June 22, 2011 -
Camping in New York City can be a challenge. There is only one campground open to the public inside city limits, and it has just four campsites. In a city of over 8 million people, getting a reservation at Floyd Bennett Airfield's campground can be difficult, and it is often pre-booked for Native American powwows and Gypsy festivals. Recognizing this, the United States Secretary of the Interior announced a plan on June 13th to transform Floyd Bennett from an abandoned municipal airport into "America's largest urban park campground," according to NY1, with up to 600 campsites available sometime in the future.
In the meantime, a variety of other options are occasionally available to urban campers. Several artists have recently created unique camping opportunities, including The Encampment (2007) on Roosevelt Island, and House of Cards (2009), a shanty timeshare inside the Brooklyn Navy Yard. There are also a handful of private campgrounds inside the city, like Pouch Camp - the Boy Scouts' private 143-acre oasis in Staten Island. For most New Yorkers, however, the best bet for finding a legal campsite inside New York City is winning a lottery to sleep in a park.
The Urban Park Rangers' Family Camping program is "one of the better-kept secrets of the city," according to the NY Times, and throughout the summer, New Yorkers can apply to win a camping spot in the Rangers' lottery system. Some of the more popular campouts include nights in Central Park, Prospect Park and Fort Greene Park. However, the program also offers camping opportunities in many lesser-known parks in the five boroughs that make far superior campsites. Camping with the Urban Park Rangers is free, and includes a tent, food and campfire. All that is needed is a sleeping bag.
One of the best camping locations offered in the Urban Park Ranger lottery is at Wolfe's Pond Park, "one of Staten Island's largest parks," which includes a beach, pond, picnic area, forest and mountain biking trails. Although Wolfe's Pond is situated near the far southern end of the city, camping in the park is still a uniquely urban experience. The park itself highlights the harsh contrast between urban and natural. One section of its beach is open for swimming, manned with lifeguards, and is regularly raked free of debris and seaweed. Just down the beach, though, the uncleaned section is littered with syringes and "more tampon applicators than I have ever seen in my life," according to one camper. In Wolfe's Pond itself, fishermen ply waters littered with empty beer cans and 40's.
After dark, when the park is largely emptied out, the Urban Park Rangers lead a night hike through the forest, over bridges and alongside patches of poison ivy, while birds and insects compete with car alarms and a steady stream of nearby traffic. On the deserted beach, waves crash at the edge of an empty lifeguard station as barges and tankers slip by the southern end of Staten Island. The distant glow of fireworks in Coney Island is a reminder that the crowds of the city are just a few miles away. Back at the campground, a campfire in the darkness erases any lingering memories of the city.
For more information on the Urban Park Rangers' Family Camping program, please visit their website.