A little sticker affixed to your windshield could be your ticket to fun beyond the beach this summer.
The Empire Passport sticker, which costs $65 and lets visitors bypass the line of cars paying Jones Beach’s daily $10 vehicle use fee, also gets you into the region’s 31 other state parks. And that’s a chance for a whole new ballgame — fly-fishing, surf-casting, picnicking, camping, nature hikes and theme park rides — at state parks from Valley Stream to Montauk.
“The Long Island State Parks region is one of the most diverse park systems in the country,” with world-renowned arboretums, mansions and golf courses in addition to the popular Atlantic Ocean Beaches, says George Gorman, Jr., deputy regional director of the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.
Here are some of the “best-kept secrets” of the Long Island State Parks region.
Have a better picnic
Valley Stream State Park, Valley Stream, 516-825-4128
Life’s a picnic at the region’s most popular park for groups doing just that. Situated next to a residential area, Valley Stream State Park offers all the elements for a classic clambake or barbecue: fireplaces and grills; children’s play areas; horseshoe, volleyball, basketball and boccie ball courts, and a big open field for softball, football and soccer games.
A fungus among us
BONUS POINTS Kids can explore the park habitats and find fungi growing on the Hickory Nut and Squirrel Nut nature trail at Valley Stream State Park.
Go fly fishing
Connetquot River State Park Preserve, Oakdale, 631-581-1005
Fly fishing $20 per four-hour session 8 a.m.-noon or noon-4 p.m. Reservations are suggested. Restricted to fly fishing equipment with barbless hooks. Catch and release only.
The hallowed fly-fishing grounds at Connetquot were once a playground for the South Side Sportsmen’s Club’s millionaires. Nowadays, regular folk can spend a few hours fly-fishing in the Connetquot River and park ponds, which are stocked with thousands of brook, rainbow and brown trout.
BONUS POINTS Kids can help feed the trout at the hatchery daily at 8 a.m., noon, 2 and 4 p.m.
Hike through history
Bayard Cutting Arboretum State Park, Great River, 631-581-1002
The former Westbrook estate, transferred to New York State in the 1930s, is still the “oasis of beauty and quiet” envisioned by its original owners. Hikers can meander through 691 acres along paved paths passing through stands of pine trees, rhododendrons and other flora. Benches on the trail along the Connetquot River let you rest and gape at the stately homes on the opposite shore. Cross a small footbridge to tiny Breezy Island to stroll amid towering cattails. Hike past a dahlia demonstration garden (the flowers bloom in August and September) and a chicken farm where eggs are available for sale in early spring.
Hidden Oak Cafe
BONUS POINTS The Hidden Oak Cafe inside the historic mansion serves up pie, drinks and a view of the Great Lawn at Bayard Cutting Arboretum.
Camp on the Sound
Wildwood State Park, Wading River, 631-929-4314
Campsites: Tents, $18-$22; trailer sites, $30-$34 (includes water, electric and sewer hookup)
Although Wildwood’s 300-plus campsites can be scarce on holiday weekends, for most of the summer they’re generally available even if you wait to reserve the day before you arrive. After getting ensconced in your tent or trailer, you can explore 600 acres of hardwood forests lush with wildlife. For a panoramic view, hike down to the Long Island Sound beach bordered by high bluffs. Stay for a swim in the cool, calm Sound waters.
BONUS POINTS There’s square dancing on Fridays and live music on weekends at the beach concession at Wildwood State Park.
Belmont Lake State Park, North Babylon, 631-667-5055
Explore Belmont’s scenic 26-acre lake on a paddleboat (capacity 4 people) or in a rowboat (maximum 5 people). On weekdays you can fish from the rowboats ($15 for 90 minutes).
BONUS POINTS You can walk your leashed dog on a marked trail that circles the water at Belmont Lake State Park.