It may still be a bit nippy out, but it’s a great time to enjoy some of Long Island’s beautiful state parks.
"There is nothing like walking on a path and enjoying the snow-covered scenery," says George Gorman, regional director of New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.
Here are three parks where there’s plenty to do and experience — all free of charge until spring.
Planting Fields Arboretum
At the 409-acre Planting Fields Arboretum in Oyster Bay, which was the former Gold Coast estate of William Robertson Coe and Mai Rogers Coe, there are inviting formal gardens, lawns, walking paths and hiking trails, designed by the Olmsted Brothers, sons of Frederick Law Olmsted of Central and Prospect park fame, says Winn Keaten, director of marketing and communications.
WHY WINTER? The Carl F. Wedell Bird Sanctuary has an outdoor installation of bird blinds designed to encourage bird watching, where you might spy Tree Swallow, Baltimore oriole, Barn Swallow, Yellow-shafted Northern Flicker, among other species of birds. The arboretum is on the migratory path, notes Keaten. "So, we do get a nice range of birds all year-round at Planting Fields."
Near the bird sanctuary, you’ll find several trailheads, leading to five miles of marked woodland paths. "There are some great, very easy beginner hiking trails," she says.
Outdoor sites include the rose garden, blooming trees, shrubs and flowers, including holly trees and other evergreens, witch hazel and red twig dogwood, and the iconic pink gingerbread playhouse — the oldest original building on the property — which served as a playhouse to the Coe family children.
If you care to step inside for a bit, there are two historic greenhouses open during winter: the main greenhouse, which features cactuses, succulents, and a wide range of tropical plants and the Camellia House, which boasts the Northeast’s largest collection of camellias, often called, "the rose of winter."
Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the greenhouses are open for limited hours to a maximum of 10 people at a time, Thursday through Sunday.
Caumsett State Park
The former Gold Coast estate of Marshal Field III, Caumsett State Park is place to enjoy hiking, biking, walking, jogging, fishing, nature photography and bird watching, says Len Krauss, park manager.
WHY WINTER? "During the wintertime, as long as we have snow on the ground, we also have cross-country skiing and snowshoeing," says Krauss. "The trails are not marked, but they’re common trails that are wide and at some point or another, they’re going to bring you back to a paved loop."
Bird watching is a popular activity at the park, notes Krauss. "We’re part of the migratory path of over 700 species of birds, whether they stay local or they migrate down to the south," he says.
For nature lovers, bird watchers and photography buffs, you can go to many different locations in the park and see something new and different each time. "You have to remember, we have five major ecological areas in the park," Krauss says of the woodlands, mature forests, freshwater pond, salt marsh and beachfront with bluffs along the Long Island Sound.
"You’re always going to see something new, with the changing colors and the different aspects of what the park has to offer, especially being 1,600 acres."
There’s a 2.4-mile paved loop, where generations of young people have learned to ride bikes, that also has a 10-station fitness trail with cardio and balance exercises, plus an additional 20-plus miles of trails for off-road cycling.
"And, with it being a passive recreation park, there’s just so much to offer," says Krauss, adding, "When you come to Caumsett, you come for the quietness, you come for the nature. People have learned to come to the park to get away from it all. And, it’s perfect for social distancing as well."
Connetquot River State Park Preserve
You won’t find bicycles at this 3,500-acre preserve that stretches from Oakdale to Bohemia, Islip Terrace and Ronkonkoma, and encompasses part of the Long Island Greenbelt Trail. "It’s a nature preserve, so we do hiking and other passive activities," explains Susanne Wuehler, park manager of the former Southside Sportsmen’s Club, a private 19th century shooting and fishing club.
WHY WINTER? The preserve is a great place to observe winter waterfowl, says Wuehler. "A lot of the birds that migrate down to Long Island for the winter, we can find in our main pond," says Wuehler. The park boasts a 3.5-mile stretch of the Connetquot River and a few smaller ponds.
There are 50 miles of trails for cross-country skiing, snow shoeing, hiking and a self-guided one-mile, yellow trail that leads to the trout hatchery where you can observe and feed the fish.
"There are signs along the path that talk about the ecology and flora and fauna in the park," says Wuehler of the yellow trail.
The park offers an "On Cell" audio walking tour of various locations throughout the park, including the original clubhouse. "You dial in and you can learn about the history or cultural aspects of the park," Wuehler explains.
Kids can use the Agents of Discovery app, to learn interesting facts about nature and wildlife as they explore Connetquot.
"It’s just a great place to get outdoors and get some fresh air and get away from the traffic and the iPads and computer screens," says Wuehler.
Planting Fields Arboretum: 1395 Planting Fields Road, Oyster Bay; 516-922-8684; plantingfields.org. Open Monday through Sunday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Main Greenhouse: Open Thursday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Camelia Greenhouse: Open Thursday through Sunday, 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. Free until April 1.
Caumsett State Historic Park Preserve: 23 Lloyd Harbor Road, Lloyd Neck; 631-423-1770; parks.ny.gov/parks. Open Monday through Sunday, sunrise to sunset. Weekends are free until April 3; Weekdays are free until Memorial Day.
Connetquot River State Park Preserve: 3525 Sunrise Highway, Oakdale; 631-581-1005; parks.ny.gov/parks. Open 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday; After March 14, open 8 a.m. to sunset. Weekends are free until April 3; weekdays are free until Memorial Day.