment and has been planted extensively throughout the park. The leaves are lance-shaped, resembling willow leaves, 2 to 5 inches long, dark green changing to orange-yellow in the fall. One of Central Park's oldest Willow Oaks, believed to be 150 years old, stands at East 73rd Street east of the Drive. They can also be found in the Ramble on the shore path between Bow Bridge and Loeb Boathouse, at 103rd Street and East Drive and around the Delacorte Theater, mid-park at 80th Street.

The best place to wind up your leaf peeping tour is at Belvedere Castle, mid-park at 79th Street. A fairytale structure with wide terraces offering a birds-eye view in all directions, it's the ideal perspective for that pointillist panorama of rich fall colors that makes the season so special.

Tips & Warnings

  • Call the Central Park Department of Forestry at (212) 860-1845 for information about when the season will be at its peak.
  • Call the Urban Ranger Station at Belvedere Castle at (212) 772-3751 to find out about any special guided walking tours.
  • Check the Central Parks Conservatory website for more information.

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