John Kieran Nature Trail
The John Keiran Nature Trail, established in 1987, exposes visitors to some of the park’s most scenic natural highlights along its 1.25 mile stretch, beginning with Van Cortlandt Lake.
John Kieran (1892–1981) was a writer and amateur naturalist who loved Van Cortlandt Park. Born in the Bronx, Kieran attended City College and Fordham University. In 1915, he began his career as a sportswriter for The New York Times. Over the next thirty years, he wrote for various other New York newspapers, and served on the expert panel for the radio show Information, Please. Nature was of the utmost importance to Kieran, especially the swamps and woods of Van Cortlandt Park. He wrote several books and articles including A Natural History of New York City for which he received the John Burroughs Medal in 1960. This work remains an invaluable reference to the city’s wildlife and wilderness during the first part of the 20th century.
This trail offers a view into the tremendous variety of plant and animal life in the park. The trail loops through freshwater wetlands where mallard and wood ducks can be found by the lake, and red–winged blackbirds and great egrets flock amongst the common reed. Different species of chipmunks and squirrels dart through New York fern and Virginia knotweed. Other plants are arrow arum, duckweed, buttonbush, and one particularly special tree, the gray birch. This species can take on an odd appearance, as it does here, with a five–trunk base. Very early in the gray birch’s life, it was damaged, perhaps by a hungry rabbit or a brushfire. The tree managed to survive by sprouting the several trunks that matured into the tree that stands today. Some interesting insects that inhabit this area are the birch leaf miner, waterstrider, and a variety of brightly colored dragonflies.
The Parade Ground, along the trail, was once a principal settlement of the Native Americans who lived in this area. The Lenape people had their main planting fields here, and the Van Cortlandts used the area for the same purpose. In 1890, the field was re–graded for use as a training area for Squadron A of the National Guard. The site was used for war games and polo matches, especially in 1917–1918 when the U.S. Army encamped here to train troops for World War I. Today, the Parade Ground is a major recreation area for baseball, cricket, soccer and cross–country running meets.
Where the John Kieran Trail combines with the Putnam Trail, visitors can see 13 stone pillars standing in the woods. The New York Central Railroad placed the different types of stone here to determine which would be most durable for use as the façade of Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan. They chose the stone that was the cheapest to transport along their rail lines: Indiana limestone (the two pillars on the far right).
Also along the trail is the site of a cemetery from the 1700s. Prominent families from the village of Kingsbridge were buried here, including the Ackermans, Berriens, Betts, and Tippetts. The grave markers are now gone and a stand of trees has grown up in their place. The site is recognizable by an iron pipe rail fence.