Wave Hill: The Bronx’s Other Botanical Garden

I could be wrong, but I’d hazard a guess that you don’t associate the Bronx with the great American outdoors—with desert landscapes, rugged, rocky coastlines, or wild bison, bears, or boar. But if you’ve ever marveled at any of one the U.S.’s 230 million acres of public land—terrain comprising the likes of the Grand Canyon and Acadia national parks—you may kinda, sorta have the Bronx to thank. Specifically, Wave Hill.

Located in the Riverdale section of New York’s northernmost borough, the Bronx, Wave Hill is a 28-acre public garden that was established as a private home in the mid-1800s. The garden’s small Hudson Hills neighborhood is a destination unto itself, with old-moneyed homes tucked into wooded and winding roads. The only reminder you’re still in the city are the incongruous street signs: West 252 St. West 254 St. Get there via subway, MetroNorth, or car; it’s just nine miles north of Manhattan, off the Henry Hudson Parkway.

Pay the admission fee at the gate ($8) and you’re graced upon entering—rather abruptly—with one of Wave Hill’s best assets: A main lawn scattered with Adirondack chairs, and beyond it, stunning views of New Jersey’s Palisades—forested, craggy cliffs that line the Hudson River, which cuts between New York and New Jersey.

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I’ve visited Wave Hill only in cooler months, when its curated grounds have weathered to autumnal hues or are enjoying their winter slumber. But even on a cold February day, when all is dormant, I love this public garden.

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For one thing, it’s small. Unlike the nearby New York Botanical Garden—a sprawling 250 acres—you can acquaint yourself with Wave Hill’s intimate landscape in a matter of hours. A handful of paths dart beneath pergolas and around a goldfish-filled fountain, through tidy, terraced herb and flower gardens. A half-mile hiking trail ambles through a conifer forest with bee boxes and wood benches. A small greenhouse warms desert foliage and tropical plants. There is a main house, with a cozy café and art projects for kids on weekends. A smaller building houses temporary art exhibits. It’s all very peaceful and manageable—a reminder that sometimes it’s nice to know something and know it well.

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Of course, this isn’t the Wave Hill of yore. The property was built as a country residence in 1843 with neither greenhouses nor great gardens, but it did boast the natural beauty of the Hudson River Highlands and that incredible Palisades view. It was an attraction even then, hosting a variety of big names: biologist Thomas Henry Huxley (a contemporary of Charles Darwin and a champion of his work), Mark Twain, and the great American conservationist: Theodore Roosevelt.

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Indeed, the story goes that our 26th President’s family summered at Wave Hill when he was young, an experience that purportedly helped cement his affinity for the natural world. “Teddy’s time here significantly deepened his love of nature and love of the outdoors,” notes Wave Hill’s website. “That would later prompt him to secure the preservation of millions of acres of American parkland.”

I did a quick search to see if I could find a reference to Wave Hill in Roosevelt’s writings but came up empty-handed. Still, I don’t doubt that Wave Hill—while modest—wasn’t somehow meaningful for this great protector of wild spaces.

It is for me. Ben and I first explored it on one of our early adventures together, when he was just five months old. Later, he and I introduced it to Shon, and we’ve since taken Jake there, too. It’s a place I associate now as much with family as with tempered wilds. I think of it, too, as our stepping stone to millions of acres of public land elsewhere—the great American outdoors that we, as a family, will explore one day together. When we do, I’ll thank Wave Hill.

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