Right inside the NYC city limits is a little known wooded wonderland full of animals where you can hike and stroll with nary another person nearby. 

"We don't get so many visitors -- but that's why it's so cool to come here," said Emily Becker, an environmental educator at the Clay Pit Ponds State Park Preserve's Interpretive Center on the southwest shore of Staten Island.

The Preserve is a bird-and-butterfly filled, deer-dotted 265-acre preserve of wetlands, woodlands, spring fed streams and quiet calm with a few mysterious, moss-covered relics from its clay mining past jutting up from the verdant green ground cover.  More than 170 species of birds have been observed in this official Bird Conservation Area, but if you're not fortunate to see the worm-eating warbler or great crested flycatcher, a small aviary near the office at 83 Nielsen Ave. has several pheasants, ducks and resplendent peacocks caged near the compost piles where organic gardening demonstrations are conducted. The office also has a remarkably unsmelly Clivus Multrum (compost toilet) built enterprisingly onto the back of the old-timey wooden structure.

Trails at the Preserve are mostly level, extremely well maintained (thank you, Boy Scouts!) and there is little elevation, making a visit both easy and enticing for sluggish city kids suffering nature deficit disorder. But be forewarned: While the office and interpretive center are handicapped accessible, few of its beautiful trails are wheelchair friendly.  

On one recent visit, we saw a great blue heron take flight from a lily-filled pond while cotton wood seeds wafted through the air, giving the impression of a magical summer snowstorm. Ruptured sweet gum seed pods littered the forest's carpet like so many furry hand grenades. Frogs peeped and birds sang. It was like being inside a fairy tale.

Following one path studded with info displays, we discovered these woodlands grew up out of pits formed by clay mining for the Kreischer Brickworks, who mined for clay on the land from 1855 to 1927. The Brickworks yielded the walls that formed St. Luke's Hospital, the Columbia University Library and most of Barnard College. A gorgeous assortment of vegetation eventually overtook the abandoned pits with ponds and marshland that attracted snapping and box turtles, musk rats and wood chucks, spring peepers and Fowler's toads.

We were not fortunate enough to come across the Eastern Fence lizard -- a sighting I longed for, as the Clay Pits have NYC's only population of the reptile --  but we did stumble on a tiny antlered fawn with enormous ears and nascent antlers no bigger than button mushrooms, sitting in a woods-bound meadow. He turned out to be with two tiny female does, and all three stood, swiveled and headed into the trees with the elegance of mini ballerinas. Sightings of deer, which have flourished in the absence of predators, are bountiful. The downside? The deer ticks here are fierce and ubiquitous. I found one on my belly, even though I'd sprayed with DEET before setting off, and plucked three ticks off various areas of my companion. Before a visit to this overlooked Eden, cover up and tuck your pants into your socks, spray yourself liberally, and follow all precautions outlined at health.ny.gov.

Clay Pit Ponds is free, but every paradise has its price.

 

If You Go:

Clay Pit Ponds State Preserve is open from dawn to dusk each day, but the parking lots are only open from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Also, the Interpretive Center on Sharrottas Road is open 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays but closed Sunday and Monday. If you want to be added to the email list for special events and programs, or find out about special programs, call the Interpretive Center, 2351 Veterans Rd. W., at 718-605-3970. The number for the Preserve Office, 83 Nielsen Ave., is 718-967-1976.  Go to nysparks.com for more info.

Plan your trip carefully. Driving is a breeze and by far the easiest option, but if you plan on traveling by bus, the S-74, which departs from the St. George Ferry Terminal on Staten Island, has (usually) hourly service. To take the 74, get off at Sharrotts Rd. stop on Arthur Kill, go up Sharrotts A mile and run left on Carlin St., until you hit the Park office. Another option is to take the Staten Island Rapid Transit Train to the Pleasant Plains stop and walk for 45 minutes, or, bring your bike and peddle up. (Bikes aren't allowed on the railroad during weekday rush hours or in the park at all -- there is a bike rack at the office where they can be secured, however.)

Tips: Load up on bug spray and if you don't bring any, avail yourself of the free can offered at the Park office next to the pamphlets.

Also, bring a hearty lunch and plenty of fluids: Once youare there, refreshment options are few.