Where to Skate: Central Park


Introduction

Perhaps the most popular outdoor skating location in NYC is Manhattan's Central Park, with its 9.7-km (approximately 6-mile) loop.

[Lower Loop Map]

Effective summer 2015, cars are barred from the loop road north of the 72nd St transverse at all times. On the 72nd St. transverse and the loop below, cars are allowed in on weekdays but the hours vary, with cars permitted on the east side from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. while on the west side and the transverse they are permitted from just 8:00 a.m. to 10 a.m. The entire loop is closed to traffic on weekends and city holidays.

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

Please 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 that will give you a clue. So keep an eye out 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.

Even when and where auto traffic is barredo the loop, 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 can get pretty crowded during mid-afternoons from mid-April 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

On occasions in the past, the Parks Dept. has 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 skater death, but there have been others since.

But beginning about 2011 as cycling become more popular as a form of transportation around town, the police began to also patrol the loop and to issue tickets to cyclists for violating traffic laws. This activity spiked after a cyclist struck and killed a pedestrian on the lower loop in 2014. Possible ticket reasons include going through red lights on the park loop even when and where the park is closed to automobile traffic, and in some cases for exceeding the marked speed limit. Reports of skaters being ticketed have been pretty rare (if there have been any), but nevertheless, you should keep traffic laws in mind when skating in the park.

All that said, some basic safety tips to keep in mind when skating the loop:

  • Skate/cycle counter-clockwise. It's tough enough dealing with all the other park users who are traveling in the correct direction; don't make it harder on others by going the wrong way.
  • The leftmost lane is the recreation lane, reserved for the use of joggers and pedestrians.
  • Although cars are not allowed on the loop north of 72nd St., the rightmost lane is reserved for the use of park vehicles, emergency vehicles, etc. Drivers of some of these vehicles are not shy about reminding you of this.
  • In other words, try to skate in the center lane.

Skate Patrol Stopping Clinic

At the West 72nd St. entrance to Central Park, on Saturday afternoons from 12:30 until 4:00 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 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

On the Loop
Lower Loop near Columbus Circle

On the Loop
Lower Loop approaching the Carousel

If you're skating laps in Central Park for exercise, there are multi[ple options: the lower loop, the big (complete) loop, the cutoff loop, and the upper 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. After passing the entrance to the Mall, a tree-lined walkway leading to the Bandshell, you'll pass the Summer Stage and come to Olmsted Way, the 72nd St. crossover.

Bear left onto the crossover, and signal your turn in case there is a fast moving cyclist coming up behind you. After climbing a short 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.

The lower loop is a tame collection of mild rolling hills. As this is the most heavily trafficked part of the park, the road condition varies, but 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 slipped on some horse droppings. This area of the park is also about the most crowded with park users of all types, as well as being open to auto traffic at some times of day, 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 that 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.

Straightaway
East side straightaway at the 90th St. entrance

The next landmark to the north is the Reservoir, marked by the embankment on the left side of the long straightaway in the road. The straightaway is a good spot for turning your inner speed demon loose, but you must watch out for pedestrians crossing the road at the East 90th St. entrance. 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 pedestrians who may be walking the wrong way on the inside of the turn. Here you're at the lowest point on the loop at perhaps 25 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, sometimes called Cardiac Hill for obvious reasons. It's not the highest spot in the park, but this bit of the loop does involve a 90-foot climb in less than a half mile.

After ascending the Great Hill and zooming down the other side, you'll wind gradually south, passing over three less difficult hills, with summits at about 97th St., 91st St., and 85th St. (The third of these marks the highest point in the park.)

On the Loop
Upper Loop heading south in the west 90s

Be cautious after the third hill, because it's easy to pick up a lot of speed as you begin the descent at 82nd St. and pass by the Delacorte Theater. 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 known to place a French barricade or two in the road to slow skaters and bikers down, and if the pavement is rough (as it was of as of early 2017) you could have the problem of avoiding pedestrrians at the same time as your are dealing with potholes. After the Delacorte 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 around 20 minutes to complete. If you can skate it in under 30 minutes, you're probably in pretty good shape; if under 25 minutes, you should consider going into training for racing.

Service Road Cutoff
An alternative, medium-distance route is the "cutoff loop", which is much the same as the big loop except that you skip Lasker Hill and the Great Hill by taking the service road that lies between the North Meadow and the North Woods. Generally called the 102nd St. crossing or transverse, this road leads from 104th St. on the east side of the loop to 102nd St. on the west side.

If you're skating the loop after dark, you may want to consider 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 in teh 1970s and 1980s, incidents still happen, including the attempted rape of a woman near Lasker Rink in October 2016 as well as a couple robberies in the same month. On the other hand, the service road itself can seem quiet and secluded. There is often, but not always, a police vehicle parked at one end or the other of the service road.

Upper Loop
Finally, serious speedskaters doing their hill training will skate 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
W 71st to E 72nd= 171631= 2264.8
E 72nd to E 90th= 174826= 1599.0
E 90th to E 103rd= 135111= 1235.6
E 103rd to W 102nd= 1126419= 2765.6
W 102nd to W 71st= 124622= 1834.8
72nd transverse= 5423= 495.7
102nd service road= 46818= 428.4
Big loop= 6481= 9700
Lower loop= 1125834= 2761
Cutoff loop= 49630= 7318
Upper loop= 117331= 3194
On the Loop
Narrow spot on Lower Loop with degrading asphalt at right

Pavement Conditions
The last round of repaving the Central Park loop mostly occurred during 2007-2009. Roughly speaking, the work done was that in spring 2007, the northern section was repaved from Harlem Meer and running over the Great Hill and down the west side down to about 84th St.; then 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; and in late 2008 or early 2009, the west side from 84th St. down to Strawberry Fields. Additionally, the 72nd St. transverse immediately alongside the Bethesda Terrace was re-surfaced using smooth brick, which is rapidly becoming bumpy.

It would seem that the east side of the lower loop near Wollman Rink may have have some work within the past few years, as this stretch is heavily used and has to be resurfaced more often than the rest of the work. Its 2004 repaving was really showing the wear by 2010 but was in tolerable shape around 2014 to 2015. But at the start of 2017, it is again getting iffy, with the right lane developing its usual trenches due to the tourist carriages that ply their way along here.

Other spots currently (early 2017) in the worst condition are the stretch on the west side near the Delacorte Theater and leading toward the Lake; and the intersection with the service road at East 104th just before the Lasker Hill descent; and intermittent bits alongside Harlem Meer and up to the top of the Great Hill; Also getting iffy are the stretch in the south near Wollman Rink and parts of the 72nd St. transverse.

Areas in very nice shape run along the east side from the Boathouse up to about 100th St. (especially the straightaway along the Reservoir) and the west side from the Great Hill descent south to about 84th St.

Dead Road

[photo]
Skate Circle dancing

Known officially as Center Drive, and sometimes called Skaters' Road, the "Dead Road" 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 open area. Paths lead from the middle of the road east to the nearby Bandshell, and west along the north edge of the Sheep Meadow to the speedskaters' curb on the loop.

The northern third 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, with scores of quad and inline skaters roller dancing here on summer weekends, along with even more 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, who also organize or help organize several special skating events in the area during the year.

Besides the dance skaters, there are usually other skate activities happening on Skaters' Road. There can be pick-up rollerhockey activity 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.

The Bandshell

[photo]
The Badnsheel during the 1990s

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 pedestrians and other park users. 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.

Speedskaters Curb

A popular meeting place for inline speedskaters who train on the Central Park loop is a stretch of the road known as "The Curb". This area is located on the rise between the West 67th St and West 72nd St. entrances — in other words, just north of Tavern on the Green. Along this shady section of the road during the summer one often can often spot some five-wheel and big-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 weekday evenings from March through late September if you'd like to meet people to train with or to catch up on the latest speedskating gossip.