Location: West Hills, NY
Size: 854 acres
I'd always thought that Bald Hill in Farmingville was the highest point on Long Island. But apparently, that designation belongs to Jayne's Hill in West Hills County Park. Once I discovered that tidbit, I knew I had to hike to the top as soon as possible. It's only an elevation of 400 feet, but I can't call myself a Long Island hiker unless I've scaled the "summit," if that's what you want to call it.
I'd done some research on the park prior to the hike to get a better sense of the land's vast history, which included everything from White House staffers to a famous poet (the latter of which we'll get to later). Much of the park's western section was once known as "Highhold," the estate of of Henry Stimson, who served in five presidential administrations from 1911 to 1945 – as well as serving as Secretary of War during World War II, according to the Suffolk County Parks Department's website. He also hosted his famous "Highhold Games," which included fox hunts, on the property. It was sold following the death of Stimson's wife to the New York City Boy Scouts and was subsequently used as a camp for many years. In fact, it's still open to organized camp groups, the website said. The park also offers horses that are privately owned and leased from the on-site Sweet Hills Stables. The trails, meanwhile, travel through a mixed deciduous forest with plantlife that ranges from moccasin flowers to mountain laurel. The wildlife can span from salamanaders to red fox to hairy woodpeckers.
We'd been bombarded with a handful of snowstorms the previous week, so I knew the park would have some slush and ice on the ground. But I was itching to hit the trails, so I threw on two layers of socks and my winter boots and hopped in the car. The dog park seems to be the park's most popular feature, with about a dozen different breeds of man's best friend running around upon my arrival. The trails started on the other end of the park adjacent to the stables, which were also a popular spot. I'd estimate passing about 10-15 horseback riders on the trails during this winter day – along with a fair share of manure. It made me wonder why people pick up after a dog, but not a horse. I mean, equine can drop some serious bombs, so it seems only right to at least toss it into the woods, if you ask me.
The trails were pretty challenging to navigate, because the snow was worse than I'd thought. Some spots that had been well trampled by previous hikers were relatively easy to traverse, but other spots collapsed a few inches when I stepped on them. The lifting and lowering of my boots tired me out as the minutes and miles added up. But the park was too pretty to leave. The trails were well marked with hiking signs scattered throughout and dots clearly displayed on the trees. First, I trekked to the southern and eastern sections of the park, which overlooked Route 110. It was sweet seeing the stretch of stores from that height. There's not many spots on Long Island where you’re looking down at people or places without being confined inside a building. So I particularly enjoyed that experience.
Next, I headed to the northern section for Jayne's Hill. It probably took me an hour to reach it due to the snow. I knew I was getting close when I passed a large sign that explained the history of the hill. It said famed poet Walt Whitman was known to have walked there and his birthplace was located at the east end of West Hills Road. When I finally reached the peak, I was treated to some more Whitman history. His poem "Paumanok" from the book Leaves of Grass was printed on a plaque on a rock atop the hill. Unfortunately, the rock was marred with graffiti, but it was still a thrill to get there – especially because I was a big fan of AMC's "Breaking Bad." For those who don't know, that book played a prominent role in the show.
Sadly, there was no spectacular view atop the hill. Just trees and a water tower behind a chain-link fence. Still, the hike itself was the highlight. I followed the dots back toward the entrance and continued to be blown away the beauty. Trees as far as the eye can see and no one else in sight. Sometimes, I would stray from the main trails and follow a random pair of footsteps. That's the beauty of hiking in the snow – the footsteps. To me, it can be more exciting to see what fewer people have seen than what the majority has seen. Perhaps the person before you was familiar with the terrain and might lead you to something special.
The only negative aspect about the park – besides the endless horse manure, of course – was a few instances of anti-Obama graffiti on the signs. There's no need for that in a park. Other than that these trails did the job for me, particularly with the audio accompaniment of Fates Warning's Darkness In a Different Light. And, most importantly, I can now say I was the highest person on Long Island for a brief moment in time – elevation-wise, of course!
Video: West Hills County Park (360-degree view)
Video: West Hills County Park (360-degree view)