As the weather starts to cool down and the first signs of fall sweep in, it's an especially nice time of year to escape into nature. Preserves and parks abound on Long Island -- many offer walking/hiking trails or bike paths. Whether you have a family, are in a relationship or just want to plan a different sort of excursion with friends, here are three places to explore:
GOOD FOR COUPLES
Mashomack Preserve on Shelter Island
WHEN | WHERE 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily (closed Tuesdays), 47 S. Fourth Ferry Rd., Shelter Island
ADMISSION $2 suggested donation
What could be more romantic than disappearing into a 2,000-plus acre nature preserve on a tiny island? "It has everything you could want in a preserve," says Paul D'Andrea, a manager at the Nature Conservancy. Take the short ferry ride over from Greenport or Sag Harbor ($15-$17 round-trip for car and driver, $2-$4 for passenger). Pit-stop at Star's Cafe -- one of the few places still open -- to get picnic fare to go (631-749-5345, starscafeshelterisland .com). At the preserve, you'll find grasslands, salt marshes, tidal fields, freshwater wetlands, oak forests and five trails from one to 10 miles each. Stop at the visitor's center first to get a map. While hiking, you're likely to spot migrating birds, D'Andrea says, besides native plants, dragonflies and blue claw crabs.
Center for Science Teaching and Learning
WHEN | WHERE 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays, Tanglewood Preserve, 1 Tanglewood Rd., Rockville Centre
INFO 516-764-0045, cstl.org
ADMISSION Free ($6 for live animals exhibit)
For parents, taking kids out into nature poses certain risks -- ticks, hazardous trails, little ones wandering off too far. At the Center for Science Teaching and Learning, families can see a variety of animals and plants in a more controlled environment. The center has nature trails, animals and family-related programs on the weekends. Visitors can see -- and sometimes pet -- more than 40 animals such as owls, goats, ducks and reptiles, all of which have been rescued or rehabilitated and cannot be released into the wild. "The younger kids like our domestic animals and the older kids seem to like our nature animals," says director Rayann Havasy. The center's trails wind past streams, ponds and -- surprise -- life-size "dinosaurs."
WITH A GROUP OF FRIENDS
Long Island Greenbelt Trail Conference
WHEN | WHERE 200-plus miles of hiking trails on the North and South shores
INFO 631-360-0753, ligreenbelt.org
Grab a few friends and a pair of hiking boots -- you can spend a few hours walking leisurely or get your heart racing on a more strenuous path. This nonprofit organization offers free guided hikes by knowledgeable volunteers. Tom Casey, vice president of Long Island Greenbelt Trail Conference, says hike leaders typically tailor trips to their personal interests. "I like to do some interpretive stuff -- talking about the plants and history," says Casey. You can also buy a trail map and strike out with your own group (maps from $3 available online and at the organization's office at Blydenburgh Suffolk County Park). Either way, you'll see wildlife, ponds, wetlands and sandy beaches.
Upcoming guided hikes (weather permitting): a 4-mile moderate trek at the Muttontown Preserve at 9:30 a.m. Sunday, Sept. 23 -- or a 3-mile sandy stroll through the West End of Jones Beach (10 a.m. Friday, Sept. 28). Check the website for details on times, hike leaders' contact information and the difficulty and pace of hikes. Often you can just show up -- no reservations are required.