Location: Smithtown, NY
Size: 543 acres
Date of hike: Dec. 7, 2014
I've had Caleb Smith State Park Preserve on my to-do list – or rather my to-hike list – for a few months now. I passed through part of the park when I hiked the Long Island Greenbelt Trail, a 34-mile trail spanning north-to-south across Long Island, in September. The small section of the preserve that I experienced had really left an impact on me, and I told myself I'd revisit before the year's end. Well, with early December upon us, that left just a few weeks to hold true to my word. So, with the sun brightly shining, I decided this was as good a day as any.
For starters, Caleb Smith State Park Preserve is one of only four state nature preserves on Long Island. The land was originally part of the estate of Caleb Smith, who passed away in 1800 and was a great grandson of Richard "Bull" Smythe, according to the Friends of Caleb Smith Preserve's website. For those wondering, Smith worked as a judge with the Court of Common Pleas of Suffolk County and was part of the State Assembly. He built the house, which now operates as a nature museum, with his father in 1753 and "much of the original house still stands within the present building although it has undergone many renovations," the website said. The Brooklyn Gun Club purchased the property in 1888 and converted it into a hunting and fishing preserve, renaming it a few years later to the "Wyandanch Club." The property was acquired by the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation in 1963 and was later added to the National Register of Historic Place in 1990.
The preserve's entrance is located on one of Long Island's busiest roads: Jericho Turnpike. It’s one of those parks that thousands of people probably pass every day without a glance. In fact, when I pulled in there were only three other cars in the parking lot during the early afternoon, but I was happy to have the entire preserve to myself on such an amazing day. After parking, I snatched my backpack and strolled over to an adjacent kiosk in hopes of familiarizing myself with the trail options and park layout. There were no maps on display, but a sign said they were available in the park museum. Later, I learned a detailed map is linked on the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation & Historic Preservation's website. It showed a whopping nine trails within the preserve, ranging from 0.2 to 2.5 miles in length, which might be the most I've seen in one park. My goal was to cover as much as possible.
My first stop was Willow Pond, which is just a stone's throw from the preserve's parking lot. A young family was posing for holiday pics on the pond's shore, while dozens of geese and swans floated behind them. Next, I visited the Caleb Smith House, aka the nature museum, which gives a complete history of the preserve and its surrounding areas. The museum had everything from an impressive carving of Chief Wyandanch, who is a key figure in the history of Smithtown and Long Island, to a three-dimensional display of the preserve's property and landmarks. There was also an array of taxidermy pieces showcasing the preserve's wildlife, which includes everything from great blue herons to red fox to flying squirrels. As for plants, the preserve features everything from pink lady's slippers to trailing arbutus to Indian pipes.
Next, I began my hike. This was one of those days when I chose to just wander aimlessly, which has its pros and cons. The trails were well-marked with arrows everywhere, but they intersected so much it was a little disorienting. Fortunately, I found a discarded map in the gazebo close to Willow Pond. The longest trail is the preserve's section of the Long Island Greenbelt Trail, which is 2.5 miles, followed by the purple trail at 1.5 miles. There are also two cross-country ski trails, which are the 1.5-mile green trail and the 0.9-mile orange trail. The only other paths a mile in length are the red and yellow, which are 1.3 miles and one mile, respectively. The blue, brown and pink trails range from 0.2 to 0.9 miles in length.
One thing I observed in the preserve was the large number of bird feeders and bird houses. They put me in the mood for Chroma Key's 1998 album Dead Air For Radios, which has a silhouette of a bird being targeted over a backdrop of the sun as the album's cover artwork. Chroma Key is the work of Kevin Moore, who is the original keyboardist for Dream Theater. Those who know me well are aware I am the creator of The Mooreatorium, an unofficial fan community for Moore. But oddly, I hadn’t listened to his tunes in some time. Today, I did. And it felt like I was listening to my soul. I feel his music so deeply it's like a part of me.
I ultimately found myself back at the park's pond after hours of wandering. It was still early, so I chose to explore the preserve a second time. To my delight, the red trail took me past an antlered deer, which incidentally was the first I'd seen all year. Whenever a deer appears, I find myself challenging it to a staring contest. I'll look it right in the eye until it looks away. The red trail also passes a BOCES area featuring a man-made hut and hand-carved canoe.
Although I spent several hours in Caleb Smith, part of me feels like there's more to explore. The only trail I completed in its entirety was the red. I hiked about two-thirds of the others, but not every nook and cranny. And this park was so beautiful, I want to see every cranny.