Location: Kings Park, NY
Size: 521 acres
Date of hike: Feb. 25 and March 10, 2018
If AMC's "The Walking Dead" ever needs a new location to film, I'd definitely recommend Nissequogue River State Park. For those who don't know, the park is situated along the waterfront property of the former Kings Park Psychiatric Center – and it has dozens of abandoned buildings, overgrown homes and other crumbling structures. There's also a wide array of graffiti, both artistic and despicable. You'll see nothing else like it on Long Island, which is why it's one of my favorite hiking spots. Probably top five, I'd say.
For starters, Nissequogue River State Park sits along the banks of the Nissequogue River, an 8.3-mile river flowing from Caleb Smith State Park Preserve into the Long Island Sound. The river is the sound's biggest tributary in New York and has an average discharge higher than any freshwater river on Long Island, according to Stony Brook University. That aside, the property is probably best known for its psychiatric history. Kings County purchased it from residents in 1885 to relieve overcrowding of patients in the city's asylums and quickly built 16 cottages to accommodate 450 patients, according to the Nissequogue River State Park Foundation's website. It was often called a "farm colony," the website said, because patients were encouraged to assist in farm-related activities, which was "a form of therapy." The hospital became a self-sufficient community that grew its own food, generated its own electricity, and even had its own railroad spur. It was ultimately passed along to the state, which began to "build upwards" for a growing population that would exceed 9,300 by 1954, the website said. However, the increased use of medication to treat mental illness caused the center to become "a ghost of itself" by the 1990s, the website said. It closed in 1996.
With regard to the park itself, it officially opened in 2000 on a 153-acre portion of the former psychiatric center, with an another 368 acres of hospital property given to the park in 2007. In 2010, New York State closed the park and 55 other parks statewide due to budget cuts, but reversed their decision on Nissequogue and reopened it 11 days later after the passage of an $11 million deal in the state senate, according to the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation's website. Eighteen former hospital buildings and a large smokestack were demolished in 2013, with state officials announcing a $40 million improvement plan for the park in late 2017, according to articles in Newsday. Apparently, that plan calls for moving and modernizing a 151-slip marina located near the river's mouth and restoring the existing site to wetlands. In addition, four abandoned buildings would be torn down and a headquarters would be constructed for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation's Division of Marine Resources. Much of the work will be done by the end of 2018, with the marina modifications unlikely to start until 2020, Newsday said.
Once I had a sufficient understanding of the land's past and present, I was ready to explore. My approach was to split the park into two sections: the area north and east of St. Johnland Road, and the area south and west of St. Johnland Road. First, I tackled the northeast area, and I instantly got chills upon glimpsing the buildings. I parked alongside a two-story facility named Veterans Memorial Hospital, which seems to be the park's office. A kiosk explained that the park is designated as a bird conservation area, with over 150 species of birds having been documented there. I later learned the conservation area's primary purpose is to protect overwintering locations for waterfowl and migratory birds. "River corridor and beaches along the Long Island Sound provide wintering grounds for waterfowl, a foraging area and roost for species of herons and egrets, and serve as a migration route for songbirds," the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation's website said. The kiosk also said that the hospital building was built between 1923 and 1927 for World War I veterans.
If I had to describe the park in one word, it would be "apocalyptic." Many of the abandoned buildings have broken and boarded windows, layers of spray-painted graffiti, and decades of general neglect. To my delight (and surprise), I was able to get very close to most buildings – and, in some cases, enter them through open or broken doors. The first one I'd accessed, which seemed to be a former day care facility, greeted me with the word "Hell" and an arrow pointing down a hallway. Needless to say, I didn't investigate. Other highlights of the park's northeastern section included a three-story building that had all of its windows (I counted 69 on one side alone, plus some basement windows) creatively covered up with pieces of wood that featured original nature-themed illustrations. There were also pretty scenic views of the Nissequogue River and Long Island Sound. To the right of the overlook, you'll find white dots for the Long Island Greenbelt Trail, a 34-mile trail running north to south across Long Island.
I came back two weeks later for the park's southwestern section, which includes a 13-story brick structure called Building 93. It stands ominously over the park, slightly reminding me of Castle Grayskull from the 1980's animated children's program, "Masters of the Universe." The facility, which was designed by state architect William E. Haugaard, was completed in 1939 and used as an infirmary for geriatric patients and people with dementia, according to the foundation's website. Basically, I just wandered and tried to see as much as possible. Part of me expected to encounter a homeless person or mischevious teens in some of the dilapidated edifices, but I didn't. I did, though, see a public safety officer who drove up and told me to shake my backpack. I didn't understand why at first, but I eventually realized he thought I was a spray-painter. Looking back, I'm just happy to see they're chasing vandals.
The park's southwestern section also includes the Kings Park Hike & Bike Trail, a 1.7-mile trail that connects downtown Kings Park with the Long Island Sound via Nissequogue River State Park. The trail opened in 2004 and runs "mainly along the hospital’s old railroad spur," according to a kiosk located near the intersection of Main Street and Kings Park Boulevard. The kiosk also said the park's wildlife ranges from red fox to box turtles to red-tailed hawks. I didn't see any of those during my hikes, but I did see a group of five deer staring me down like paparazzi at one point. I waved at them, but they ran away like I threatened their lives.
My Nissequogue soundtrack was Riverside's 2015 album, Love, Fear and the Time Machine. It was the Polish band's last release to feature guitarist Piotr Grudziński, who sadly passed away in 2016. I ended up buying their entire discography after he died, but I connected with the band's early albums so much that I didn't really listen to their latest creation a lot. Well, those days are done. This album is a timeless masterpiece. And I love everything about it.
In a nutshell, I'd say that Nissequogue River State Park is a must-see spot for all hikers on Long Island. While there aren't many hiking "trails," per se, the apocalyptic buildings more than make up for that. Just be very careful. And bring some zombie repellent just in case!