The Great Saunter (Manhattan Waterfront Greenway)

The Manhattan Waterfront Greenway — composed of the Hudson River, Harlem River, and East River Greenways — wends around most of the almost 32-mile perimeter of the island of Manhattan. To walk the whole distance in a day is called the Great Saunter, an undertaking described by Cy A. Adler in his book Walking Manhattan’s Rim: The Great Saunter and popularized (if it can be called “popular”) by the Shorewalkers, a NY/NJ-based walking group.

The Shorewalkers run an organized Great Saunter the first weekend in May, but when I get an idea in my head, sometimes I’m too impatient to wait. Of the five Saunters I’ve done, two have been with the Shorewalkers and the other three in the fall — most recently, this past Saturday.

Two friends and I started the walk at 6 AM on Saturday; we picked up five others along the way. Two of us walked the whole 32ish miles, with the others traversing anywhere from 3 to 20 miles.

The weather was so-so this time around, so the pictures in this post are actually from past, less grey Saunters. Not a whole lot has changed! You can see the route on Google Maps (this is my modified version of a map created by/for the Shorewalkers). The first two years, I started on the Upper West Side, where I was living at the time. This year, we started at the intersection of Broadway, Battery Place, and State Street, near Battery Park, and that’s how I’ve ordered the pictures.

Miles 0-8

Fraunces Tavern, museum and historic restaurant

The Shorewalkers start their Saunter at Fraunces Tavern, where George Washington hosted a farewell dinner for the captains of his Continental Army at the conclusion of the Revolutionary War. The Tavern is still an operating bar and restaurant, though not when you stop by at 6 AM.

The first few miles of the walk are more city-like than most of the rest: Battery Park and the streets of the Financial District, then well-populated parks where tall buildings are always within sight. The route takes you past the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum, where you may even see a cruise ship disembarking (we did, this weekend).

One World Trade Center under construction in May 2013


It’s not until a couple of hours into the walk that Riverside Park takes you away from the hustle and into the greenery that defines the northern part of the Hudson River Greenway.

Miles 8-16

These signs keep you on track through the sometimes twisty Greenway route


Through the Upper West Side and into Harlem, where the Greenway is mere yards from the Hudson River in some spots, you’re separated from the city proper by sprawling green parks and the West Side Highway. Along the route, you’ll see dog runs, playgrounds, tennis courts, and fanciful structures that make you feel as though you’re in a different city altogether.


Inspiration Point Shelter, overlooking the Hudson River

Also along this section of the Greenway are the George Washington Bridge and the Little Red Lighthouse, originally built in Sandy Hook, New Jersey in the late 19th century and now a registered landmark.

View of the George Washington Bridge from upper Manhattan
The Little Red Lighthouse

Inwood Hill Park, at the northernmost tip of Manhattan, comes just before the halfway point of the Great Saunter. In parts of the park, you can neither see tall buildings nor hear vehicles (or, depending on the weather on the day you go, possibly any other people). Being surrounded by little more than trees and birdsong on one of the world’s most densely-populated islands is a highlight of the hike.

We had stopped at Fairway Market in West Harlem for sandwiches and sodas, which we consumed on some of Inwood Hill Park’s benches, to the sounds of a football game being played at Columbia University’s nearby Baker Athletic Complex.

Inwood Hill Park is also the home of Shorakkopoch Stone, which commemorates the alleged transaction in which Peter Minuit “bought” the island of Manhattan from local Native Americans. A dubious honor indeed.

Shorakkopoch: “According to legend, on this site of the principle Manhattan Indian village, Peter Minuit in 1626, purchased Manhattan island for trinkets and beads then worth about 60 guilders.”

Miles 16-24

The northeast part of the island contains the biggest gaps in the river walk. Walkers and bikers are directed over a series of pedestrian bridges from short stretches of finished path back into the streets.

369th Harlem Hellfighters Drive. The Hellfighters were the first African-American regiment to serve with American Expeditionary Forces in WWI
Rowhouses in East Harlem

Around mile 22, the path starts up properly again, but significantly changed. Compared to the west side, the East River Greenway feels more purposefully constructed. Concrete paths go right up to the water’s edge, not softened by the west side’s grassy stretches and rocky shores. The small parks that do dot the east side are farther between.


Miles 24-32

In its last section, the Great Saunter becomes Bridge City. Starting with the Queensboro Bridge just after mile 25, it also weaves past the Williamsburg, Manhattan, and Brooklyn Bridges — the last only a mile or so from the finish line.

The Brooklyn Bridge is perhaps the most popular among tourists, but I think all four are stunning. All four also have pedestrian pathways — for those who haven’t already walked 25-30 miles and want to venture across the East River. The Manhattan and Williamsburg Bridges, in particular, are less overcrowded than the Brooklyn, if noisier.

This section is inconsistently laid out, with some of the narrowest bits of path but also some parks and pedestrian areas that open up dramatically. The South Street Seaport is another attraction worth visiting, some other time than towards the end of a Great Saunter.

Williamsburg Bridge
Manhattan Bridge

Our final turn off the Greenway was at Gouverneur Lane, which intersects with Water Street, which takes you back to Fraunces Tavern or Battery Park. And we went done! (Confession: We finished the walk this time a few blocks short, food being a greater priority than adhering to strict guidelines.)

Now, Eat Everything

After walking 32 miles, your first priority is to sit or lie down, and your second is to devour something, anything.

The Shorewalkers finish their walk back at Fraunces Tavern, but it’s not my favorite. Stone Street in the financial district is nearby and has a number of food options, including our pick for this year’s celebration: Route 66 Smokehouse.

This meal is, of course, traditionally punctuated by complaints about sore joints and raw blisters. As I write this two days later, though, most of my pains have eased and I’m already thinking about the next walk.