Orchard Beach in the Bronx: Surf, Sand, Shady Walks—and a View to the Great Plains
August 8, 2012

Orchard Beach in the Bronx: Surf, Sand, Shady Walks—and a View to the Great Plains

“Why do you think elk are better suited to live in western America rather than around here?” asked Jessica Carrero, a supervisor with the Bronx Urban Park Rangers, while holding a 3-foot-long elk antler up to her head. Riley and Halina were puzzled, so Carrero pushed them some more. “What do we have a lot of around here, right behind this nature center?” 

We were in the center at Orchard Beach, part of Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx. We could see the sand and surf of the Long Island Sound from the front door, but there were no windows to the back, so I reminded the kids, “Trees—remember the hikes we did around here last fall?” 

From there the connections came quickly: An animal with two of these huge antlers on its head would have a tough time maneuvering through woods and it would therefore be more vulnerable to predators than it would in the wide open spaces of the west. Deer, whose shorter antlers were also on display, are better able to trek around trees. For that and many other reasons, they proliferate on the east coast and other areas, Carrero explained. 

Much to Learn in a Small Space

The largest park in New York City, Pelham Bay is more than triple the size of Manhattan’s Central Park which, because of its fame, is often believed to be the largest. (Central Park is actually the fifth largest, behind Pelham, Greenbelt in Staten Island, Flushing Meadows in Queens, and Van Cortlandt in the Bronx.) The beach and three-room nature center are open from Memorial Day to Labor Day and are well worth visiting.

We were there to go to the beach, but the information-packed center proved to be just as much of a draw for Riley and Halina, ages 9 and 6 respectively. In addition to the antler collection, the nature center has animal pelts that children can touch to compare how they feel. There are also dioramas depicting how human culture has evolved in the area since 1000 AD, as well as numerous tanks and terrariums containing turtles, insects, and fish, including one that holds a young horseshoe crab whose shell was damaged during molting.

“He would have been dinner a long time ago in the ocean,” Carrero explained, pointing to a dent in the creature’s shell that causes him to flip over whenever he tries to move. “But I think that after he molts a few more times, the dent will go away and he’ll be good as new.”

Almost as if on cue, another park ranger, followed by a large crowd of onlookers, brought a big horseshoe crab up from the beach. The animal was placed in a tub and measured at over 2 feet—the largest they’d found so far this summer. A quick lesson ensued, with the ranger pointing to the crab’s 10 eyes along its underside, barnacles on top of its shell, and a reminder that while horseshoe crabs might look menacing, they actually don’t bite or sting. After the careful examination, the crab was released back into the mellow waters of the Long Island Sound. 

Orchard Beach has Something for Everyone, and All Seasons

After that excitement, we hit the beach, which truly earns its nickname, “Riviera of New York.”  It is a marvel of the still-controversial Robert Moses era. From 1924 to 1968 Moses held multiple powerful government positions that resulted in a greatly expanded park system in New York state and city, 658 playgrounds throughout the five boroughs, 10 giant public pools, and the expansion of public beaches in Long Island and New York City. He also created 13 bridges and hundreds of miles of highways and, in the process, destroyed some pristine lands and cherished neighborhoods. 

Moses designed Orchard Beach to feature a mile-long boardwalk, playgrounds, ball courts, acres of grassy picnic areas, and a network of easy hiking trails that cover Hunter Island and Twin Islands, which were connected with landfill and covered with trees. There is also a canoe and kayak launch in the reeds, on the far end of the parking lot, opposite the beach. You must bring your own craft.

The southern end of the crescent-shaped beach is far more popular than the northern rim, where we gravitated. The water is clear and shallow for a long way out, so in addition to seeing many horseshoe crabs in situ, we watched a team of seiners gently pulling up nets of fish, shellfish, and plants that thrive just below the surface of the water.

Orchard Beach was as wonderful a place to spend a hot Saturday as it had been to spend a cool one last October. Have you ever explored it, and if not, what’s keeping you?


Take the 6 train to the last stop, Pelham Bay Park, and transfer to the Bx12 bus to Orchard Beach. By car take Exit 9 of I-95 North onto Hutchinson River Parkway North, then take Exit 5 toward Orchard Beach. Continue to the traffic circle, and take the second exit onto Orchard Beach Road. At the end of the road, turn left onto Park Drive. The parking lot is ahead on the right. The beach and trails are free, but an $8 parking fee applies in summer.

There are restrooms, outdoor showers and hoses, water fountains, and a variety of food vendors along the boardwalk.



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