The New York City Inline Skating Guide

Where to Skate: Central Park




Introduction

The most popular outdoor skating location in NYC is Manhattan's Central Park, with its 9.7-km (approximately 6-mile) loop. Effective January 2005, cars are barred from the loop from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. on weekdays from January 1 through Thanksgiving, and around the clock on weekends and holidays all year. Or in other words, cars are only allowed in the park on weekdays from 7 to 10 a.m. and from 3 to 7 p.m. The city has experimented with additional, partial road closures, but has resisted closing the park to cars completely.

Cars do mistakenly — and not so mistakenly — use the loop road when it's officially closed, and ambulances, police cars, and park vehicles may appear at any time, so always keep your eyes and ears open.

Always remember to skate counter-clockwise when you're on the loop, the road circling around Central Park. Serious accidents in the park have been caused by people skating or cycling the wrong direction. If you're not sure what direction is counter-clockwise, there should be big white arrows marked in the middle of the road every few hundred yards which will give you a clue. So keep an eye for people going the wrong way, and if you yourself for some reason need to travel the wrong direction on the loop, do the rest of us a favor by getting over to the side of the road and going slow.

[photo]

Mixed traffic on the loop

One thing that the city has done to improve the traffic situation in the park is to re-stripe the lanes. In late 2012, the lines marking traffic lanes around the park loop were changed in order to prevent conflict between cyclists and joggers/pedestrians. In most of the park, there is now only one lane marked for auto traffic, on the far right of the road. The center lane is marked for bicycle traffic. The leftmost one or two lanes (depending on wide the road is at that point) are marked for pedestrians.

You'll be sharing the road with bikers, joggers, pedestrians, and horse-drawn carriages. On weekdays, there should be plenty of room for all during the car-free hours, but when cars are allowed in, you will need to choose between the recreation lane or cycling lane depending on how fast you skate. On weekends, the loop usually gets pretty crowded during mid-afternoons from Easter to October; if you want to do any serious looping, it's best to do it before 1:00 p.m. or after 5:00 p.m.

When skating after dark, it would be very wise to wear a light to alert fast moving cyclists to your presence. And on weekday evenings and early weekend mornings, watch out for bicycle packs; they're quiet and very fast.

In August, 1996, a skater was struck by a bicyclist on the upper east side of the Central Park loop, and she died a couple days later from head injuries. From the report in The New York Times, it was apparent that the incident happened because the skater and a friend were goofing around on the roadway and she blundered into the cyclist's path. (Nevertheless, she might well have lived if she'd been wearing a helmet. The five known skater deaths from 1995 to 2002 apparently all resulted from head injuries.) So keep your head screwed on when you're skating on the loop, even when cars aren't in the park. Go somewhere like the Bandshell or Skaters' Road if you feel the need to play around on your skates.

Please do not skate along the road holding hands with your sweetie or other friends. You'll almost certainly block faster cyclists and skaters coming up behind you, causing trouble as they try to figure out how to get past. Two people skating hand-in-hand can complete block a lane, and three people doing so is asking for trouble.

Traffic Safety and Enforcement

Through the 1990s and 2000s, the Parks Dept. sometimes put some of its rangers on wheels in order to promote safe skating, cycling and jogging in the park. The most obvious such time occurred after the 1996 death, During the last month or two of the 1996 skating season, members of the Parks Enforcement Patrol (aka "PEP boys" or "skate rangers") circulated the loop on skates. They generally stopped skaters and cyclists and delivered one or more of three basic safety messages:

  1. Skate/cycle counter-clockwise.
  2. When cars are not in the park, the recreation lane is reserved for the use of joggers. Skaters and cyclists must instead use one of the two regular traffic lanes.
  3. New York state law requires that skaters under age 14 wear a helmet.

But beginning about 2011 as cycling become more popular as a form of transportation around town, the police became more likely to issue tickets to cyclists for violating traffic laws. This included violating traffic laws in Central Park such as going through red lights on the park loop even when the park is closed to automobile traffic. Reports of skaters being likewise ticketed have been pretty rare (if there have been any), but nevertheless, you should keep traffic laws in mind when skating in the park.

Skate Patrol Stopping Clinic

[photo]

Skate Patrol Clinic

At the West 72nd St. entrance to Central Park, on weekend afternoons from 12:30 until 5:00 during the prime skate season — mid-April to mid-October, but excluding the Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends — the Central Park Skate Patrol gives beginning inline skaters some much-needed and free instruction on how to stop. Just look for a "bike rack" barricade that has a Skate Patrol banner hanging on it. The patrol members themselves wear red shirts with white crosses on the back (like a Swiss flag or an inverse Red Cross) and, of course, helmets. Members of the patrol might also be circulating around the loop to watch out for anybody who might be injured and in need of a Band-Aid or an ambulance. (Note: The Skate Patrol used to also setup at the East 72nd St. entrance, but they no longer do so.)

The Loop

The Lower Loop
Starting at Columbus Circle (59th St. and Broadway), the southwest corner of the park, the lower loop (or small loop) travels eastward and northward around the Heckscher playground, then leading you past Wollman Rink on the right and the Friedsam Carousel on the left. A ways after passing the entrance to the Mall, a tree-lined walkway leading to the Bandshell, you'll come to Olmsted Way, the 72nd St. crossover. Bear left onto the crossover. After climbing uphill, you'll see the Bandshell to your left and the Bethesda Terrace on your right. Next on the left is the north end of the Dead Road, then Cherry Hill on the right. After this, you'll arrive at the intersection with the west side of the loop, where you again bear left. You'll pass between Tavern on the Green and the Sheep Meadow on the way back to Columbus Circle.

[Lower Loop Map]

The lower loop is a fairly tame collection of mild rolling hills. As this is the most heavily trafficked part of the park, the road condition varies, but at least it is also more likely to get resurfaced. You certainly should watch out for the ubiquitous evidence of the horses in the right-most lane, particularly in the stretch near Wollman Rink; in fact, it's believed that a skater who died in the park in the summer of 1995 fell because he had slipped on some horse droppings. This area of the park is also about the most crowded with skaters and pedestrians, so be careful.

The Big Loop
To do a complete, or big, loop, start off as you would have a lower loop, but when you start down the downslope at East 72nd St., bear right so that you pass by the Boathouse. Here you'll be ascending Cedar Hill, a fairly stiff slope frequently called Cat Hill due to the statue which you may spot if you keep your head up. Watch out for skaters and cyclists going the wrong way on the hill. After a slight dip, the Metropolitan Museum of Art will then come up on your right, with Cleopatra's Needle and the Great Lawn uphill on the left.

The next landmark to the north is the Reservoir, marked by the embankment on the left side of the long straightaway in the road. Beyond the Reservoir is the North Meadow (a collection of baseball fields), and then the Lasker Hill (officially A.H. Green Hill) downslope, which passes by Lasker Rink/Pool. Be prepared for the hairpin turn at the bottom of the hill, and anyone who may be walking the wrong way on the inside of the turn. Here you're at the lowest point on the loop at approximately 30 feet above sea level. Flattening out for a bit, the road passes by Harlem Meer and then turns west.

The loop now begins to climb steadily and as you turn south gets even steeper. This is the Great Hill, known by joggers as Cardiac Hill for obvious reasons. After ascending the Great Hill and zooming down the other side, you'll wind gradually south, passing over three moderate hills.

Be cautious after the third hill (the highest point in the park), because it's easy to pick up a lot of speed as you begin the descent around 82nd St. and pass by the Delacorte Theater and Belvedere Castle. This is prime pedestrian territory due to the park paths connecting the Metropolitan Museum of Art to the American Museum of Natural History. At times in the past, the park police were occasionally known to place a French barricade or two in the road to slow skaters and bikers down. Next is the flats alongside the Lake, and after going by Strawberry Fields, you'll arrive at the western intersection with Olmsted Way and the lower loop.

The big loop is a good workout which takes even professional speedskaters 16 to 18 minutes to complete. If you can do it in four-wheel skates in under 30 minutes, you're probably in pretty good shape; under 25 minutes, you should consider going into training for racing.

Service Road Cutoff
There is also what is occasionally called the "cutoff loop", which is pretty much the same as the big loop except that you avoid Lasker Hill and the Great Hill by taking the service road which lies between the North Meadow and the North Woods Some folks call this the 102nd St or 103rd St cutoff because that's about where's it located.

If you're skating the loop after dark, you should take advantage of this cutoff instead of going down Lasker Hill and over the Great Hill. The area north of 102nd St. is pretty secluded, and although Central Park is safer than it was twenty years ago, incidents still happen, including the murder of a female jogger at the bottom of Lasker Hill around sunrise on a Sunday in September 1995. There is often, but not always, a police three-wheeler parked at one end or the other of the service road.

Finally, speedskaters into serious hill training will do circuits of the "upper loop". Basically, this means that they do the Lasker downslope, climb the Great Hill and zoom down, and then take the cutoff back to the east side and do it all again.

Loop Distances
According to the New York Road Runners Club map of Central Park, distances on the loop are:

MilesYardsInchesMeters
71 W to 72 E= 171631= 2264.8
72 E to 90 E= 174826= 1599_0
90 E to 103 E= 135111= 1235.6
103 E to 102 W= 1126419= 2765.6
102 W to 71 W= 124622= 1834.8
72 crossover= 5423= 495.7
102/103 service road= 46818= 428.4
Big loop= 6481= 9700
Lower loop= 1125834= 2761
Cutoff loop= 49630= 7318
Upper loop= 117331= 3194

Pavement Conditions
After an almost complete repaving in the early 1990s, the park loop was let alone for about ten years. Then pavement conditions started getting pretty dicey, but some areas have since been repaved: 1) in spring 2004, a small, heavily used section in the southeast near Wollman Rink; 2) in spring 2007, the northern section from Harlem Meer and running over the Great Hill and down the west side down to about 84th St.; and 3) in summer 2007, the southwest and south section, running from about 73rd St. by Strawberry Fields, down to Columbus Circle and over to the Sixth Ave. entrance; 4) in late 2008 or early 2009, the west side from 84th St. down to Strawberry Fields. Additionally, the part of the 72nd St. Transverse immediately at the Bethesda Terrace has been re-surfaced using (currently) smooth brick.

Thus, the north, west and south sides of the loop are in good shape, with "black ice" in some stretches. The east side of the loop north of Wollman Rink has not yet been repaved but is generally okay. The area in the southeast close to Wollman is potentially troublesome because of the regular traffic it gets from automobiles and horse carriages, so although it was resurfaced in 2004, there are already minor potholes appearing, and it may need repaving again by 2010 or 2011.

Dead Road

Known officially as Center Drive, and sometime called Skaters' Road, this is an inactive road running alongside the eastern edge of the Sheep Meadow, from the carousel to Olmsted Way. Many years ago it was blocked off from auto traffic and it now hosts some volleyball courts and a large skating area. Paths lead from the middle of the road west along the north edge of the Sheep Meadow to the slalom area on the loop and east to the Bandshell.

[photo]

Skate Circle dancing

The northern half of the Dead Road is where the skating action can be found, an area which you may also hear called the "Skate Circle". This is the place for dance skaters to meet, as literally hundreds of inline and quad skaters can be found roller dancing here on summer weekends, along with just as many spectators. The Skate Circle forms every Saturday, Sunday and holiday from 2:00 to 7:00 p.m. from mid-April through late October, and is free to all. The sound system is provided by the the Central Park Dance Skaters Association, which also organizes or helps organize several special skating events in the area during the year, including the Parks Dept.'s Halloween-time SkateFright.

Besides the dance skaters, there are usually other skate activities happening on Skater's Road. There is fairly regular pick-up rollerhockey activity late weekend mornings and weekdays after school/work (see also the rollerhockey page). If not you might still encounter a couple players practicing. Additionally, small inline classes may be found on weekend mornings during the skating season, and private lessons may happen at any daylight hour throughout the week.

[photo]
[photo]

The Bandshell

Bandshell

Just east and slightly uphill of the Skate Circle area is the Bandshell. With a flatter surface than the Dead Road, it's a bit more like an ice skating rink, with some people skating in circles, some practicing inline figure skating maneuvers, etc. A bunch of slalom cones are often lined up on one of the nearby walkways. This area can be very crowded on weekend afternoons and during early evenings throughout the summer, but it is pretty quiet on weekdays. At any time, it can be a fun place for trying new maneuvers or just hanging out.

Although there were pick-up rollerhockey games at the Bandshell many years ago, park police now usually clamp down on such activity at this location because it too easily conflicts with other activities. Check the Dead Road for a pick-up game if hockey is what's on your mind.

Likewise, there used to be regular grinding and impromptu ramp skating in front of or near the Bandshell, but those too were declared verboten. However, enforcement is inconsistent, and you will still see the occasional teen-ager grinding on one of the benches.

Just north of the bandshell are the Bethesda steps, three flights of stairs which lead down to the Bethesda Fountain. The stairway which passes under Olmsted Way and the Bethesda Terrace used to occasionally see some radical stairbashing by aggressive skaters.

Speedskaters Curb

A popular meeting place for inline speedskaters who train on the Central Park loop is a stretch of the road they call "The Curb". This area is located on the little rise between the West 67th St and West 72nd St. entrances (in other words, between Strawberry Fields and the Tavern on the Green). Along this shady section of the road during the summer one often can often spot some five-wheel skaters and cyclists taking a breather between laps around the loop, either sitting on the benches or on the curb itself. Stop here on weekend mornings and most evenings from March through October if you'd like to meet people to train with or to catch up on the latest speedskating gossip.

[photo]

Old slalom course

Just south of the Curb, on the downhill slope alongside the Sheep Meadow, is an area where slalom skaters met on summer weekends during the 1990s. They showed off their moves on a course of 30 cones that was set up in the recreation lane from early afternoon til sundown. Unfortunately, as the crowd of "coneheads" thinned out around 2000 and many of the remaining skaters were doing high-speed tricks, the Parks Dept. apparently shut the scene down to prevent potentially dangerous conflicts between the skaters and pedestrians crossing the road. Slalom skating can still be found at the Bandshell and occasionally the Dead Road.

Cherry Hill

[photo]

Cherry Hill

Across Olmsted Way from the north end of Skater's Road is a small, flat paved circle that hardly ever has any people around, even on weekends when the rest of the park is pretty crowded. This is a good place to practice new skating maneuvers, especially for newbies, but the asphalt is a little rough. It also offers a very nice view of the Lake and there's a water fountain, so it makes a good place for an extended rest stop.