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Where to take safe winter hikes on Long Island

Hikers walk the path at Trail View State

Hikers walk the path at Trail View State Park in Woodbury on Jan. 10. Credit: Morgan Campbell/Morgan Campbell

Hiking is not just an autumn activity nowadays. 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, we are seeing significant increases on the trails," says George Gorman Jr., Long Island regional director of Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. Gorman says the state park’s paved paths will be cleared of snow to make way for hikers. He adds hikers should wear masks because "we are seeing higher than normal usage [of park trails] and individuals are crossing by each other as they hike."

Tom Casey of West Sayville, vice president of the Long Island Greenbelt Trail Conference, says that woodland trails, including in the pine barrens of eastern Long Island, are also 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 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 Parkway, 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 is also 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. Further 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.

Best workout

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.

Family-friendly

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).

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.

Furthest 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, 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. (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.

Trail-end view

Take in the views at Orient Beach State Park, a 4-mile path. (40000 Main Road, 631-323-2440, parks.ny.gov/parks/orientbeach)

For a quintessential North Fork adventure, hike the two-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 Cross Sound Ferry honks. Continue past the parking lot to the beach for another two 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 squatting on a rock pile just offshore.

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