Asif R. Chowdhury
For a tiny nation, Singapore has a surprising abundance of nature reserves and parks all around the island. Almost all of them have nice and pleasant walking, jogging, hiking, and biking trails adorned by the lush greenery of the forest and some by large water reservoirs resembling beautiful lakes. The country is only 281 square miles, about 31 miles from east to west and 17 miles north to south. So, the value of land is of the ultimate premium in Singapore. Yet, the city-state has avoided becoming an island of concrete jungle like many of its other Southeast Asian cousins. Amazingly, this tiny country has more than 300 parks, four key nature reserves, and more than 25 hiking trails. These parks and forests scattered over the island are true gems harmoniously coexisting with the otherwise bustling city landscape. Clearly, Singapore lives up quite well to its “Garden City” nickname.
This “garden city” vision goes back to the very early days of Singapore, introduced by its founding father and visionary leader Lee Kwan Yew. He envisioned a city with not only concrete buildings and skyscrapers but one with abundant lush greenery and a clean environment for a healthy and balanced lifestyle for its citizens and residents. He also rightfully believed that having a well-planned, well-designed, well-managed, clean, and safe city-state would encourage and entice foreign investment and tourists alike. The first step in implementing the initiative was an island-wide, tree-planting program spearheaded by the Parks and Tree Division in the late 1960s. By the end of 1970, 55,000 new trees were planted. By June 2014, that number had grown to 1.4 million. In 1975, the government enacted the Parks and Trees Act to ensure that lands and spaces for greenery, parks, and nature reserves were set aside as the country was slowly emerging as an important business center and local economic powerhouse in Southeast Asia. What we see today is the result of decades of planning and developing the city with Lee Kwan Yew’s original “garden city” vision in mind.
Despite its small size, the island is divided into five regions: South East, North East, Central, North West and South West. Check out the map where a list of major parks and nature reserves is summarized alongside a map of Singapore. The approximate distance of a typical trail in each park and reserve is also provided in parenthesis. Many of them also have multiple sub-trails off the main trail, allowing for a longer route if one is inclined to go for a more strenuous hike. There are just too many of them to describe individually, but a few are worth mentioning, hopefully providing you with a broader idea about these parks and natural reserves.
MacRitchie Reservoir is Singapore’s largest and the first-ever built park. Completed in the 1860s, it enabled the first-ever public water supply system to be implemented. Today it is one of the more popular places for hiking, jogging, and walking for locals and expats alike. The main trail, which circles the park, is seven miles long, but there are quite a few sub-trails to choose from, making the hike longer. The most popular sub-trail leads to the must-visit TreeTop Walk. It is a suspension walkway about 800 feet long, at a little over 80 feet height, connecting the two highest points of the reservoir. The name is appropriate as it is literally the same height or taller than most treetops in the forest. There is also a 1.2-mile-long boardwalk that adorns the water on one side and lush green forest on the other, providing some stunning views and vistas. Located a mere five miles from the city center, this park is one of the best places in Singapore for a reasonably challenging hike or a long leisurely stroll.
This park has one of the most challenging hiking trails, as the primary path goes straight up a hill leading to the highest point of Singapore. Even though it is only 538 feet high, it can be a challenging hike if you aren’t in reasonably good shape. Bukit Timah Reserve contains one of the largest swaths of forest that remains in Singapore. As in most other parks, there are quite a few smaller trails off the main walkway providing a fantastic feeling of being in the middle of a rainforest. These sub-trails have significant uphill and downhill walkways and are excellent places for people who desire a more challenging hiking experience. It is almost impossible to imagine that you’re still in the middle of a city while walking up and down these trails in the middle of this forest. The tranquility of the surrounding nature, views of the lush green forest, and the soothing sounds of the constant birds chirping make this park a truly charming place to visit and provide a quick and easy escape from the busy, congested, and humdrum of the metropolis.
Despite being an island, Singapore has surprisingly few public beaches. Located on the east coast, this park is one of the handful of places that offers a nearly two-mile-long, pristine white beach with coconut trees that retains an original kampong (local village) setting. This is one of the more popular parks for locals and expats. There is a seafood bistro in the park, while the nearby Changi Village offers a variety of dining choices. It is common to see families gathering at the park for barbecues, picnics, and swimming, especially in the evenings and on the weekends. The new Changi Bay Park Connector opened in 2022, and it connects the Beach Park to the East Coast Park and a few other parks in the same area. The connector offers a longer and more scenic coastal route for bikers and hikers. This is one of the nicer places to visit, especially if you longs for the beach.
The park is filled with lush greenery along with the vast reservoir on one side and the Mandai Executive nine-hole golf course on the other. With 37 acres of natural vegetation, the park is a favorite spot among local nature lovers and bird photographers. However, it is less popular and well-known than other nature reserves, especially within the expat community, as it is a bit further removed from the city center. Apart from the greenery of the surrounding forest, there are three main attractions at Seletar Park: the lone Casuarina tree, the out-of-this-world Rocket Tower, and of course, the vast lake of the reservoir itself. The lone Casuarina tree against the backdrop of the vast mass of water provides a stunning view of the reservoir. There are two benches symmetrically placed on each side of the tree, making this a lovely spot to watch the amazing colors of the sunrise and the sunset. The tree is a very popular photo shoot spot for newlywed couples. The Rocket Tower literally looks like a spaceship from a sci-fi movie and is especially popular with kids of all ages. It has a spiral staircase to the top, providing an unobstructed 360-degree view of the park and the reservoir, which adults are equally likely to enjoy. The reservoir stretches throughout the park’s entire length, creating a beautiful waterfront promenade. As the sun sets over the horizon across the vast lake, the color of both the water and the sky turns pink, then orange, and finally to a blazing fiery red, providing some amazingly stunning views. While relatively secluded, it is a worthy competitor to some of the island's other parks and nature reserves.
This scenic coastal park along the Singapore Causeway provides an exceptional view of the skyline of the Malaysian city of Johor Bahru, a small distance across the sea. Located in Woodlands, the park is the northernmost tip of the island. The place is quite popular among the Woodlands residents, but is a relatively well-kept secret from the rest, especially the expatriate community, perhaps because it is pretty far from the city center (far by Singapore standards). This 27-acre park boasts amazing fauna and a variety of wildlife; it is not uncommon to see monitor lizards crossing the narrow street along the seaside leading into the park grounds. The park has a few winding walking trails, but the best place to walk or jog is the mile-long promenade along the causeway overlooking the water with a panoramic view of the skyscrapers of Johor Bahru. The often crowded “First Link,” or the bridge between Singapore and Malaysia, can be seen from most parts of the park and the promenade. A 1,300-foot-long L-shaped boardwalk jetties out into the ocean from the middle of the Waterfront Park. There is also an authentic local seafood restaurant in the middle of the boardwalk called Rasa Istimewa Waterfront, offering delicious chili and pepper crab, among many other choices. One of the best times to visit the park is during the evening, as nature provides a mesmerizing twilight show as the sun slowly goes down the horizon across the causeway over Malaysia, and the city of Johor slowly lights up, providing an equally gorgeous night view. Lush greenery, gentle waves, the calming sea breeze, and the open sky, along with the panoramic view of the high-rises of Johor across the causeway, make it another great place to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city.
Most of the parks and nature reserves are accessible using public transport. Almost all of them also have parking spaces, and the larger ones have multiple parking spots around the entrance areas. All the parks are equipped with restrooms and drinking water located around them. Each park has its own webpage with detailed descriptions of the trails, amenities, and recommendations. It is always a good idea to consult these web pages to understand the area before visiting it for the first time.
Despite the tropical heat, most hiking trails are surrounded by large trees providing ample shade. While this will not offer any protection from the high tropical humidity, it does protect against direct exposure to the sun, providing a sense of coolness. Besides, what’s the purpose of a hike if you’re not prepared to sweat?
It is worth exploring some of these trails while in Singapore. Visitors will likely be pleasantly surprised as the surrounding lush greenery will seem to transport them deep into a forest with wonderful natural sounds of birds chirping, monkeys playing on trees, and occasional sites of wilds boars, lizards, snakes, and otters (if you are lucky). There is quite a collection of wild animals on the island, even today. It is a side of the island that many visitors rarely see and explore, as people rarely equate Singapore with nature and hiking. The new expatriates to Singapore, especially those who covet to be around nature, will find these tranquil greeneries a welcoming change-in-pace from everyday city life. So, gear up and enjoy walking, hiking, or biking on these beautiful trails. But most importantly, please ensure to drink plenty of water and keep hydrated.