Where to Skate: Central Park
- The Loop
- Pavement Conditions
- Traffic Enforcement
- Skate Patrol Stopping Clinic
- Dead Road
- The Bandshell
- Speedskaters Curb
Perhaps the most popular outdoor skating location in NYC is Manhattan's Central Park, with its 9.7-km (approximately 6-mile) loop.
Unauthorized motor vehicles were barred from the loop road north of the 72nd St. transverse at all times in summer 2015. And effective the end of June 2018, they were banned from the entire loop at all times. Horse carriages and pedicabs continue to circulate.
However, cars do mistakenly — and not so mistakenly — use the loop road when it's officially closed. Furthermore, ambulances, police cars, park vehicles, and event vehicles may appear at any time, so keep your eyes and ears open.
If you're skating laps in Central Park for exercise, there are multiple options, inclduing 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. transverse.
Bear left onto the transverse, 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, and the bit between the Seventh and Sixth Ave. entrances is the narrowest part of the loop.
The Big Loop
It's not uncommon to hear inline skaters refer to skating a complete loop of Central Park as "doing a big loop". To skate a 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.
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 watch out for pedestrians who might walking on the right side of the road just past 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 by runners 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.)
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, with people passing between the Sheep Meadow to the left and the American Museum of Natural History to the right. 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. 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. Sometimes 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 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 the 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.
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.
According to runners' maps of Central Park, distances on the loop are:
|W 71st to E 72nd||=||1.41||=||2264.8|
|E 72nd to E 90th||=||0.99||=||1599.0|
|E 90th to E 104th||=||0.77||=||1235.6|
|E 104th to W 102nd||=||1.14||=||1834.8|
|W 102nd to W 71st||=||1.72||=||2765.6|
|72nd St. transverse||=||0.31||=||495.7|
|102nd St. service road||=||0.27||=||428.4|
The state of the asphalt on the Central Park loop is variable, but as of May 2020 is mostly good to excellent. About half (i.e., three miles) had been repaved within the prior two and a half years.
In November 2017, the northwest loop, beginning near the Lenox entrances on 110th St. and going up and over the Great Hill and then down the west side of the loop to West 90th St., was repaved. Then in May 2018 to much rejoicing, the west side from West 90th St. down to West 72nd St. was resurfaced. (The rejoicing was because the section alongside the Delacorte Theater had for some time had some of the worst asphalt and been one of the most dangerous spots on the loop.) In April 2019, the northeast section was resurfaced, from the East 90th St. entrance north along the straightaway, past the North Meadow and the compost hill, and swooping down Lasker Hill and past Harlem Meer. (Again, much rejoicing as the roadway near the compost hill and Harlem Meer had been getting pretty rough.) Additioanlly, in January and May 2020, the 72nd St. Transverse was cleaned up, with the lumpy brickwork at the Bethesda Terrace replaced in January and the asphalt of the rest of the route resurfaced in May.
The areas in poor or degraded condition as of Spring 2020 were the stretch in the southeast near Wollman Rink, where the right lane has a rut pounded in by horse carriage traffic, and the east loop running from the intersection with the 72nd St. Transverse northward past the Boathouse and up the Cedar Hill climb.
Traffic Safety and Enforcement
On occasion, 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 a skater death in 1996, 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 patrol the loop more rigorously 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 near Columbus Circle in 2014. Possible ticket reasons include going through red lights on the park loop and in some cases for exceeding the speed limit (25 mph on most of the loop, but slower in a few places). 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:
Please skate counter-clockwise when you're on the loop. Accidents have been caused by people skating or cycling the wrong direction on the loop. 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 opposite direction on the loop, do the rest of us a favor by getting over to the side of the road and going slow.
Even without motor vehicles on the loop, you will be sharing the road with bikers, joggers, pedestrians, and horse-drawn carriages. The right-most lane is likely to be used by such vehicles as are allowed on the loop. The left-most lane is the pedestrian/jogger lane. So plainly, you should try to skate in the center lane as much as possible, use the right-most lane when necessary to get past slow cyclists and skaters, and stay out of the left lane.
When skating after dark, it would be wise to wear blinkies or other illumination 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 in the park between 1995 and 2002 apparently all involved 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 block a lane, and three people doing so is asking for trouble.
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.
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.
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 up to the 72nd St. transverse. 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 west 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 most Saturdays, Sundays and holidays from 2:00 to 7:00 p.m. from mid-April through late October, and is free to all. There is no dance skating when there is a major park event that requires use of the Dead Road, or if the weather is inclement. 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.
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 of hockey is what's on your mind.
A popular meeting place for inline speedskaters who train on the Central Park loop is a spot on the west loop known as "The Curb". This area is located on the loop just north of Tavern on the Green and the West 67th St. entrance, near the path that leads along the north side of the Sheep Meadow. 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.