Robert Cushman Murphy County Park  

Location: Calverton/Manorville, NY

Size: 2,200 acres

Date of hike: Dec. 27-30, 2016

Robert Cushman Murphy County Park is one of the most confusing, yet rewarding, parks I've visited on Long Island.  Confusing because the park doesn't seem to have a main entrance as far as I can tell, and rewarding because there are some truly breathtaking spots scattered throughout it.  But we'll get to both topics in a bit. 

For starters, I should note I first tried to hike Robert Cushman Murphy County Park in 2015, but I couldn't find the entrance despite following the directions posted on the Suffolk County Parks Department's website.  That day, I ended up hiking nearby Calverton Ponds Preserve, which I absolutely adoredBut this time, I was determined to find Robert Cushman Murphy.  The website said to take the Long Island Expressway to Exit 70 and then County Road 111 south onto Halsey Manor Road, which you take north until it becomes Connecticut Avenue.  From there, you turn left onto River Road and left again onto Old River Road.  The entrance would then be on your right (on the north side of the road), the website said.  Unfortunately, there was nothing there.  I even called the Suffolk County Parks Department, but they were only able to recite the directions I read online.  Luckily, another dirt road entry was located along Middle County Road, almost directly opposite of a paved road called Panamoka Trail, according to an NY-NJ-CT Botany website.  This alternate entrance was easy as pie to find.  I parked across the street by a neighborhood deli and then disappeared into the wilderness.

Before exploring, I conducted some pre-hike research to familiarize myself with the history and habitats of Robert Cushman Murphy County Park.  Apparently, this park is considered the first natural park in Suffolk County, according to the county's website.  It's comprised of rare coastal plain pond-shore habitats that are situated within the Peconic River Watershed.  Hunting is permitted seasonally in areas of the park and is managed by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. 
Plant life ranges from white oak to pitch pine to red maple trees, sea life ranges from blue gills to pumpkinseed sunfish to large mouth bass, and bird life ranges from tree swallows to chipping sparrows to red-tailed hawks.  In addition, I researched the man for whom the park was named: Robert Cushman Murphy.  Prior to his death in 1973, he was an ornithologist and bird curator at the American Museum of Natural History, according to Stony Brook University.  He was also the author of over 600 scientific articles and has a school named after him in East Setauket.  Quite an impressive resume!  

The dirt road entry on Middle Country Road is located in the park's northwesternmost point.  If you view the park on Google Maps, you'll see that it has very strange shape, so I knew it would be challenging to cover every nook and cranny.  Therefore, I decided to take my time and divide the park into three sections that I'd hike over three days on my Christmas break.  The first section would be the land west of Schultz Road, the second section would be the land between Schultz Road and Wading River Manor Road (and North Street to the south), and the third section would be the land between Old River Road and Connecticut Avenue.  Using my geocaching app's map as a guide, I noticed the first section includes a string of ponds with fun names such as Peasys, Sandy and Grassy.  Sadly, they were all dried up, leaving a string of enormous open spaces where the app said the water would usually be.  Nevertheless, I couldn't help but imagine what the ponds were once like in their heyday.

It didn't take long to notice white markers, which I learned represents the Pine Barrens Trail, a 47-mile route from Rocky Point to Hampton Bays.  I followed the markers as they skirted some of the aforementioned ponds and continued into the core of the majestic pine barrens.  Some pines were charred or uprooted, as if a forest fire had recently swept through the areaI felt like an Olympic hurdler as I hopped over the fallen trees.  Eventually, the trail led me to my favorite part of the park, where dozens of toppled and twisted trees were scattered about like a jumbo version of pick-up sticks.  The destruction was so great I wondered if a tornado had hit the area.  To further set the scene, a grayish rain cloud ominously lingered overhead.  It was pretty and creepy all at once.  I also stumbled across a large number of empty shells (gun shells, not sea shells), but I didn't glimpse any actual hunters despite the nice weather.

The next day I parked on the side of Schultz Road, set to explore the park's second section.  The Pine Barrens Trail cut right through this section west to east (or east to west depending on which direction you're heading).  I started by hiking the trail to Wading River Manor Road, which led to a big bull statue located on adjacent farmland.  I couldn't help but hike as close as I could to the unique piece.  Then I backtracked and followed a handful of small trails that branched off the main one.  I must say, parks like this one are the reason I describe hikes in acres, as opposed to trail lengths.  Of course, I'll mention the trail lengths if they're listed on the park's website or trail map.  But otherwise, my hiking habit is to just get lost and ramble, so it can sometimes be hard to gauge the distances or directions I've traveled during a hike.

It rained the third day, so I returned two days later for the final section.  I started continuing east on the Pine Barrens Trail at the intersection of Wading River Manor Road, River Road and David Terry Road.  The trail ran parallel to the Peconic River until it hit a railroad track.  From there, my GPS indicated the trail left the park, so I retreated.  It seemed as if there weren't continuous trails in this third section, just a handful of random roadside entrances, meaning I found myself frequently returning to my jeep once the trails faded out to drive to the next opening.  The highlights consisted of Swan Pond, a dilapidated graffiti-filled shed, and a weird-looking obsolete wooden contraption of some sort that I couldn't quite identify.

My music of choice was a mix of my favorite albums of 2016.  I started with Haken's Affinity, which was my favorite album this year, then went to Evergrey's The Storm Within and Fates Warning's Theories of Flight, which were my second and third favorite releases, respectively.  Ironically, the cover artwork of all three albums feature images of multiple birds taking flight, which says something about the type of tunes I connected with this year.  I also listened to some other favorites from this year including Redemption's The Art of Loss and DGM's The Passage.  It was fun reflecting on the completed year with these albums as a soundtrack.

In conclusion, despite its slightly confusing layout and lack of a well-marked main entrance, Robert Cushman Murphy County Park is a place all local hikers should visit at some pointAfter all, it is the county's first natural park.  Just make sure to come equipped with GPS.  And, most importantly, don't forget to wear bright-colored clothing if it's hunting season! 

Video: Robert Cushman Murphy County Park (360-degree view)

1 comment:

  1. Sounds a typical Long Island park - trails that peter out, hunters galore, burnt trees, no signage.