Hiking is not just an autumn activity. This winter, the foot traffic continues apace on nature trails from Woodbury to Orient Point, as hikers brave the elements, equipped with sturdy shoes, thermal layers and social-distancing smarts.
"During the pandemic, hiking became extremely popular and was discovered by many Long Islanders. Although our lives are returning to normal, the popularity of hiking continues," says George Gorman Jr., regional director of Long Island's state parks.
Tom Casey of West Sayville, vice president of the Long Island Greenbelt Trail Conference, says woodland trails, including in the pine barrens of eastern Long Island, also are drawing legions of winter hikers. Woodland trails remain free of ice in winter because "they are sandy in a lot of places, and water filters right through" into the ground.
Here are five ideas for fall and winter hikes with a workout, wildlife sightings and trail views ranging from charming to awe-inspiring.
Full of wildlife
Hike to the Fire Island Breach, 1.6 miles (3.2 miles round trip).
To get there, park at the west end of Smith Point County Park, 1 William Floyd Pkwy., Shirley, and walk across the road to the Otis Pike Dune Wilderness Visitor Center (631-281-3010, nps.gov/fiis).
The wilderness breach carved out of the barrier island by Superstorm Sandy still ebbs and flows between the bay and ocean. "It changes daily," and most recently was widened by winter storms, says Chris Olijnyk, interpreter and supervisor at the Otis Pike visitor center, outside of which the hike begins.
If you haven’t seen the breach’s reminder of nature’s power, a hike there is not only a living geography lesson, it also is a chance for some pretty amazing wildlife sightings. On any given day, you may pass by harbor and gray seals romping and sunning themselves on the sand, and dolphins frolicking just offshore. Farther out in the Atlantic Ocean, whales are often seen spouting as they chase baitfish.
Bring your field glasses to look for snowy owls, snow buntings visiting from the Arctic Circle and bald eagles, which are currently searching for breeding areas, Olijnyk says.
Head to Trail View State Park, for a 7.4-mile hike (8101 Jericho Tpke., Woodbury, 631-423-1770, parks.ny.gov/parks/trailview).
Had enough treadmilling? You can burn calories amid actual scenery, hiking the rolling hills of Trail View State Park in Woodbury. Trail View, a narrow 400-acre belt of green space added to the Nassau-Suffolk Greenbelt Trail about two decades ago, sends hikers along wooded hills on the north and past ponds and streams near its south end. With comparatively rugged terrain — for Long Island at least — and some hills rising to several hundred feet above sea level, it can be challenging for inexperienced hikers, Gorman says.
Explore Belmont Lake State Park, which offers 7.6 miles of multiuse trails (Southern State Parkway Exit 38, North Babylon, 631-667-5055, parks.ny.gov/parks/belmontlake, Fee: $8 per car weekends and holidays through Oct. 11).
Belmont Lake is your classic walk in the park. A flat path loops through the woods and then wraps around the lake, making it an easy jaunt for hikers of all ages. The trail passes benches for impromptu rest stops, and a pair of cannons captured from a British warship during the War of 1812, and then goes over a bubbly waterfall at the south end of the park.
Farthest from civilization
Travel to Sunken Forest, Fire Island National Seashore, a 1.6-mile loop accessible via the Sayville Ferry Service to Cherry Grove (Leaving Saturdays and Sundays, check website for times; 631-589-0810, sayvilleferry.com).
In winter, it takes a few extra steps to get to the peace, quiet and solitude of the Sunken Forest. The Sayville Ferry Service to adjacent Sailors Haven isn’t running now, so take the ferry instead to Cherry Grove, then walk west. The trail is part boardwalk, through a rare maritime forest dominated by centuries-old American holly trees, and half paved path between the dunes.
Take in the views at Orient Beach State Park, a 4-mile path (40000 Main Rd., 631-323-2440, parks.ny.gov/parks/orientbeach, Fee: $8 per car weekends and holidays through Oct. 11).
For a quintessential North Fork adventure, hike the 2-mile service road flanked by Gardiners Bay and its lighthouses to the south, and a rare maritime forest to the north, as you’re serenaded by honks from the Cross Sound Ferry. Continue past the parking lot to the beach for another 2 miles to the tip of the peninsula for views of the bay, nearby harbors, Shelter Island and the curiously shaped Long Beach Bar "Bug Light" Lighthouse that's squatting on a rock pile just offshore.