February 2024: Elizabeth A. Morton National Wildlife Refuge

12 for 12! This month, we’ve gone way out to the East End to visit one of Long Island’s several National Wildlife Refuges – the Elizabeth A. Morton National Wildlife Refuge!

This refuge features a nice array of habitats, from hardwood forests, to grasslands, to the Peconic Bay itself! It’s a much shorter trail than last month’s and is easily completed in under an hour if you don’t take your time. But why wouldn’t you? This is a beautiful place that is easy to get lost in. Metaphorically, that is. Literally, you should stay on the trails.

Now, the first thing to note about some of the national wildlife refuges is that you need to pay to access them. If you go three or four times a year, an annual pass will probably be worthwhile. This is especially true considering that Long Island is home to eight National Wildlife Refuges, including Elizabeth A., Wertheim, and Target Rock. If you’re truly opposed to buying the pass, there are also some free days, with the next one scheduled for Juneteenth (June 19).

Once you’ve made it all the way out to Noyack, you’ll find yourself in a fairly small parking lot that can fill up quite quickly in the summer months. Even now, on a cold winter morning, there were half a dozen cars parked when I arrived. Elizabeth A. Morton is fortunately equipped with proper restroom facilities. Those of you, like myself, who’ve visited the park for many years will know that that wasn’t always the case.

From the restrooms, it’s pretty much a straight shot from the parking lot to the beach. The dirt path is nice and wide, which is immeasurably important if you’re terrified of ticks. From the bathrooms to the beach, the trail is about a mile, and there are numerous benches along the main trail if you need to rest. On the way, you’ll see all manner of birds, from woodpeckers, to chickadees, to tufted titmice and more. And, for mammal lovers, the refuge is frequented by squirrels, deer, and chipmunks.

While the trail is perfectly optimized for the tick-averse among us, it doesn’t rank among the easiest walks on Long Island, though neither is it the hardest. The dirt path is uneven underfoot, and gnarled tree roots are always threatening to trip you, so watch your step! Often, the trail will rise and fall, though once you near the beach, it flattens out, and the walk becomes much easier.

The first thing you’ll see when you make it to the beach is an observation deck where you can sit down, relax, and look all around at Peconic Bay. During the winter, the Bay is frequented by various waterfowl, though on this visit I only saw a gull and a loon. If you can handle the blistering bay winds, then you might be inclined to walk the whole length of the beach. During the summer, most of this area is closed off to protect the area’s Piping Plover population, so there’s something new to explore even if you’ve already visited this park in the warmer months.

At the start of your hike and about halfway through, you’ll notice secondary trails that lead off into different parts of the woods. This secondary loop is about half a mile long and will take you nearer than ever to the refuge’s grasslands, as well as to a lovely little pond tucked away in the heart of the woods. The loop is a more difficult hike than the main trail, with a steep change in elevation at the entrance closer to the beach, and fewer benches. However, there’s a second observation deck at the pond, and a few recently repaired boardwalks over some of the most treacherous ground.

In short, if you’re an East End resident, there’s little reason for you not to visit one of the area’s most beautiful locations. And if you’re not from the East End, but have made the trip out there, then be sure to stop by!

By Travis Cutter, Long Island Pine Barrens Society