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Urban Escape: Ride a Subway to New York City's National Park

National Park Ranger Erin Schoppmeyer wants people to know 'there is nature in New York City.'

The National Park Service turns 100 years old this month. Fifty-nine U.S. National Parks cover almost 52 million acres across 27 different states. Last year, they saw a record 305 million visitors. To recognize the centennial of the system protecting these American treasures, NBC News will feature stories from 10 national parks and recreation areas — from California's Yosemite to New York's Gateway.

National Park Ranger Erin Schoppmeyer wants people to know there's nature in New York City.

"There is solitude," she said. "You just have to know where to look for it."

When people think of national parks, they're likely to think of rugged locales like Yosemite and Yellowstone, but Schoppmeyer is a ranger at the Jamaica Bay National Wildlife Refuge, part of New York City's Gateway National Recreation Area, the country's first urban national park.

It's a wildlife refuge in the country's biggest city and it's not exactly remote. A subway line runs through it. Planes often roar overhead. (The runways at John F. Kennedy International Airport are only a couple miles away.) But as birder Clark Jones says, you're "in a different world out here."

A yellow warbler lands at the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge. Birding enthusiast Peter Paul enjoys finding "the little treasures" among the hundreds of birds you can see at the refuge. One of the great things about birdwatching in the city, he says, is that it "brings you to parks you never knew existed." Peter Paul

The ponds here are man-made, dug out around 1950 at the best of Robert Moses, the powerful New York planner, to provide a freshwater rest area for migrating birds. The effort was successful. More than 320 different species of birds have been sighted here, which rivals the number sighted in the Florida Everglades and puts it on the map as an international destination for birdwatchers.

It's not despite the city looming nearby, though, that the refuge has been successful — it's because of it. The refuge is situated on the Atlantic Flyway, a bird migration route. Just as it is for city dwellers, the refuge is an oasis for birds eager to escape the concrete jungle. Birders call it "the Central Park effect." As human construction limits the stopover options for birds, their numbers become more concentrated in the areas where they can find refuge.

The west pond, upper right, at the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge was breached during Superstorm Sandy in 2012. This view is looking south from a plane departing J.F.K.Matt Nighswander / NBC News

There is currently one fly in the ointment, however, at the Jamaica Bay refuge. When Superstorm Sandy tore through the region in 2012, its powerful surge ripped holes in the ponds' banks — and the salty waters of Jamaica Bay poured in. The east pond was repaired when the subway line was restored (and the birds have returned), but the west pond is still open to the bay. The park service has plans to plug the gap this fall.

In the meantime, the stunning views of New York's skyline have not been affected.

The sun sets behind the skyline of Manhattan as seen from the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge.Matt Nighswander / NBC News