Governors Island is one of our favorite places in NYC; covered in expansive park spaces, stellar playgrounds, historical buildings, and food trucks, with perfect views of lower Manhattan and the harbor, this place is idyllic. We’ve been out a million times before, but somehow never knew that the two forts on the island, Fort Jay and Castle Williams, are maintained by the NPS and that the park runs ranger tours and programs throughout the island’s season (May 1-October 31). So we were really excited to go learn more about the island’s history as a strategic defense of New York Harbor.
The ferry to Governors Island leaves from a terminal right next to the Staten Island ferry’s terminal, near the battery in lower Manhattan. The views during the boat ride are terrific and if you’re on one of the first few boats of the day, you ride for free! Our boat was plenty crowded because we were going on a Saturday during the island’s pumpkin patch event. We got off and parted from the crowd, heading straight for a ranger tour of Castle Williams.
This is one enormous fort, part of a system of forts designed and built in the early 1800s to protect the harbor. This system worked, but primarily as a deterrent—there were never any attacks on the fort and it was instead used a barracks, then a military prison, then—once the island had been converted to a Coast Guard base—a community center that provided a nursery, space for scout troop meetings and, once a year, a stellar location for a very spooky Halloween party.
The tour of Castle Williams was terrific and the views from the top dreamy. After we left the fort and grabbed a bite at one of the food trucks, we kept walking down the length of island to check out the newly opened hills on its southern end.
Governors Island has undergone some radical changes since the Coast Guard base here closed in 1997. The island was sold to the people of New York by the federal government in 2003 for the whopping price of $1. Though the NPS administers a small area on the north of the island, most of it is managed by the Trust for Governors Island, and they’ve slowly been unveiling new park areas and services for years.
The hills on the south end of the island are beautifully landscaped and offer up stunning views of the harbor and the Statue of Liberty. On the day we visited, there was also a terrific view of a couple of peregrine falcons, stopping and gliding over our heads and making for a pretty great juxtaposition between the built environment of lower Manhattan and the natural environment that continues to flourish wherever it can.
We watched the falcon for a very long time, took lots of turns on the gigantic slides on this end of the island, and made our way up to the pumpkin patch.
Though we’ve mostly visited on quieter weekdays, Governors Island frequently plays host to events, festivals, and fairs, and now that we’re back in the city we want to start coming out to more of them. It’s such a perfect little place to take a break from the bustle and get a longer view on things—and now that we know there’s a national park site here, this is sure to become an even more frequent haunt for us.
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