Location: Riverhead, NY
Size: 275 acres
Date of hike: Jan. 16, 2016
I had no idea I'd be hiking Indian Island County Park when I woke up on Saturday, but I'm glad I did. It ended up being one of my favorite spots on all of Long Island. I've probably said that about other parks or preserves, but this time I really mean it. I stumbled across Indian Island sometime last winter when I made a wrong turn in Riverhead. Its interesting name caught my attention, and I knew I had to pay the park a visit one day. Well, the day finally arrived when I just started driving and found myself on the East End.
Prior to the hike, I did some quick research on the park to familiarize myself with the land's history and geography. Indian Island County Park is located by the estuarine mouth of the 15-mile-long Peconic River, where the northern and southern forks of Long Island intersect and the freshwater of the Peconic peacefully converge with the saltwater of Flanders Bay, according to the Suffolk County Park Department's website. It seems the park's circular peninsula had once been an island that's now connected to the mainland by a causeway composed entirely of white sands. The land is "full of life," the website said, with animals that range from red fox to songbirds and environments that include everything from prickly pear cactus to patches of marsh. The park has also yielded fragments of stone tools that are considered evidence of prehistoric people having existed there thousands of years ago, with Native Americans believed to have occupied the region as recently as the early 1700s.
Upon the arrival of colonists, the bay became used for its abundant sea life with fisherman using vast seine nets designed to catch up to 15,000 fish in a single haul and much of the excess catch being spread in the fields for fertilizer by the local farmers, the website said. By the early 1900s, a man named Hollis Warner had established what eventually became the world's largest duck farm at the site of the current Indian Island Golf Course, which is only a stone's throw from the park across the Peconic River. Many of the farm's laborers lived right on the island itself in small houses, tents and even old cars through the 1950s. Today, the park is perhaps best known as a top-notch location for camping and picnics – with camping areas filling dozens of acres just past the park's main entrance and idyllic picnic spots scattered throughout the picturesque "island" that overlooks Flanders Bay.
Upon my arrival, I drove around the park once or twice to pick a good spot to park and hike. Since it's still winter, I only noticed three of four campers. I didn't see any main parking lot, so I parked in one of the camping areas located on the park's south side. I decided to start my hike in that southern section, as the view of the Peconic River flowing between the park and the golf course instantly caught my eye. I found a tiny trail that took me alongside the Peconic's shoreline and I was in heaven. I followed that path for about a quarter mile or so, taking advantage of every opening in the brush to walk right up to the river and look around. A few swans stared at me as I snapped some shots. I waved at them and then moved on, eager to see what else the park had in store for me. We were just scratching the surface.
It didn't take long before I reached the spot where the Peconic converged with Flanders Bay, giving me a killer view of Long Island's South Fork as it stretched across the distant horizon. It was sweet being at the spot where the famous forks split, and I made sure to enjoy every angle. But that view was just a teaser for the "island" itself, which completely stopped me dead in my tracks when I reached it. To my surprise and delight, I was the only person in sight when I arrived, making me feel like I was all alone on some deserted island like Tom Hanks in "Cast Away." "I can't believe this is all mine," I said aloud as I began to explore. The water was so very calm, transparent and mirror-like that it didn't even feel real at first. And I couldn't help but think if I ever get engaged, this is likely where I'd pop the question.
I hiked around the outskirts of the entire "island," constantly spinning and twisting to catch every incredible view. Luckily, the tide was just low enough for me to hike along the shore, except for a handful of sections where I had to stomp atop the frozen marsh or high grass. As I made my way to the north side of the "island," a string of beautiful waterfront homes could be seen about a football field away. I also took a crack at a little bit of geocaching, finding one of the toughest caches I had ever tackled. It was cleverly hidden in the upper crotch of a tree on the northernmost point of the "island," requiring some serious trekking. After several unsuccessful geocaching efforts on other recent hikes, logging this felt great.
Next, I wrapped around the rest of the "island" and linked up with a waterfront trail that led me around the remainder of the park – rather, the non-island part of the park, I should say. The beautiful views just never stopped. Even when I reached the end of the trail and found myself at the park's headquarters, I decided to do an about-face and re-hike everything I'd just hiked. I couldn't resist. It was like getting up for seconds during Thanksgiving dinner. The park was simply too tasty to not enjoy another helping. I set my iPod to Darkwater's 2010 album, Where Stories Die, and let music and nature come together to comfort me.
When I got home, I learned that the park often has issues with algae known as brown tide, which is a microscopic plant that is brown in color and only visible when there are at least one million cells in each teaspoon of water. I also recalled a story in which thousands of dead fish emerged from the Peconic Estuary last year and washed up on local beaches – including Indian Island. Thankfully, there was no evidence of either issue during my hike.
Needless to say, I recommend all Long Islanders make a trip to Indian Island County Park sooner or later. You can almost feel the vast history and beauty oozing from the land with every step. And if you pick the right day, you can star in your own version of "Cast Away."