Taking a Hike: Finding wilderness in Westchester

For many hikers, myself included, nothing beats escaping home turf for a place where the peaks are loftier and the streams and beasts wilder. Unfortunately, this isn’t always possible. Home turf is where our lives are – our families, jobs, and household chores. Just as well, then, that there are hikable places a short drive away. Around here, some are quite large, at least for the ’burbs. The Devil’s Den in Weston/Redding covers 1,746 acres; Ward Pound Ridge over in Westchester encompasses 4,315. There are countless small tracts too. But these little places, while great for a stroll and a glimpse of natural beauty, are often too hemmed in by civilization for a long, satisfying hike.

It had been a while since I had escaped for a long, satisfying hike (blame those home-turf tasks!) and, honestly, as my wife and I drove to Zofnass Family Preserve on a windy afternoon last week, I wasn’t counting on one now either. The Preserve, in Pound Ridge, NY, is also known as Westchester Wilderness Walk. Despite that alluring description, everyone knows that Westchester and wilderness don’t go together, especially when the wilds in question are less than a fifth the size of Central Park. So, this afternoon, I was hoping only for a decent walk, and for the wind to blow away my cobwebs.  

I think Charissa fell for Zofnass Family Preserve almost immediately. We soon passed fenced-off areas where the woods, protected from deer, were being studied, and restored with native plants. And she liked the man-made aspects of the preserve – the log-edged trails, the old rock walls, the well-placed stepping stones across a brook. Me? I was enjoying the bright day and the features of our home-turf landscape – wetlands, tinkling brooks, rock outcrops, and bare, gray trunks everywhere we looked. It didn’t matter too much that all of this can also be found in or near my backyard.

This, too, was a well labelled landscape. We crossed Becky’s Brook, and climbed to Tom’s (ruined) Cabin and an outcrop called Trudeau’s Point of View. I wondered who Becky, Tom, and Trudeau had been, but if it was explained, I missed those signs. Fifteen minutes later, we came to two trees of different species growing intertwined. “They’re hugging,” said Charissa. “Lover Trees,” agreed the trailside sign.

We climbed a gentle slope toward a stand of conifers green against the blue sky, and then descended sharply (the “Grand Stone Staircase”). Next, we reached an overlook. What it looked over was a wetland, bounded by rocky, wooded slopes. I liked the look of it very much, and my pleasure in the Preserve went up several notches. We circumnavigated the wetland on the Eastern Loop, relishing its chaotic, tangled beauty – luxuriant moss on trunks fallen in the mire; hummocks of yellow grasses; sky and trees reflected in still, shallow swamp-water. There were signs of spring too. Frogs whistled and croaked; not raucously yet, but hopefully. Skunk cabbage poked from soft ground.

 Halfway around the wetland Charissa and I sat on a stone wall for a rest beside a sunny patch of grass. It felt like our turnaround point. It had taken an hour and a quarter to hike here, and presumably would take about the same to hike back. But this did not take into account our return on the ever-so-twisty trails of the Preserve’s higher western edge. A bird might have flown to our car in under a mile, but we walked four times as far using the Preserve’s distracted route.

Westchester Wilderness Walk was the inspiration of Paul J. Zofnass, a businessman and environmentalist. Mr. Zofnass has shown what you can do with 150 acres. Those acres are surrounded by homes, which are sometimes visible from the trails. But, as Charissa and I wandered, we mostly felt surrounded by nature, even in this leafless season. More, the trail wound from feature to feature, and drew our attention to them. The features, of course, were not thundering waterfalls or towering cliffs; they were glacial boulders, a tumbled scarlet oak, a rivulet tinkling beneath its bed rocks, or a rock shaped like a layer cake. Climbing a steep rock with the aid of a rustic handrail and stone steps, Charissa said she found the Preserve “charming”. I had to agree.

Our outing began to feel like a hike too. We took a couple of wrong turns. We realized we had been alone all afternoon. We began to notice rough ground underfoot – tilted rocks, tricky roots, mud. By the time we reached another wetland when the sun was lowering, I was starting to feel a little weary. I guess it had been a long, satisfying hike.

Rob McWilliams is a local resident. Taking a Hike appears monthly. Contact Rob at “McWilliams Takes a Hike”, blog and Facebook. He’d love to hear from you.

PARKING Near 260 Upper Shad Road, Pound Ridge, NY.
DISTANCE 6 miles.
DURATION We were out for 3½ hours.
MAP westchesterlandtrust.org
ROUTE Hiking counterclockwise, the outermost trails of the Preserve, but skipping the Northern Loop.
WHAT TO TAKE Water and snacks; sturdy footwear. A dog on a leash.

ADDENDUM: Reader Michael Rothman of Ridgefield reports the Zofnass Family Preserve (part of the Westchester Land Trust) has a digital field guide (The Flora of the Zofnass Preserve), hosted by the New York Botanical Garden in partnership with the WLT. This online guide has been under development with scientists and support staff associated with the NYBG since 2014 and is now "live" at


Says Rothman, "I have been working with Dr. Scott Mori (Curator Emeritus of the Institute for Systematic Botany of the NYBG) as one of a number of field photographers on this ongoing outreach project. The digital field will enhance the experience of any visitor's trip to the Preserve."