06/27/2011 04:41 pm ET | Updated Aug 27, 2011

A Day Trip to the Rockefeller Preserve, Just North of NYC

If you're seeking fresh air and rural beauty, hop a Hudson-Line, Metro-North commuter train out of Grand Central. The Rockefeller State Park Preserve in Pocantico Hills is just 40 minutes north of Manhattan, in Westchester County. It offers varied, unspoiled terrain on hundreds of acres, a great close-by NYC getaway.

The preserve rolls and undulates in several sections, with giant, dappled woods, gurgling rapids, and meadows with blue-tinged mountain ridges across the wide Hudson. Lakes and orchards, grassy pastures and glacial rocky outcrops, animals and birds -- all can be enjoyed, even in a short walk. The scattered homes and barns, stone bridges and reservoirs are reminders of humanity, but defer, as they should, to the land.

Across state road #448 (Bedford Road), the tiny stone Union Church of Pocantico Hills displays a dozen stained glass windows by Marc Chagall, and a rose window by Henri Matisse. And for those who seek a perfect meal, Blue Hill at Stone Barns presents food grown and raised on site. You can spend a bundle at the restaurant with huge windows overlooking the preserve, or just grab a sandwich at the kiosk.

And Kykuit, the Rockefeller family main house, is open to the public with reservations.

But I love walking the land itself, without needing any other distraction. History and myth resonate here besides the Rockefellers: the Headless Horseman, Hessian troops, Indian guides, the Putnam Railroad. Even Woody Allen and his A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy and all the movies and ads that are filmed in and around it. Vaux and Olmsted created Central Park out of fantasy. This preserve is natural fantasy, developed with minimum artifice and manipulation.

There's even a tinge of danger. Unknown paths beckon into witchy woods (despite the signs). Years ago, my little poodle, Apricot -- one of the many lucky dogs romping (on leash, ahem) in this Eden -- was barking to ''protect'' me, and caused a chestnut stallion to bolt his rider. Another fine summer day, deep in the woods, blue sky transformed into threatening gunmetal, and I jogged for the first (and last) time to out-race a fierce storm -- fearful of the rattling trees, the pelting rain and the charged atmosphere. I felt as if I were in a Grimm's fairy tale.

Once I faced off a snorting, pawing bull, separated from my path and from the grazing cows in the field behind me by fieldstones topped by barbed wire that looked unbelievably fragile; the bull stared as if he were seriously considering a tryst.

But mostly the flora and fauna offer calm. One late spring afternoon a blue heron skimmed along the Pocantico River, and I literally caught my breath. I may spot a herd of deer, their white tails twitching, bounding into the tangled brush with the sun low and pale on the horizon. Or a gaggle of geese in a slow and steady takeoff, the reflected oranges, golds and burgundies shimmering with the autumn breeze and the birds' movements, creating Monet-like impressions across Swan Lake, the largest of several lakes and streams in the preserve.

All seasons shine here, as winter's sculptural forms green out and slowly blaze away, adding leafy crunch underfoot. And right now, in summer, the forests of old trees offer welcome respite from city heat.

The Rockefellers donated the land to the state rather than open it to development. A few years ago I recognized the man walking slowly toward me, wearing a gray hat. It was David Rockefeller, whose house is one of several family homes remaining in and around the preserve.

I thought a bit about whether I would nod and say hello, as I do when people cross my path, but decided to let him dictate the encounter. He walked closer, our eyes meeting, and I whispered from all of us who love this preserve: ''Thank you.'' And he smiled and nodded, knowing just what I meant.