Bayard Cutting Arboretum 

Location: Great River, NY 

Size: 691 acres 

Date of hike: Dec. 15, 2018

The Bayard Cutting Arboretum is the first arboretum I've visited on Long Island.  For those who don't know, an arboretum is a botanical garden devoted to trees.  But, in addition to its trees, this arboretum's biggest attraction for me is the Connetquot River, a six-mile waterway that's at its widest as it flows alongside the arboretum toward Nicoll Bay.  Having spent parts of my childhood exploring the picturesque river within Lakeland County Park and Connetquot River State Park Preserve, it was finally time to experience the river's section within Bayard.

My pre-hike research told me the property was purchased by a man named William Bayard Cutting in 1881 and includes a mansion as well as the site's beautiful arboretum, which was designed in 1886, according to the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation's website.  The mansion, called "Westbrook," was modeled after a Tudor-style English country house and contains large oak furniture pieces, stained-glass windows and imported fireplaces, among other things.  "The estate mansion is maintained in its original style with furnishings typical of the estate era," the website said.  In 1936, Bayard Cutting's daughter gifted 200 acres of the estate to the Long Island State Park Commission with the stipulation that she and her mother keep use of the land as long as either of them are alive.  The property was officially opened to the public in 1954 and was later listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.  Today, the park is intended to offer an "oasis of beauty and quiet for the pleasure, rest and refreshment of those who take delight in outdoor beauty," according to the Bayard's official website.  It also defined the arboretum as a "passive park," with pets and activities such as biking, picnicking, sports, bathing and games not permitted.

The arboretum's entrance is located on the south side of Montauk Highway (NY Route 27A), just east of Connetquot Avenue.  There's an $8 vehicle fee from April through November, and the hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. from April through October and 10 a.m.-4 p.m. from November through March.  It's closed on Mondays.  The parking lot is big enough for a few dozen cars, but it was relatively empty on this day aside from a group of people attending a formal event inside the impressive Manor House.  Although I didn't take a guided tour, which is available seasonally, I did explore the house's first floor – including a café with stunning views of the Connetquot River.  In addition, a retrospective photo exhibit inside the mansion shows that Westbrook was "once a well-known dairy farm that produced glass-bottled milk for sale in local markets," according to the state's website, which also noted that one of the estate's original barns remains in the park's farm area.  "It's a wonderful place to relax, read a book, and experience the peace and serenity of estate living in the 1920s and '30s," the site said.

After enjoying the view from a comfortable chair behind the mansion, I hit up the River Walk that is parallel to the Connetquot River.  "The Connetquot is part of the South Shore Estuary Reserve, a system of interconnected rivers, streams, wetlands and bays," said one of many signs scattered along the walk.  "Underground springs feed the river with a constant supply of cool, clean and fresh water."  The river is described as being "brackish and fairly shallow," having a depth of "two to four feet," and getting its name from an Indian word that means a "great or wide body of water," according to signs.  There's also a 110-room mansion across the river that was once part of William Kissam Vanderbilt's "Idle Hour" estate, as well as a portion of river on the Vanderbilt side that was once dredged to accommodate the family's large steam yacht.  Apparently, the mansion would change hands many times until 1963, when Adelphi Suffolk College purchased it and named it "Dowling College," a sign said.

Other cool spots in the arboretum are Paradise Island and Breezy Island, which are located on opposite ends of the River WalkUnfortunately, Paradise Island was temporarily closed during my visit due to a recent eagle's nest, but a sign said that a bridge to the island was built in the late 1800s with local locust trees so it would blend with its natural environment.  "At 250 feet long and 20 feet wide, the bridge had ample room for a horse-drawn carriage," the sign said.  "In later years, Mrs. Cutting drove her electric car across the bridge to have lunch at the South Side Sportsmen's Club."  The bridge was dismantled in the early 1960s, but the remains can still be seen at low tide.  Meanwhile, Breezy Island was created using the soil dredged to accommodate the Vanderbilt's yacht and a rustic structure was added where Mrs. Cutting would take tea.  The structure was razed in 1965 and rebuilt in 2017.

Now let's talk trees.  From what I read, much of Bayard Cutting's original conifer collection was lost as a result of Hurricane Gloria in 1985, but due to subsequent plantings the park's current collections of fir, spruce, pine, cypress, hemlock, yew and lesser-known conifer are "still probably the most extensive to be found on Long Island," the arboretum's website said.  "Contained within the collection are several trees which, regionally, are among the largest of their species."  Also found throughout the property are extensive plantings of trees such as dwarf evergreens, rhododendrons, azaleas, hollies and oaks.  In addition, most of the trees are labelled so that visitors can learn how they might appear at home, the state's site said.

With regard to fish, you'll find everything from striped bass to white perch to eels.  The river's fresh water end can also contain an occasional trout that escaped from the Connetquot River State Park Preserve, where there is a large trout hatchery, a sign said.  With regard to birds, you'll see everything from buffleheads to egrets to herons.  Ospreys also return to breed and raise their young every March.  "They seek out the same nest used in past years and repair it to have a head start on raising their young," a sign said.  "During the spring and summers, osprey parents raise two or three chicks, feeding them fish caught in the Connetquot River."

Other important facts are that the arboretum's farm produces over 150 varieties of vegetables and berries and also grows culinary herbs and flowers, while some 150 hens provide eggs to members of the park's Community Supported Agriculture programs, according to Wikipedia.  Also, a permit is required for all posed photography – including wedding photography, family photos and engagement photos.  The fee is $100 for an hour-and-a-half session during park hours and permits must be obtained before the event date, according to the state's website.

In closing, I'd say that Bayard Cutting Arboretum is a must-see spot for all outdoor lovers on Long Island.  It has everything from hiking to history to horticulture packed into one location.  Plus, the River Walk is the perfect way to experience the splendor of the Connetquot River.  And, of course, there's the beautiful trees.  After all, what's an arboretum without its trees?

Video: Bayard Cutting Arboretum (360-degree view)

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