Location: Montauk, NY
Size: 862 acres
Date of hike: Dec. 30, 2014
My gut told me that Montauk Point State Park had to be my final hike of 2014. It's been a few years since I last visited the eastern tip of Long Island's south shore, and I never explored the park's various trails during my previous visits. Another factor attracting me was a list detailing the 10 best hiking trails on Long Island that was published by the website offMetro – and subsequently picked up by the Huffington Post – that included two of the park trails: Money Pond Trail and Seal Haulout Trail. The chance to hike two top trails in a day was a challenge I must accept.
It took approximately 90 minutes to drive to Montauk. Since it gets dark early in December, I'd wanted to get there extra early, so I left home at about 8:30 a.m. When I got to Montauk, there were a half dozen cars parked in the lot across from the lighthouse, which was closed. I wasn't particularly interested in trekking up to the top of the lighthouse anyway, so I wasn't upset it was off limits. But frankly, it didn't make sense to me. The lighthouse website said nothing about a closure. Also, it was a weekday in late December, which is the time of year that many people take road trips and family vacations. Sure, Montauk is more of a summer destination. But carload after carload continued to pull into the windy lot, ready to brave the cold and explore the ol' landmark. Montauk is no quick drive either. Luckily, they could still enjoy the stunning views and converging tides of the Atlantic Ocean and Block Island Sound.
My first action was just standing and admiring the lighthouse, which was commissioned by President George Washington in 1792 and is the oldest in New York. It's impossible to see it tower over the shore and not be drawn to it. I hiked to the lighthouse's south side adjacent to Camp Hero State Park, which I learned is the former site of the Montauk Air Force Station after being commissioned by the U.S. Army in 1942. For some, Camp Hero is better known from the 1992 book "The Montauk Project: Experiments in Time," written by Preston Nichols and Peter Moon. It outlines time travel experiments allegedly conducted by the government at the site and became popular among conspiracy theorists, spawning a handful of sequels. I'd planned to explore Camp Hero if I had enough time, but unfortunately that didn't happen.
From the lighthouse's south side, I had a sweet view of the many erosion-reducing boulders strategically assembled behind the great beacon. The closer I hiked, the more it looked like some of the rocks were flat on top, making them somewhat walkable. I climbed the closest boulder and hopped from rock to rock until I found myself right behind the lofty lighthouse – making me the easternmost person on all of Long Island at that very moment. A chain-link fence installed directly into the boulders made the lighthouse inaccessible from my spot on the rocks, though. The Block Island Sound also crashed into the boulder walls a few times, but the waves couldn't reach me. Minutes later, I was safely on the lighthouse's north side.
Next, I just walked. The lighthouse became more and more distant until it looked like a tiny toy out on the horizon. The shore was completely covered with smooth stones – and I even passed a beachside memorial in which dozens of loved ones had written heartfelt messages on them. One was from a month earlier, so I knew they were recent. "Shaun, Thanksgiving is almost here, you will be seated at the table enjoying the feast, you will always be with me at my side," read one rock. It gave me goosebumps to see how much they all loved Shaun. I could only hope to have a similar impact on people during the course of my life, but I know I'm nowhere close. It humbled me. It also gave me something to work toward in the future.
Shortly thereafter, I spotted an old woman with binoculars walking toward me. By this time, I'd become somewhat concerned I hadn't seen any signs for those two aforementioned trails, so I asked if she knew their whereabouts. She said that I was heading in the right direction, but that the Seal Haulout Trail likely wouldn't yield any seal sightings since the weather had been warm in recent weeks and the seals were probably still further north. She also shared her personal story. She said she lived in Connecticut and traditionally visited her mother on this week each year. She then pointed out a white bird floating a few feet off shore that she said is only here this time of year. Her and the bird are alike in that way, I said to myself.
Following her advice, I continued heading away from the lighthouse until I saw a sign for the Seal Haulout Trail. I followed the markers through a short stretch of woods until it led to an observation area about 20 yards back from the water. A series of informational illustrations and kiosks were on hand to help educate visitors on the various types of seals that frequent the beach. From what I recall, the seals like to sunbathe themselves on the rocks between November and April. Naturally, I was a little disappointed that I didn't spot one measly seal, but I didn't let it get me down. The environment was too beautiful not to enjoy every second.
From there, I followed the trails further north and west until I came across Paumanok Path and Ogden Brook Trail. I hiked Paumanok until the white dots led me straight to the water. Either the trail abruptly ended or it was flooded out. I then retreated and took Ogden Brook, hoping it would eventually intersect with the Money Pond Trail. Fortunately, it did just that. And it was well worth the wait. The trail was among the narrowest I'd ever hiked and, if not for the well-placed markers, it would have been impossible to follow due to the fallen leaves. Planks crossed cozy creeks. Super views popped up between branches. It was heavenly.
I later discovered that Money Pond Trail got its name because Captain Kidd was rumored to have buried treasure in the pond. I love old legends like that. However, I must disagree with offMetro and the Huffington Post for listing Seal Haulout and Money Pond as two completely separate hikes in the top 10 list. The two trails are not only located in the same state park, but they also intersect – and I can't imagine anyone hiking one and not the other. The Seal Haulout Trail is also short and its appeal is more for the observation area than the trail itself.
The Money Pond Trail eventually led me back to the lighthouse after about 45 minutes or so. Apparently, the trail's official entrance is on the main road just a quick walk northwest of the lighthouse, but I didn't realize it. I wasn't sure when I'd next make the haul out to Montauk – and when I do, I'll likely hike Camp Hero – so I figured I might as well explore the trails again since it was still mid afternoon. I then set my iPod to play John Petrucci's 2005 solo album, Suspended Animation, and off I went to re-enjoy the incredible riches of Money Pond Trail.
When I left later in the day, I felt refreshed. I remembered that my last visit to Montauk took place amid a personal low point in 2012, when I hopped in my car and just kept driving in an effort to clear my head for a day. Thankfully, those memories have now been washed away. Montauk now brings a sense of peace. I've come full circle. Or in trail terms, I've looped. ;)
Video: Montauk Point State Park (360-degree view)
Video: Montauk Point State Park (360-degree view)