Location: Montauk, NY
Size: 415 acres
Date of hike: Dec. 28, 2015
My final hike of 2015 was at a location with a history ranging from military activity to rumors of underground time travel experiments: Camp Hero State Park. With the week off from work after Christmas, I decided to take advantage of the long break and hike the spot furthest from my home on Long Island. Having driven an hour-and-a-half last year to hike Montauk Point State Park, the park just to its west remained my furthest un-hiked spot. It was a drizzly day, making me the only one in the parking lot when I arrived. Just what I wanted after a particularly stressful December.
Before embarking, I familiarized myself with Camp Hero's history to get a better sense of its land and legends. The park hosts the former Montauk Air Force Station, which was initially commissioned by the U.S. Army in 1942, and is named after Maj. General Andrew Hero Jr., who was the Army's commander of coastal artillery, according to the New York State Parks, Recreation & Historic Preservation's website. It functioned as a coastal defense station that was disguised as a fishing village, and its location was selected to prevent a sea invasion of New York. In 1984, the General Services Administration attempted to sell the entire facility to real estate developers, but local environmental activists protested that the site had many unique ecosystems and animal habitats. The land was later donated to the National Park Service, which then turned it over to New York State. Areas not deemed environmentally sensitive were sold off and the park was opened to the public in 2002, the website said.
Despite the park's military history, I've always been equally intrigued by its rumored role in underground time travel experiments conducted by the government. The stories apparently originate from "The Montauk Project: Experiments in Time," a 1992 book written by Preston Nichols and Peter Moon that alleged secret experiments were carried out at the park for the purpose of developing psychological warfare techniques and exotic research like time travel, teleportation and mind control. I first stumbled across the text in my local library as a teen, leaving me eager to explore the mysterious park one day. Online reports describe the book as being written in first-person style and categorized as science fiction – with real photos of the base and drawings of the experiments adding an authentic feel. It spurred four sequels through 1998, as well as a film adaption earlier this year called the "Montauk Chronicles."
Ironically, the last thing on my mind was the park's military history or conspiracy theory as I started my hike. Instead, it was the stunning bluffs and ocean vistas. The parking lot is set back about 50 yards from a crumbling bluff that borders the Atlantic Ocean. A short walk to the east yielded an outstanding view of the Montauk Point Light, which this time of year was outlined in white holiday lights. I followed a trail closer and closer to the lighthouse for about 15 minutes, snapping pictures of the landmark along the way. Camp Hero offered top-notch photo opportunities of the iconic spot, and I came away with some astonishing shots. Next, I backtracked toward the bluffs and followed a cliff-side trail along an expanse of beachfront. The ferocious water and ominous sky made it feel like I was right at the edge of the world.
There were gaps in the brush about every five minutes, allowing hikers to approach the bluffs' edges at their own risk. Of course, signs instructed visitors to remain 25 feet back for safety reasons, but I couldn't help inching as close as possible. As I've said before, I love standing right at the edge of cliffs knowing that just one slip or misstep could end it all. It gives me a rush. With rain falling on and off, it was simple to see how the bluffs could be compromised. Little trickles and mini streams of water made their way down the bluffs' slopes and crevices, wearing away at the soil. The resulting spires are "hoodoos," according to the park’s signs. It reminded me of the terrain that I'd seen in Utah during my cross-country road trip in 2012.
After finishing the bluff-top trails, I hiked some inland ones to see what the maritime forests and military installations had to offer. One of the first things I spied was a box of pamphlets about the area, including one page that warned hikers to be careful if they come across any unexploded ordinances (UXOs). For those who don't know, these are land mines or bombs that did not detonate when employed. "If you come across any UXO, DO NOT TOUCH IT!" the pamphlet said. "Report it immediately to the nearest law enforcement or parks official." Being keen on keeping my limbs intact for 2016, I opted not to stray from the park's trails.
Before long, I spotted the Battery 112 trail, which took me through the military installations. The Battery 112 structure itself, built in 1942, consisted of a large concrete wall built into a hill and once contained two 16-inch guns capable of firing a 2,240-pound shell more than 25 miles, according to a sign. Just a stone's throw from that area was the massive radar tower, which was designed to guard against a surprise attack from Soviets. Today, it's abandoned and boarded, but it's as an eerie spectre that's visible from almost anywhere in Camp Hero.
The next part of my hike was a zigzagging trail that went through the park's vast sanctuary. It eventually led me to Sunrise Highway, so I backtracked to take one last look at the bluffs. This time, I followed an opening down to the beach. The tide had receded enough for me to pass one stretch of bluff that had been flooded with water earlier, so I seized the opportunity. It ended up being the hike's highlight. I even snapped a sick pic of the lighthouse from there.
My music of choice was Redemption's 2011 album, This Mortal Coil. With the wet weather, it seemed like the perfect choice since one of the album's best tunes is called "Let It Rain." The song's concept of washing away past misdeeds was right up my alley, especially with the new year approaching. I couldn't help but look to the sky and let the rain saturate me.
In retrospect, I can safely say Camp Hero is one of the top parks I've visited on Long Island. It has a little of everything: terrific trails, beautiful bluffs, military history, conspiracy theories, and wonderful views of Long Island's most beloved landmark. I only wish I'd visited it sooner.