Heckscher State Park 

Location: East Islip, NY
Size: 1,600 acres
Date of hike: May 24 and 31, 2015
My hike in Heckscher State Park started entirely by accident.  I was killing time by driving around East Islip when I found myself at a random, discreet park entrance on a residential road named Woodland Drive.  I parked on the roadside behind two other cars and made my way through the fence's opening.  Minutes later, I waved down a mountain biker to ask him what park we were in.  "Heckscher," he said.  "This is a back entrance to the park."  He said some people use this secret entrance to avoid paying the park's $10 summer fee.

Heckscher's history goes back to the 19th century estates of George C. Taylor and J. Neal Plum with William Nicoll, founder of the Town of Islip, originally erecting his estate on this parcel, according to the New York State Parks Recreation & Historic Preservation's website.  The park was bought by New York State using a donation by August Heckscher with strong opposition from wealthy local residents.  It was one of Robert Moses' most difficult fights to obtain land for public recreation on Long Island, and only with assistance and support from then Governor Alfred E. Smith was Moses able to close the deal on this beautiful property fronting the Great South Bay.  When it comes to wildlife, white-tailed deer are populous throughout the park with about 280 bird species able to be observed, the website said.  Without a doubt, I'd have to coat myself with tick repellant before exploring the park.

Since I was short on time and didn't have my usual gear, I only hiked for about an hour near that back entrance in the park's northwestern section, which is home to a dog-walking path and an expansive frisbee golf course.  But I returned the next week set to conquer this park in its entirety.  I'd actually hiked part of Heckscher last year when I took the Greenbelt Trail, a 34-mile hiking trail that spans north to south across Long Island.  Heckscher's section is the beginning – or ending – of the Greenbelt, depending on which direction you're hiking in.  For me, it was the beginning.  I briefly lost my way last year while hiking the Greenbelt in Heckscher, so I was determined to retrace my steps and hike it the right way this time.  After all, it's not that hard to follow a string of white dots – or it shouldn't be, at least.
After arriving at 12:30, I hiked from the entrance on Woodland Drive to the heart of the park, which is filled with shady picnic groves that provide idyllic spots for group or family outings.  Then I strolled over to a small dock with a beautiful view of the Great South Bay and a nice backdrop of Fire Island.  A small stream shot out westward from the inlet and a few narrow openings in the brush allowed me to get close enough to touch water.  A large osprey was perched atop a wooden platform that held his nest and screeched loudly when I walked by.  This was one of my favorite spots.  It was like something straight out of a nature painting.  The only thing missing was a little country girl holding a basket and picking wild flowers.
As I approached the beach, I realized that I still hadn’t really "hiked."  Sure, I was outside, but I was mostly marching through open spaces – parking lots, ball fields and picnic areas.  The beach was a little windy on this day and there weren't as many cars as I had expected.  I'd say the football field-sized parking area was only 20 percent full on this beautiful Sunday, which gave me an empty feeling.  The shore was outstanding though.  If I was a beach lover, I'd totally see myself throwing down a blanket and reading a good book.  But the trails were calling me.  I continued east along the shore until I linked up with a fitness/biking trail that weaved throughout the park.  It included a variety of exercise stops for sit-ups or pull-ups.
Eventually, I reached Field 7, which is where the real hiking starts.  A "Greenbelt Trail" sign marks the spot about 30 yards from the shore, continuing through an overgrown parking lotThis is where I lost the trail last year, as the markers are painted on cracked pavement and covered by weeds in some spots.  From there, the trail cut inland toward the park's eastern section, which contains an abandoned graffiti-filled building I stumbled upon while hiking the Greenbelt.  It was still there, just as I hoped.  One spray-painted sentence said "I love Matt."  Another said "Retards are fun."  The dirty walls had a little bit of everything written on them.
I used my geocaching app to navigate north near the park's true entrance.  Wooden planks were laid across the more challenging stretches.  Upon spotting the entrance, I crossed the access road and headed west to Woodland Drive.  There, I encountered caterpillars dangling from overhead branches.  A ton of caterpillars.  It was like the 1990 movie, "Arachnophobia," but with caterpillars.  I hate caterpillars.  On the bright side, though, I came across a cozy alcove of pine trees in the park's western section.  It was worth enduring a caterpillar hell.
Looking back, there aren't as many hiking trails as I would've expected from the park's size.  The trails are there, but they're mostly around the park's outskirts – particularly the eastern and western sections.  Still, it was definitely nice to have explored Heckcher in its entirety.  Now, I just need to remember to bring a beach blanket and a good book for my next visit. 

Video: Heckscher State Park (360-degree view)  

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