Long Island Greenbelt Trail

Location: East Islip to Kings Park, NY

Length: 34 miles

Date of hike: Aug. 30-31, 2014

Day 1

If I wrote out my bucket list, one item on it would have to be hiking the Long Island Greenbelt Trail.  It's a 34-mile trail that runs north to south across Long Island, and I've wanted to hike it for my entire life – or at least since I was old enough to enjoy the outdoors.  Having grown up in a neighborhood that bordered the woodlands of Connetquot River State Park Preserve, I'd often slink through an opening in the chain-link fence at the end of my road to access the preserve and the trail, which passes through it.  The white trail markers on the trees became as familiar to me as the Patrick Ewing posters in my bedroom.  I knew one day I'd have to hike it start to finish.

The first thing one should know is that the Greenbelt Trail, completed in 1982, mostly follows the courses of the Connetquot and Nissequogue rivers from the Great South Bay to the Long Island Sound, passing through a handful of state parks and preserves including Heckscher, Connetquot, Caleb Smith and Sunken Meadow.  The Greenbelt's length meant I wouldn't be able to conquer it in a day, or loop back to my car.  I'd be finishing many miles (and hours) away from where I started each day – and the entire hike would most likely span two days.  I'd have to coordinate with family and friends to drop me off each day near my starting point, and I'd have to arrange for a taxi to pick me up each day near my ending point.  In addition, there was the Greenbelt Trail map I had to buy at Blydenburgh County Park in Hauppauge.  The map was extremely detailed and featured every twist, turn and crossing along the way.  I'd felt pretty confident that I wouldn’t get lost.  But, of course, I did.  But only for a little bit.

For starters, my good friend Jackie who lives in West Islip offered to drop me at my starting point at Heckscher State Park in East Islip, after I parked my car at her house that morning.  Unfortunately, I forgot my trail map at home and had to drive all the way back after arriving at her house.  Not a good start, I thought.  But fortunately, my luck changed when Heckscher's front-booth worker let us in without paying a vehicle use fee, since I was only being dropped off.  It was the bright and early hour of 8:30 a.m. when I reached Field 7, which is where the trail began, according to the map.  Eagerly, I exited Jackie's car and strolled to the shore of the Great South Bay.  It was quiet at that hour.  Just the waves and I – and the first sign for the Greenbelt Trail.  My heart raced.  My journey had officially begun after all these years.

Within 15 minutes, I lost the trail.  In the early going, it was hard to follow the white blazes because there weren’t many trees along the beach – thereby leaving few spots to paint the blazes, I suppose.  I guessed wrong at one juncture and found myself near the east end of Heckscher Park, close to the Timber Point Golf Course in Great River.  The detour had one positive element: an abandoned house filled with graffiti.  I love stuff like that.  I crept inside and snapped a few photos, while chuckling at some of the bizarre messages on the walls.  One proclaimed a "biffleness" between two people, and I couldn't help but wonder whether they are still best friends today.  Before getting lost further, I retreated to the proper trail.

Heading north, the trail paralleled the Southern State Parkway for a while.  Swooshing cars and giant highway signs were visible one after another.  I prefer seclusion, but expected the trail might have a lot of urban qualities since it passes a handful of major roads.  I threw on my iPod and picked one of the louder bands in my collection: Tool.  I chose the progressive metal icon's most recent album, 10,000 Days.  Its riffs drowned out much of the road noise, allowing me to drift off to some degree – until I was jolted back to the present as I came to Montauk Highway and Union Boulevard.  I felt like I was living in the video game Frogger.

My favorite road crossing was at Sunrise Highway, which had an underpass that went right underneath the busy road close to the main entrance of Connetquot State Park in Oakdale.  The dark underpass was filled with webs and graffiti – including an eerie message that said "Danger Quicksand," likely referring to the thick muck that rested alongside the underpass.  The muck was so high that I wondered if it ever made the underpass unpassable.  Luckily, that wasn’t the case today so I marched through it, brushing aside the webs with my arm.

From there, the road crossings subsided.  Connetquot State Park stretched all the way into Ronkonkoma, and standout sites included the fish hatchery and colorful signs and graphics that explained the park's plants and animals.  Before long, I hit Veterans Memorial Highway, which was the day's most difficult crossing.  It's a four-lane highway, with two lanes of traffic going both ways.  I patiently waited until there were no cars in sight.  The safer, the better.

The trail continued through Lakeland County Park, which had its own graffiti-filled underpass and a string of wetland boardwalks.  I'd been to Lakeland hundreds of times in my childhood, so I lingered a bit for nostalgia sake.  The trail next emerged at the Long Island Expressway, then it ducked back into the woods before emerging yet again at Vanderbilt Motor Parkway.

I decided to stop there for the day, as I live only two blocks from the access point on Motor Parkway.  At home, I checked for ticks and inspected the mosquito bites on my calves and ankles.  My bug spray did little to protect me, it seemed.  I later realized it was poison ivy.  But at least it wasn’t a tick, I told myself.  I'll take the poison ivy over a tick bite any day.

Day 2

The hike's second half started for me at the access point along Motor Parkway in Islandia – and instantly everything felt so right.  Sometimes there's just a magical mood that fills you when a hike’s exterior elements all come together exactly the way you like it.  For starters, the weather was incredibly comfortable with blue skies and heavenly mid-70s temperatures.  I also wisely wore long pants, learning from the mosquito bites and poison ivy that befell me during the first half of the hike.  Also, the first song to pop onto my iPod was OSI's "Indian Curse," an eerie acoustic tune with cryptic lyrics.  All of those factors combined to create the perfect atmosphere.  I had nine hours of hiking to go, but I was ready for every step.

My first site on this day was the Hamlet WindWatch Golf Club, which was located just west of the trail and immediately on the other side of a chain-link fence.  In fact, the trail narrowed to such a point where it was probably less than 10 feet wide with the fences on either side – the golf course on the left, and the backyards of neighboring houses on the right.  I actually found several golf balls along this stretch, which slightly freaked me out.  Every time I heard the smack of a golf ball off to the left, I worried that I'd be clocked upside the head.  Luckily, that didn't happen – and I made it safely past the golf course and across Townline Road.

Next, I reached my favorite location on the trail: the Lake of Dreams.  That's what it's called, according to a phrase carved into the short dock that led to the water.  I must admit, I had walked this portion of the trail a month earlier and the Lake of Dreams was sadly dried up – making for an ironic twist with the name.  But today, a recent rainfall had left the lake full.  The best part was the dock, on which people wrote their varied dreams.  Most messages shared tales of broken hearts.  I could relate, making the lake an even more special spot.

From there, I made my way through a few parks – Millers Pond County Park, Brooksite Park and Blydenburgh County Park, the last of which I'd hiked earlier in the year.  The trail mostly took me into only small portions of each park.  It was kind of like bar hopping, only this was park hopping.  Before long, I made it to the Caleb Smith State Park Preserve in Smithtown.  The trail stayed in that park a longer than the others, allowing me to develop a connection.  One of my next hikes would be there, I told myself, so I could to explore it more in depth. 

Unfortunately, the trail's next stretch left a lot to be desired.  Basically, it went through the streets of Smithtown for about an hour or two.  First, I passed the bull statue on Route 25A.  Then, after another short stint in the woods, I emerged in a neighborhood by the Smithtown Landing Country Club.  House after house after house.  My feet were starting to bark now, but the map said I was nearing the homestretch, which ended up being the hike's prime.

After Smithtown Landing, I entered Nissequogue River State Park.  Then, San Remo Village.  While the previous streets were dull residential roads, these were waterfront ones along the Nissequogue.  Boats were anchored just beyond the shore.  I was dying to stop for water and stroll along the dock for a bit, but I still l had a mile or two to go.  I had to push on.
 

Just when I felt like it would be pitch black within minutes, I arrived at Sunken Meadow State Park.  It was like a desert oasisI inched my way over to the beach boardwalk and the Long Island Sound, making sure to touch the water.  My heart filled with pride at my achievement. 

In a nutshell, I'd say the volume of road crossings made the hike a little less pleasant than individually visiting the parks, but crossing Long Island by foot is a feat I'll never ever forget.

5 comments:

  1. Congrats on finishing the entire trail! I once tried to hike the entire thing in a day and only made it to Blydenburgh. It's tough mileage. Definitely agree that the Nissequogue River is one of the prettiest areas along the trail.

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  2. are there any camping areas to make this an overnight thru hike?

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  3. Great read and congrats on completing the trail! I did the majority of the Nassau-Suffolk Greenbelt Trail last month. Based on how much the Long Island Greenbelt Trail is on-street, I'd recommend the Nassau-Suffolk. I live in the city and don't have a car, so I took LIRR to Bethpage, walked down Powell Avenue over 135 and picked up the trail in Bethpage State Park. I took it all the way up to the northern terminus in Cold Spring Harbor State Park. Most of it was the original right-of-way for the Bethpage State Parkway extension, which was never built, so the majority of the hike is off-road. There are, however, quite a few mountain bikers along the way. North of the LIRR from Stillwell Woods Park, where I got incredibly lost for a bit, to Cold Spring Harbor State Park is the most challenging section. All in all, I went about 15 miles, but you can start from the beginning in Massapequa for the full 20 miles. First few road crossings from Bethpage are Haypath Road, Old Bethpage Road, and Old Country Road. At Washington Avenue, after going under the LIE, I swung across the street into Manetto Hills Park, which is very underrated. I did not see a single person in the hour I spent in those woods (stopped for about 20 minutes at a tree stump to eat lunch, very peaceful). Then, I followed the trail hugging the Northern State, to the Sunnyside Blvd overpass, entered back into the woods, and from there it's pretty much a straight shot up to Cold Spring Harbor: only major crossings being Woodbury Road (twice) and Jericho Tpke. A few weeks earlier, I did Lakeland County Park through Connetquot State Park, which was just alright, and I agree that Veterans Memorial Hwy is the worst crossing I've encountered, no bridge/tunnel, no lights, barely a crosswalk. I had no idea there was a tunnel under Sunrise Hwy! When I got out of the park, I just followed the bike path to Connetquot Avenue to get back to Great River, since my map didn't show any crossings over Sunrise.

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  4. Congrats, Mike.I'd like to do that trail sometime this year. AS to the two-and-a-half year old question somebody asked about an overnight camping spot: I was hiking in Blydenburg County park from the southern end on 347 the other day. I wandered in to the camping area. It didn't look like a place that I'd like to camp, but on a trail nearby I saw a single campsite with a sign saying "Greenbelt Site". I knew that the GB Trail went through the park, but didn't see any markers nearby(even looking at a crude map, it showed that the GB Trail was much farther east of this site). I have no idea what the deal is with this site, but it looked like a nice place to sleep for the night.

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  5. Hi Mike! I am actually hiking the entire thing in one day in August for charity.I have a couple of questions as I plan my walk and wonder if you can help me:
    1. Is the trail relatively flat?
    2. Are there places to stop along the way to top up on water?
    3. Are there any towns on the way to stop for lunch and snacks?

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