Bike path around Governors Island, a former U.S. Coast Guard Station in the middle of the New York City harbor that offers stunning views of the New York City skyline, harbor and New York's most famous landmarks including the Statue of Liberty, Brooklyn Bridge as well as the opportunity to visit two historic 1812 era forts, and enjoy expansive picnic areas and harborside beaches.
Governors Island is just a short, free ferry ride from Lower Manhattan or Brooklyn Bridge Park. The island is open to the public for the summer every Friday – Sunday from June through October. Getting to the island is all part of the fun. Bring your bike along on the ferry or rent one when you get there. With over five miles of car-free bike and pedestrian paths, bicycling is a great way for visitors to explore the island. For details see Directions to Governors Island below.
Governors Island has always been a place of mystery for both New Yorkers and visitors to New York City. For over two centuries it served as part of the coastal defense system for the United States. New York transferred the island to the U.S. Government for military purposes in 1800. In 1966 the island became the country's largest Coast Guard installation. When the Coast Guard closed its facilities in 1995, 22 acres including historic Fort Jay and Castle Williams, were designated as the Governors Island National Monument. Finally in 2002, the U.S. Government sold the island, at nominal cost, to the people of New York to be used for the public benefit.
We first visited the 172 acre Governors Island around 2006 when it was opened on a very limited basis and enjoyed a walking tour of some of the historic buildings. In the summer of the following year the word about ths urban oasis was out and regular free ferry service brought more than 56,000 visitors to enjoy the historic district, concerts on the historic parade grounds, picnics and biking with stunning views on a 1-mile car free loop. 2009 brought a completed 2.2 mile promenade, 8-acre Picnic Point and the Water Taxi Beach and 275,000 visitors. Although more and more visitors discover this New York Island gem each year, it still has a small town feel. Sitting with a picnic lunch on the grass of the expansive parade grounds, with the Victorian homes of Nolan Park on one side and historic Fort Jay on the other, it is hard to believe that the Manhattan skyline is just over the hill.
Bike Path Highlights: Restored historic landscapes including two historic 1812 era forts, stately Victorian homes, expansive picnic areas and harbor side beaches, spectacular views of the Lower Manhattan Skyline, the Verrazano and Brooklyn Bridges, Upper New York Bay and the Statue of Liberty.
Except for designated areas, bicycling is permitted just about everywhere on Governor's Island. In the busy Soisson's Dock, Fort Jay, Castle Williams and Nolan Park areas, dismount and walk with your bikes. Bike racks, benches, restrooms and food vendors are strategically located throughout the island allowing you to stop, snack, explore and enjoy the views.
Didn’t bring a bike? No problem. Bikes and surreys (4 person bicycle carts) can be rented on Saturday and Sunday at either of the two Bike & Roll bike rental kiosks. Adult bikes, kids bikes and quadracycles are available at the full-service “Family Bicycle Center” located in the parking lot of Building 515, next to Castle Williams. The “Adult Bicycle Express” offers speedy rentals of full-sized bikes only in the parking lot of Pershing Hall.
Bike Free Fridays: Through Bike and Roll’s™ Free Bike Fridays program, bikes are available on a first-come, first-served basis and free for the first hour. You will need to leave ID or a credit card. The last bike can be borrowed at 3:30 PM and bikes must be returned by 4:30 PM.
Our Bike Tour of Governors Island begins at the Soisson’s Dock Ferry Landing. For more detailed information and a map with historic highlights, start your visit at the National Park Service Visitor Center & Bookstore located in Buiilding 140, just to the left of the ferry landing.
Start by biking the 2.2 mile promenade around the perimeter of the island. You can ride in either direction, but we will describe the bike ride in a clockwise direction. While this is a car-free place, you will see occasional Park Service vehicles and tourist tour trams making their rounds of island.
The northern part of Governors Island is a National Register Historic District and a National Historic Landmark and the most developed. This area was used as the Coast Guard’s base of operations for the Atlantic Area Command and Maintenance and Logistics Command as well as the Captain of the Port of New York. At the peak of operations, the island housed a residential community of 3,500 people.
In a short while, you'll see Pershing Hall on the right. Constructed in 1934, it served as the Army Post Headquarters as well as the Coast Guard Headquarters. Adult Bicycle Express rentals are located in the Pershing hall parking lot.
The first pier on the left after the ferry dock is marked by a noticeable blue sign. This is the Pier 101 Kayak Dock which provides water access and welcomes visitors arriving by kayak during public access days. Volunteers also offer free kayaking and lessons in a small enclosed area. The Brooklyn Ferry leaves from here too.
Pedal past the kayak dock and on your right is the beginning of Nolan Park and rows of Victorian era officers houses including the white columned Commanding Officers House. You can see Nolan Park through the trees. On the left, three-story brick structures line the path all the way to the South Battery. Built in 1812, as a defense against enemy ships entering Buttermilk Channel, the South Battery originally had a tier of mounted guns and barracks.
Continuing pedaling. Stately Pin Oaks and Maples now steeple the route providing a tunnel of shade. To your left is Buttermilk Channel, the mile long tidal strait between Governors Island and Brooklyn with currents strong enough to churn milk into butter. That's what the farmers in this area 150 to 200 years ago said when they crossed the channel by boat to sell their milk in Manhattan markets. In the 1700's, Brooklyn used to be the Dutch "Grain Belt". Today, instead of farmland and fields of wheat and barley, you'll see views of Red Hook and the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal across the channel.
Now we leave the developed area and pedal towards the southern tip of the island. You'll immediately see Yankee Pier on the left. Built by the Coast Guard in the 1960's, Yankee Pier on Buttermilk Channel was built to handle large Coast Guard boats. Most island visitors miss this, but you can walk out on the Y-shaped pier to get awesome views of the South Battery from the water side for a different perspective of Governors Island.
Continue cycling and you'll soon come to a fence and a blue sign welcoming you to Picnic Point. Except for the Promenade and Picnic Point, the south end of Governors Island is closed to the public. The area to the right is fenced off. To the left is an expanse of water. Look for pilings out in the water where gulls and commorants sit and stretch out their wings to dry.
Arrive at Picnic Point, the halfway point of the bike tour. This 8-acre picnic area, with tables, hammocks for lounging swing sets for the kids, and striped cabanas made from shipping crates, is the perfect place to take in the views and stop for lunch. The views of the Upper Harbor, Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty are spectacular. Watch sailboats ply the waters, pretty white sails passing under the Statue of Liberty's upraised arm.
Pedal around the point and head back north to the historic district, with views of the lower Manhattan skyline. Pass Castle Williams and the Water Taxi Beach before completing the circuit at the Soissons Ferry Landing. At this point feel free to explore the inner paths that criss-cross the island and lead into the interior of the Historic District. Take the time to appreciate the historic architecture on Colonels Row and around the Nolan Park area. Do not miss impressive Fort Jay and Castle Williams.
Governors Island hosts different festivals and cultural events all season long. Check the Park website for a list of events before you go. If you are looking for peace and quiet and want to appreciate the Island's unique park-like quality and atmosphere of history, you won't find it during Punk Rock Weekend.
There are food carts serving everything from ice cream, burgers and hot dogs to West Indian cuisine. Bring your own lunch, if you are not a fan of fast food. Picnic tables, benches, idyllic grassy fields provide many places to enjoy a picnic (no alcholic beverages permitted).
Fort Jay: Star-shaped Fort Jay, the oldest structure on Governors Island, started as a series of earthen fortifications used during the Revolution in 1776 and 1794. Between 1806-1809 the walls and gate were reconstructed, and the barracks inside added in 1834.
Castle Williams: Listed on the National Historic Register. One of the best remaining examples of an early American-designed coastal fortification. It was constructed between 1807-1811 and used for harbor defense, as a recruit barracks and as a prison for Confederate soldiers in 1862.
Liggett Hall: A new Wave of construction on the island began in 1929, with the completion of Liggett Hall. Other important structures built during this era include the Post Hospital (building 515), Officer Quarters 111, 112 and 114 and Pershing Hall (building 125).
Governor’s House Quarters: Outstanding examples of 19th and early 20th century residences include the Commanding Officer’s Quarters (Quarters 1), the Governor’s House (Quarters 2) and officer’s housing at Nolan Park and along Colonels' Row.
The Navigation “Buoy”: Situated in front of Lady of the Sea Chapel is an island landmark. It was depicted on family holiday cards during the island’s Coast Guard years.
Brooklyn: Ferries run from Pier 6 in Brooklyn Bridge Park (corner of Atlantic Avenue and Furman Street) on Saturdays and Sundays beginning at 11 AM. There is no ferry to Governors Island from Fulton Ferry Landing. It's a much smaller ferry and can carry only 20 bikes. The downside to this is long bike lines for this quick 3-minute ferry ride to the island.
Note: On-street parking is extremely difficult to find in Lower Manhattan. One-hour parking meters are nearby. Parking regulations are vigorously enforced and parking tickets are very costly. Commercial parking lots and parking garages are available along South Street north to the South Street Seaport. The best way to get to Ferry departure points is by Public Transportation.
By Bus: Bus Service to Lower Manhattan in the area of the Battery Maritime Building include the M1 (weekdays only), M6 and M15.
By Train: Three Subway lines serve the area, the 4/5 to Bowling Green, the W (weekdays only) and R (weekdays & weekends) to Whitehall/South Ferry and the #1 train to South Ferry. For more detailed info visit www.mta.info
By Water Taxi: The New York Water Taxi offers a Hop-On/Hop-Off stop on Governors Island. For a complete schedule, visit www.nywatertaxi.com
By Bus: B63 at the terminus of Atlantic Avenue, at Columbia Street.
By Train: 2/3 or 4/5 to Borough Hall.
For more New York Rail Trails
Information and Resources:
Governors Island National Monument
10 South Street
Phone: (212) 825-3045