Despite its reputation as one of the Eastern seaboard must-see’s, Montauk successfully works to preserve its old-world charm as a fishing village and a sanctuary of natural beauty.
Next time you’re driving east on Old Montauk Highway, watch for its wonderful ‘reveal’ moment. Right before you reach Montauk town proper — after driving nearly 10 miles along a solitary, winding road, surrounded by sand dunes and trees on either side — you’ll abruptly reach the crest of one last hill. It’s there. The horizon suddenly opens completely and reveals the ocean and bay all around.
It is not a banal reveal; it’s dramatic to the point that it hits me in the stomach and I can never resist saying or thinking “look at the ocean!” as if it’s my first time every time. Even on the coldest and harshest of winter days, this view – this grand reveal – gives all the warm, sunny-summer feels and instantly creates my personal happiness.
As you pass through town and continue the trek east to Montauk Point State Park, it becomes clear how appropriate Montauk’s tagline is: The End of the World. Marked by a lighthouse originally built in 1860, there’s no mistaking when you’ve reached “The End.” This stunning perch sits at the absolute tip of Long Island, a focal part of what looks like a giant crab claw extending into the Atlantic Ocean all the way from New York City. With surrounding views of the ocean intertwined with Block Island Sound, you’re jettisoned into open water and blue horizon. It’s utterly awe-inspiring.
Montauk exists under the umbrella that is The Hamptons, which tends to conjure images of high-priced summer beach getaways, celebrity galas, and an endless stream of weekend traffic. But don’t be mistaken; unlike some of its more famous neighbors, Montauk successfully works to preserve its old-world charm as a fishing village and a sanctuary of natural beauty. If you look at a map of eastern Long Island, you’ll notice that just east of Amagansett – the last foothold of East Hampton before the trek to Montauk begins – sits South Fork, a territory that encompasses Montauk and is comprised of nearly 65 percent preserved land. With nearly two-thirds of its real estate preserved as park, the town’s dedication to beauty and conservation is on constant display.
I have lived in this easternmost part of Long Island with my husband and 4-year-old son for the last two years. As transplants from Brooklyn, we’ve found the differences in lifestyle patently obvious. But one unexpected surprise is our newfound connection to the natural rhythms that move one season to the next.
September is my favorite month in Montauk. It’s certainly not immune to summer tourists, but in September, the crowds have gone home, the weather remains warm and welcoming, and the typically sunny days continue. Farmers’ markets remain open, each selling a bounty of fruits, vegetables, and sunflowers as they reach their peak.
In the past, winter was a dreaded time filled with cold and added anxiety. But here in The End of the World, to use a Scandinavian slogan from our son’s school — “there is no bad weather, just bad gear.” Not only have we come to love the tranquility of winter, but we now spend a large amount of our time outdoors during the winter months.
Regardless of season, it’s always my favorite time to head closer to Amagansett to visit Napeague State Park and dedicate a day to wandering through the wild landscape. Napeague Pond, nestled next to Napeague Harbor and Bay, is surrounded by a marshland teeming with birds and wildlife, a large part of which exists thanks to New York state’s strong and consistent dedication to conservation.
This whole easternmost part of Long Island, including Montauk, Napeague and the other surrounding state parks, are part of what’s called The Peconic Estuary. According to The Nature Conservancy, this estuary and its watershed have been identified as “one of the Nature Conservancy’s ‘Last Great Places’ in the western hemisphere.” Over 90 separate areas have been designated as significant coastal fish and wildlife habitats by the New York Department of State. The estuary provides feeding habitats as well as spawning and nursery grounds to a wide variety of aquatic and terrestrial species.” The wildlife is so healthy and abundant that it’s not unusual to catch sight of red fox, wild turkey, red-tailed hawks, many bunnies, perhaps too many deer, and even tortoises on any drive.
To truly know Montauk is to explore this entire wild area. At the tip of Napeague is Lazy Point, a place where you’ll better appreciate any friend or acquaintance with a boat, as this spot is best viewed from the water. (Fear not if you and your friends are boat-less; you’re not out of luck.) Simply staring out across the harbor from your car is calming and beautiful enough.
On the other side of Napeague Harbor is Walking Dunes, located in Hither Hills State Park. I personally think the signposted trailhead says it best — “These 80’ tall dunes ‘walk’ 3.5′ each year as strong prevailing winds forever shift the sands. Enjoy views from above the forest canopy before descending into the wind tunnel, through the phantom forest, and past a native cranberry bog.” It’s pretty rare for a smaller state park to offer such a rich description of a hike, let alone one that harkens to the plot of “The Princess Bride.”
Hither Hills also offers one of the few camping options available in the Hamptons, and only one of two in Montauk. But camper beware: because it affords a place to sleep under the stars, with the only thing separating you from direct Atlantic Ocean beach access being a few dunes, you usually have to book these sites a year in advance.
As you advance east again, away from Hither Hills to Montauk proper and back along the winding solitary road known as 27, the coastline transforms from soft sprawling dunes to sharp coastal bluff line. Just past Montauk town you’ll find the cliffs of Shadamoor State Park, legendary for its incredible cliff formations known as Hoodoo. Created from eroded sandstone and limestone, Hoodoo singlehandedly transforms the edges of cliffs into sculptural marvels that define Hoodoo’s Montauk’s unique beauty.
Further east, past the properties of photographer Peter Beard and one-time resident Andy Warhol, is the state park most steeped in mystery and controversy — Camp Hero. This park is comprised of maze-like trails that weave on and off the coastline and all around the abandoned structures shrouded in historic tales of WWII. With most of its stories and original uses still unknown, you just might uncover answers to some of America’s most hidden secrets by simply going for a hike.
Continue further east and you’ll be back at the iconic white and red lighthouse which, while opened in the nineteenth century, is actually still in use today. If you’re buddies with a local, make sure to take full advantage of their beach pass, which will grant you access to the dunes and some of the best surfing in the Hamptons. If that’s not an option, the lighthouse offers tickets to the surrounding Montauk Point State Park where walking along the cliffs is highly encouraged. These cliffs, dramatic yet easy to climb through, come complete with driftwood, and usually offer good beachcombing treasures to those with a sharp eye.
Montauk sits on sand swirled by an enchanting mixture of light brown and pockets of bright purple, created from a concentration of finely ground, purple-hued clamshells. To the local Shinnecock Nation, this purple sandy mix is known as wampum shells.
Walking across the wampum shells feels mythical, almost as if the beach is hiding fairies in its cliffs. If you walk far enough, around the bend that supports the lighthouse, you may even catch sight of a sunbathing seal. Seals are making a large – and adorable – comeback on Long Island, great for exploring eyes as well as the increasing Great White shark population. The island’s dedication to conservation doesn’t end with land lines; there’s even a large white shark nursery east of the lighthouse. So if cage diving is your thing, Montauk has you covered.
Your days will be full when wandering this beautiful land. And, in what may be the most special way to complete your exploration of “The End,” this city transplant recommends viewing a moonrise over the ocean. You’ll never forget that moon or that night in Montauk.
Lead image by Jessie Kanelos Weiner.