Muttontown Preserve 

Location: Syosset, NY
Size: 550 acres

Date of hike: Dec. 27, 2014
I've seen Muttontown Preserve on several online lists in which people rank their favorite places to hike on Long Island.  For that reason, the preserve has been calling to me for a while now.  With the year ending next week and me being off work through New Years Day, I decided this was the time to make it happen.  I also had not hiked anywhere in Nassau County in 2014, and I wanted to throw a non-Suffolk park into the mix before the year came to a conclusion.
I pulled into the park through the northern-most entrance located next to Chelsea Mansion.  Having read reviews the night before on Yelp, I noticed that some hikers had been using an alternate address that provided a much quicker route to the ruins near the park's south end.  But I wanted to hike the longer way and see the land in its entirety.  I passed a narrow road that went to Chelsea Mansion and pulled into the preserve's parking lot.  I don't know much about the mansion, aside from the fact it's often used for private events such as weddings – and it's on the National Register of Historic Places.  I was too eager to hike the preserve to think much of the mansion.  As I parked, I noticed only a half dozen other cars were there.  That was surprising considering it was a comfortable Saturday afternoon, albeit wintertime.  But I was more than happy to have the preserve mostly to myself on such a beautiful day.

Before exploring, I pulled up some information about the preserve to familiarize myself with its history.  Apparently, it is the biggest nature preserve in Nassau and is cobbled together from three estates, the county's website said.  Chelsea Mansion and the nature center are situated on a 100-acre parcel donated by a lady named Alexandra Moore McKay, with 400 acres purchased from the Landsell Christie Estate and 20 acres given by the wife of a man named Paul Hammond.  The preserve's top spot, though, is considered to be the ruins of a mansion once owned by King Zog of Albania, which was first built for a Wall Street investor named Charles Hudson in the early 20th century.  The weathered ruins can be seen in the wooded area just north of Muttontown Road, the website said.  But we'll get into that later.

Within minutes, I realized one of the Yelp complaints I'd read the night before was spot on: the trails were poorly marked.  I made the smart move of grabbing a map outside the nature center at the start of the trail, and I also had a compass/whistle/light gadget that one of my friends gave to me a few days earlier for Christmas, so I wasn't too worried.  But regardless, the sub-par markings were obvious.  Trails branched off constantly with only the occasional arrow to help lead the way.  I felt like I was walking blind.  But it was entirely okay with me.  It was relatively early in the day, and it also happened to be a picturesque winter afternoon.  There was no better day to walk around and get lost in the great outdoors, if you ask me.
To set the mood, I tapped Seventh Wonder's The Great Escape, a progressive metal album released in 2010.  I bought it earlier this year and enjoyed it, but I had yet to give myself the opportunity to really embrace the music and message.  This was the day for that to happen.  I mostly focused on the album's closing, and title, track, which is over 30 minutes in length.  This is an epic if there ever was one.  "Help December, let a new year begin," sang vocalist Tommy Karevik.  With lines like that, this album was the ideal choice for a hike just a few days prior to that holiday.  I let the intense lyrics and melodies hypnotize me as I hiked.
Eventually, I stumbled upon an eerily overgrown walled garden coated in ivy and spray paint.  It was surreal to see something man-made in the middle of the wilderness, but it was small potatoes compared to the main attraction: King Zog's ruins.  They stopped me in my tracks.  You simply don’t expect to see stuff like this in the woods.  The main remaining structure is the exterior grand staircase, which is caked with graffiti and completely crumbled, but not to the point where I was unable to scale it.  I sat upon the broken roof and looked out over the sea of trees.  I tried to explore more of the abandoned mansion, but very little of it was left. 

It was crazy to think that just a half century earlier stood a 60-room granite mansion bought by King Zog in 1951.  According to the county website, he never moved there and ultimately sold the estate in 1955.  As it lay abandoned, rumors spread about possible riches he'd hid inside the walls, which attracted many vandals to the site.  I couldn't help but wonder if the vandals used a map and compass to find it, because I couldn't have found it without them.
When I heard voices in the distance, I decided it was time to move along.  I had enjoyed the ruins for a half hour by then, and it was time to let someone else have their own experience – just them and the ruins.  I pulled out my map and took the long way back to the parking lot, so I could pass some swampy ponds.  I didn't glimpse wildlife, but the ruins made up for it.
Overall, I'd say that the Muttontown Preserve is a must-see spot for any Long Island hiker.  It's not every day you get an opportunity to explore remnants of a king's former mansion – and it's probably the closest many of us will ever get to feeling like like a king for a day. 

Video: Muttontown Preserve (360-degree view)

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