Imagine sand like a slow motion tsunami covering whole forests and wetlands. Instead of protecting land, dunes moving inland at about 3 1/2 feet a year. At places reaching 80 feet high.
Welcome to The Walking Dunes in Hither Hills State Park in Montauk, NY.
Northwest winds for over 100 years or more have been blowing sand from nearby headlands to the shore and causing the dunes to “walk” across the land.
A 3/4 mile trail leads you in a loop around the northernmost Walking Dune. A guide is available at the start of the trail at the end of Napeague Harbor Road. We followed the trail markers along a path lined with trees and shrubs. I warned my children to keep to the trail and not touch any plants or – as usual – seek sticks as this area is known to have poison ivy.
And then Luce and Theo saw a gap and behind a hill of sand. The pamphlet warns that children will want to run up the sand dune but that we should continue following the trail. But…they were off before I could stop them.
The wind had carved a distinct U shape bowl. Arms of sand extending to the sides. No vegetation able to hold onto the sand in the middle of the U of this parabolic dune.
I finally managed to get them to rejoin me on the marked trail. I explained to them that the few dune plants appearing here needed to be protected from trampling feet.
Back on the trail, on our left were trees being engulfed by sand. On our right was a pine and oak forest.
Slowly the sand was moving across here. Some day these trees will be hidden below the sand.
As well as the freshwater wetlands by the side of the forest. Sweet pepperbush and marsh grasses and sand slowly mixing together. Soon this wetland will be gone as the dune marches on.
These are not bushes (above). They are the tops of trees being buried alive. Some perhaps originally as high as 30 feet. Their roots digging down and down till they reach water.
And then the trail led us up the sand dune.
To the west was Napeague Harbor where I had parked our car.
To the east and south was a towering sand dune walking across a forest.
American beachgrass, fond of shifting sands and high winds, has found roots on the top of these dunes.
At the peak of The Walking Dune I look at the forest below. Someday it will be under sand too.
But while I ponder at the force of nature, my children run in the sand. Even stop to make a sandcastle with a moat.
And then they run down the center of the U where winds blow during tempestuous weather.
And as the dunes take slow but giant steps to the southeast on their walk, behind them trees begin to reappear as the sand shifts forward.
This is part of the “Phantom Forest.” Dead trees rising as the sand departs. Once there was a forest thriving here.
And just past these silent witnesses the wind has left a depression where groundwater can escape. Wilds orchids, carniverous sundews and cranberry plants grow in this wetland called “The Cranberry Bog.”
And then we follow the path to the beach on Napeague Harbor. The sand a deep orange from iron-rich sediment. And behind us The Walking Dunes continue their slow journey pushed onwards by the wind.
This is a Google Earth image of The Walking Dunes showing the northern dune. On the left is Napeague Harbor. (The image is courtesy of Google – no commercial rights – for the copyright conditions read here.)
The Walking Dunes, Montauk, Long Island, NY
The Walking Dunes are located in Hither Hills State Park next to Napeague Harbor on the north shore of South Fork in The Hamptons.
Turn off Montauk Highway onto Napeague Harbor Road. Park on the shoulder at the end of the road. The beach is on the left and the trail starts on the right. Make sure children keep to the path following the trail markers as there is poison ivy as well as ticks in the forest area. The Walking Dunes, considered one of the most fascinating dune areas in the world, is a great outdoors nature walk with kids in The Hamptons anytime of the year.