Introduction to Hither Woods
At the western end of the Montauk peninsula, from the first hills after Napeague - which the Montaukett Indians called Nominicks - there rises high forested ground, which extends east almost to Fort Pond. This is Hither Woods. The land it occupies is mostly glacial moraine, a mixture of knobs and knolls, troughs and kettle holes, riven by glacial meltwater channels which today have names like Rod’s Valley, Great Valley, and Laurel Canyon.
This is the classic oak-hickory forest so typical of Long Island’s South Fork, with a smattering of pitch pines to the west, near Nominicks. Hither Woods sprawls across these hills, a leafy wilderness unfolding from the top of the bluffs on Block Island Sound to the northern border of Montauk Point State Parkway. The Hither Hills and Hither Woods parkland assemblage is the largest contiguous block of open space on the South Fork. The western part of this part of this area, Hither Hills State Park, was purchased by New York State’s first park commissioner, Robert Moses, in 1924. The other major components of the Hither Woods preserved area are Hither Woods State Park, which is actually owned by a consortium of New York State, Suffolk County, and East Hampton Town, acquired in 1986-1987, and Lee Koppelman County Park, purchased in 1988-1989.
Even after 1989, the Hither Woods parkland block continued to grow, mainly by land purchases made by Suffolk County and East Hampton Town. The County bought the 95-acre Laurel Canyon Park and the 30-acre Edward V. Ecker Preserve in 2000. In 2002 East Hampton purchased a 23-acre former sand and gravel mine at Rod’s Valley, on Fort Pond Bay. The seller, William Tintle and his family, completely reshaped, topsoiled, and planted the old sand mine, and rebuilt the World War II-era Hangar Dock, making Rod’s Valley Park one of the most popular places to visit on Montauk. All in all, various public land acquisitions since 1924 have expanded the Hither Woods area into a single magnificent park that comprises, today, some 3,325 acres of preserved land - roughly the size of Gardiner’s Island.
Within this near-wilderness area there is not a single intact building - although there is an operating railroad line, the Long Island Railroad to Montauk. The shoreline facing Block Island Sound and, further east, Fort Pond Bay, runs for seven beautiful, desolate miles - one of the wildest shores on Long Island. Hither Woods contains the highest point of land to be found anywhere in East Hampton Town, 200 feet above sea level. Within Hither Woods are miles and miles of beautiful trails used by hikers, mountain bicyclists, and (when it snows) by cross-country skiers. Hunters also use this vast preserve, mainly for hunting white-tailed deer. Apart from deer, Hither Woods is home to red fox, raccoon, rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks, and wild turkey. Once skunk and coyotes also roamed these woods. Might they return some day?
White, black, and scarlet oaks, and their variants, are the dominant trees in Hither Woods. Near the coast, especially, where winter winds roar into the woods, the older oaks are often squat and misshapen, like gargoyles of the forest. One will also find in Hither Woods groves of American beech, hickory, and mountain laurel. There is a stand of Eastern hophornbeam (Ironwood), rare for East Hampton Town. American holly are scattered about, adding color in wintertime to the mostly deciduous woods. At Ram Level, a relic of the grasslands that were once part of the Hither Woods mosaic, the crimson fruits and red-purple foliage of the shining sumac are a distinguishing feature each fall.
There are not many wetlands in Hither Woods, but what wetlands do exist are noteworthy. In Hither Hills State Park, near the western end of Hither Woods, lies the 34.5-acre Fresh Pond. Secluded in deep woods, not far south of the Block Island Sound coast, Fresh Pond acquired the moniker “Hidden Pond” from newcomers who arrived in Montauk in the 1920s and later. Along the western side of Fresh Pond, abutting the eastern edge of the Walking Dunes, is a spectacular freshwater swamp nearly as large as Fresh Pond itself. Further east, sandwiched between the Long Island Railroad tracks and the sound shoreline, is the little wetland known as Flaggy Hole. Here one can still find cattails in the marsh, not phragmites, as well as the blue iris from which Flaggy Hole takes its name.
History lives in Hither Woods, too. From the 1650s, when the English settlers of East Hampton reached agreement with the local Montaukett Indians to allow the English to pasture livestock in Hither Woods, some of the forest was cleared and used as grazing land, originally for beef cattle and later mainly for sheep. This use continued for some 250 years. Hither Woods was also regularly timbered, with small tracts of land allotted for wood cutting. In the first half of the 20th century a small settlement of lobstermen and trap fishermen grew up around Rocky Point, on the west shore of Fort Pond Bay. The few homes here were occupied until 1956.
There are many ways to explore and enjoy Hither Woods. For hikers and mountain bikers, the Paumanok Path - Long Island’s preeminent hiking trail - courses through Hither Woods for about 10 miles. There are trailheads on Napeague Harbor Road; at the Hither Hills Overlook on Route 27; at a parking lot at East Hampton’s Montauk Recycling Center entrance; and at Rod’s Valley Park at the west end of Navy Road. Freshwater fishing is allowed in Fresh Pond, with a license and using boats with electric motors. Boaters can drive into Fresh Pond along the Old Tar Road, off the north side of Route 27. For hunters, most of Hither Woods is located within a Cooperative Hunting Area administered by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.
Finally, Hither Woods is an area of exceptional scenic beauty. There are numerous elevated viewing spots, mainly around or near the perimeter of the preserve, which offer excellent views of the terrain or the adjoining waters of Block Island Sound or Fort Pond Bay. You can look for these places, which have names like Nominicks Overlook, Water Fence Overlook, the Edward V. Ecker Preserve, and Panorama.
This website also contains photos of Hither Wood specially chosen to show the diversity of this remarkable area’s beauty. Enjoy them!
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© 2023 R.E. Whalen, photos used by permission
All photos ©copyright R.E. Whalen, used by permission
All photos ©copyright R.E. Whalen, used by permission