Suburban Trails

Finding my way by walking and mapping the local trail system

Photo by the author

I recently walked the Long Island Greenbelt Trail, a 35 mile hike from the north shore (the Sound) to the south shore (the Bay) of Long Island, New York, documenting and creating maps.

Map by the author

My goal was to see how the natural places on Long Island connect from north to south, to piece them together like a quilt connected by threads, and find the extent of what’s left of the wild places on this route. I walked this path in three parts: over three Saturdays in May 2021, mapping the terrain by foot. I then created digital maps to locate my path and illustrate its conditions.

Map by the author

Background

I grew up on Long Island and have lived here almost my whole life, though I’ve traveled far from home many times, always returning. As a young adult, as I branched out away from home, I began to see the place for what it was, learning about its problematic origins- from colonization to discriminatory red-lining of neighborhoods. I witnessed the dawn of McMansions, the toxicity of the suburban lawn, the pesticides seeping into our aquifer- that precious bubble of fresh water under our island which is our only source of drinking water. I watched forest after forest cut down, the last tracts of wild land in our town razed, and gated communities springing up in their place.

Forlorn and confused by my new understanding of home, I moved to New York City, though I never quite left the island, with an apartment in Queens. I still had access to the Long Island Rail Road, to home. Somewhat reluctantly, I moved back after five years so my kids could grow up closer to family. Now with two kids, I put nature education as a priority. For years we have been hiking and have discovered parks, beaches, forests all over long island. Hidden gems are everywhere.

Poring over maps, I began to see how many of the separate places we hiked were actually connected by water. I dug into the history of these places as well. The damming of the Nissequogue River headwaters in the early 1800s led to the creation of Stump Pond at Blydenburgh Park, now the second largest lake on Long Island.

Other seemingly disparate parks started to feel more connected upon studying the map- the view from above. On the north shore, near St. James, Short Beach is almost accessible from Kings Park Bluff when the tide is low on the Nissequogue River; one could potentially swim across or easily kayak. But to drive from the Bluff to the Beach would take more than twenty minutes, so, being a suburban culture reliant on cars, our perception of this singular, connected place is that it is actually two distant and distinct places when it is not.

Similarly, the Bayard Cutting Arboretum — with its highly manicured grounds and almost exotic species on display — seems to exist as an isolated formal garden. In fact, it is connected by the Connetquot River between two large state parks on the south shore.

I had already walked these and other parts of the Greenbelt Trail, but had never physically connected other parts on foot. Recently my urge to walk the full Greenbelt Trail, alone, connecting the natural places resurfaced. I had collected maps: a paper one mailed to me on request, the AllTrails app with separate maps for different sections of the trail, and Google Maps. I also used the Strava app to track my walks and give me some basic data like mileage and elevation. One early morning I decided to be spontaneous, so without any training, I packed a lunch, water, sunscreen and bugspray and drove to my starting point at the north shore.

Map created by the author

PART 1: Sunken Meadow State Park → Caleb Smith State Park, 11 miles

Photo by the author: Rocky shoreline, wetlands and hills at the start of my walk at Sunken Meadow

That first day I walked the first 11 (of 35) miles of the Long Island Greenbelt Trail, starting at the north shore- Sunken Meadow State Park- a calm, rocky beach of dark blue waters (the Long Island Sound) across from which you can see Connecticut in the distance. The land of the north shore— the terminal (or end) moraine — was formed by the second “pause” in the receding glacier that formed Long Island 22,000 years ago, creating a rocky edge of hills and bluffs. In this location, the beach is sand and pebbles.

Turning inland from the beach, the trail mostly follows the Nissequogue River through beautiful, varied landscape. The vegetation shifts from sandy wetland grasses to deciduous woodland forest, and combinations of both. I saw mussels clinging to grass roots, tiny crabs digging homes in the sand, white egrets on the water, redwing blackbirds in the black walnut and oak trees. This ecology is familiar to me, having spent time in these parts often with my children who dawdle and wonder at tiny things and climb rocks.

About 6 miles in, the nature trail along the Nissequogue River ended at a golf course. On the paper map, there was an indication of a not-yet-built future trail that continued along the river, so this was the start of 2.5 miles of walking on the road.

Photo collage by the author

My feet were already tired, so walking on the pavement was unpleasant, until I picked up the trail through the woods into Sweetbriar Nature Center. I had walked 9 miles and I was determined to get to Caleb Smith State Park. I followed the trail through woods, a little residential and more woods. Then I crossed Route 25A, went around the Smithtown Bull statue, under the train trestle and picked up the path in Caleb Smith State Park, entering through a chain link gate. I was quite exhausted towards the end but I treated myself to a bar of dark chocolate and it gave me energy. My kids and husband were waiting in the park with open arms and snacks.

DAY 2: Caleb Smith State Park → Lakeland County Park, 13 miles

Photo collage by the author

The next Saturday I hiked another 13 miles of the Long Island Greenbelt Trail, starting where I had left off at Caleb Smith into Blydenburg Park, then through many in-between, still protected, but encroached upon natural places, under the Long Island Expressway and ending (for me) at Lakeland County Park.

This section of the Greenbelt had the most disconnected nature, as I expected. The island itself is densely suburban here, with arterial roads that create hard boundaries for both wildlife and human communities. At numerous points, the trail continued behind suburban developments, strip malls and golf courses. I crossed busy streets that I often drive down, the trail disappearing behind me. Strangely, the natural spaces became the in-between, overtaken by the built environment surrounding it.

The weather was hot, 85 degrees and humid, though I felt very comfortable being on the trail, in the shady woods. The path propelled me forward. I now know that I can walk 13 miles with very little: 2 bottles of water were essential, but I didn’t get very hungry. My cheap but relatively comfy sneakers were sufficient as the land is not too rocky.

The middle section of the island is the least impressive nature-wise, and least traveled. I did not see anyone on these trails, though I passed evidence of people: piles of detritus, an old comforter, a makeshift firepit with some discarded food containers. Many parts of the trail bordered on the backs of neighborhoods, with piles of landscaping waste dumped and decaying in the forest. The hum and whir of the expressway was always present. As I walked I heard backyard barbeques, music, leaf blowers, construction noise and chainsaws. I passed behind a strip mall and smelled the odors of cooking and passed a horse rescue farm with its distinctive smell.

Photo by the author

As I walked, I remarked to myself that among all this modern suburban life, I had not seen a living person, when suddenly, a family of four in bathing suits and towels around their shoulders crossed my path in the woods, yards away. They hadn’t seen me. As I approached the spot they had crossed, I saw that on either side of the trail were steps leading to gates, behind which were houses. From the house they had come from, there was an in-ground swimming pool. Perhaps they had been at their friend’s house and were heading home. It was certainly an unusual path from one house to another.

Another time, the path snaked behind a new gated community of townhouses. I was not walking from north to south anymore, the greenbelt shifting miles to the east, snaking around the real estate. Between the trail and the fence that bordered the townhouses and their bright green sod lawn was a short expanse of trees and brush. I found here a teepee, constructed of fallen trees, twigs and pine boughs. A sign hung over the entrance, “Fort Benny”, with three tree stumps inside for sitting on. I sat inside, thinking about Benny, whomever he was. My view from the teepee was through a clearing leading to one of the townhouses. A family had carved out a little spot in the woods on the trail, claimed it, created a bit of shelter, a respite, and left it for others to enjoy. I was grateful, for I had walked many miles with no bench to rest on and have a bite to eat.

At one point I was dismayed to find that the trail clung closely to a chainlink fence, on the other side of which was a golf course. The fence was topped with rows of barbed wire. Then the greenbelt narrowed to about ten feet, with fences on either side- golf course on one, and residential development on the other. The trail, amongst trees, poison ivy and other invasive plants, was relegated to this narrow space, somehow surviving the encroaching development. Examining the map, I discovered this is where there is a change in township- from Smithtown to Islip.

Photo by the author: the trail narrows between residential development and a golf course

Sometimes I would exit the forest, follow the white trail blazes, now on telephone poles instead of trees, and walk on the street through a neighborhood. The blazes never failed me, always leading me to the next unassuming entrance to the trail, sometimes through a chainlink fence gate with signage about the greenbelt, ticks, and a reminder to close the gate.

Unceremoniously, I crossed under the Long Island Expressway, which runs the length of the island approximately midway, roughly at the line of the Ronkonkoma moraine where the glacier that formed Long Island paused, depositing rock and gravel forming the island’s highest elevations.

It had been a long, hot day of walking on both hard and soft landscape, sometimes in nature, listening to frogs croaking in a bog, and other times walking under power transmission lines in the hot sun. While not entirely unpleasant, I had certainly experienced what I had expected with the path — though technically continuous — quite chopped up.

Day 3: Lakeland County Park → Hecksher State Park, 11 miles

Photo collage by the author

It rained hard all day on the third Saturday, but I walked the last 11 miles of the Greenbelt Trail anyway. I stayed dry and warm with good rain gear and a thermos of tea, and hardly saw anyone on the trail all day. This leg was almost entirely in nature with only a few street crossings and a low passages under Sunrise Highway.

The land here is extremely flat, surely in the danger zone of flooding in extreme weather events, and sea level rise due to climate change. Long Island was formed by a glacial ice sheet that came down from the arctic, and then receded during the last ice age, depositing gravel, rock and sediment, and forming our land. The south shore was left very flat, a sandy outwash plain with soft sandy beaches and a dynamic coastline that shifts in response to coastal wind, waves and tides. Beyond, across the Bay, Fire Island, a barrier island, protects the south shore from the forces of the Atlantic Ocean. Much of the south shore has been taken over by development, high-end residences and tourism, but stretches of unique, biodiverse coastline are still protected.

As it was raining and cold, I saw almost no one on this walk. About five miles of the path went through Connetquot State Park, whose signage reads “a bit of Long Island, the way it used to be”. Upon leaving the park, I walked along Sunrise Highway on the bike path until the highway became a bridge crossing headwaters of the Connetquot River at West Brook Pond. I took the metal grate stairs down towards the water, then the grate path turned and continued under the highway. The height was only about 4', so I had to duck down as I crossed under.

I was back in the shifting watery landscape of wetlands and forest, made especially wet from the rain. The trails here were often large puddles. I passed along the outside of the Bayard Cutting Arboretum, which I was disappointed to discover was not part of the trail, though I did notice more variety of wildflowers in this area.

I walked the wide trail between Hecksher State Parkway and houses with big backyards, noticing how open and flat the land was becoming. I entered Hecksher State Park and completed the last couple of miles through strikingly picturesque wetlands. As I walked on a narrow boardwalk, I slowed to savor the last moments of this journey. I saw a large turtle just off the path. I considered that I was crossing through this animal’s (and others’) dwindling habitat.

Photo and index card sketch map by the author

I could hear the low crashing of waves of the Great South Bay as I approached through the tall grasses, and trees that appeared dead- dark craggy trunks and branches without any leaves in late May. I wondered if they were dying from salt water intrusion, as is the case in some coastal areas where sea levels are rising, creating “ghost forests”. I touched the water as I had done at my starting point, and remembered that all the water is connected.

There is still a lot to discover about my home geography. I believe mapping — by foot, on paper and digitally — can help protect our natural places by tracing the layers and continuity of our paths.

Photo by the author
Selfie by the author: at the end of the Greenbelt trail

Living on Long Island but my mind is elsewhere.