North Salem Trails Help Newcomers Find Their Way
I still get butterflies when I see stone walls lining open fields and farms as I drive toward my grandmother’s house. As a child, I cherished visiting her lake house in North Salem and spending time in a town so rich in natural beauty. The love was so deeply a part of me that when the opportunity arose to keep her home in the family, I quickly pulled up my lifelong roots on Long Island to become a resident of a place that always lived in my heart.
In early 2020, my husband and I became homeowners in North Salem. We couldn’t wait to unpack and start exploring this bountiful town to grow our new life. And then the lockdown announcement came. The world closed down around all of us, indefinitely. Our dreams of engaging with this new community were put on hold as my husband became one of the unlucky ones who was infected early on. We spent a good portion of that early spring hiding away from new neighbors we desperately wanted to connect with. His health returned after a few weeks, but fatigue lingered as well as our concerns over infecting others with such limited information on this novel disease. We chose to remain in isolation well into late April. It was a reclusive time for us all. We felt more lonely than ever with our family back on Long Island and unsettled feelings that come from an unfamiliar place. It’s one thing to happily visit Grandma, and another to have to learn where the closest hospital is, not be established with any doctors for your care, or locate a pharmacy that’s open past 7 pm.
(Locked) Down, But Not Out
Once we felt ready to reengage, we took little steps to get back out into the world. My husband and I pivoted our date night plans, along with local restaurants that also made great strides to find a way to exist in this new dynamic. We exchanged candlelight dinners with taillight picnics where we would order take-out and spend an evening driving around town in our self-contained bubble. It was during one of these dates that we stumbled upon Baxter Road and saw these little green diamonds marking what seemed like an entrance to a park. At the gate, there was a little map and a flyer offering information about Baxter Preserve, an invitation to become a member of the North Salem Open Land Foundation (NSOLF), and a website that opened the world to us when the world was shut down.
In a town of roughly 23 square miles, 25 pieces of land have already been preserved. Beautiful spaces are protected from development, provide natural environments for plants and animals to thrive, and can be explored through passive recreation. “Our mission is to try and preserve a healthy environment not only for the animals and species that live here but for ourselves as well,” states Andrew Middlebrook, Stewardship Director with NSOLF. “An abundance of personal time gained during the pandemic got more people outside because it was the healthiest, easiest thing to do.” This meant that some preserves, especially well-known Baxter, saw a huge uptick in demand forcing NSOLF to manage the potential risks of overuse. Maps, like the one we found, educated residents on the many other options in town to mitigate traffic. Middletown reported that many other smaller organizations had to shut down their preserves due to a lack of resources. “We did not want to close,” he emphasized. “We wanted to be that supportive resource in those hard times.”
My husband and I benefited from those efforts. All of the sudden, our lockdown limitations felt lifted. Deep, refreshing breaths replaced deep, stressful sighs. We spent so much of our time later that spring discovering all the preserves available to us. We may not have been able to meet or visit with our human neighbors, but were welcomed by so many animals that were also taking advantage of the quieter times. One of the positive things to come from the pandemic, according to Middlebrook, was that “people gained more awareness of the animals that move throughout this area.” Being on the mainland meant we were introduced to many new species that an island lacks. I met my first groundhog at Bloomerside Preserve, convinced this brown, oblong animal was a beaver until I saw the lack of a paddle tail. Eagles soared overhead with eaglets in tow. Tiny goldfinches illuminated the sky. The chorus of spring peepers and bullfrogs filled our evenings. The call of coyotes kept me awake as this new sound convinced me someone was crying in the distance. North Salem is one of three towns part of the Eastern Westchester Biotic Corridor. This partnership works towards maintaining a connected core for native and diverse wildlife to move around freely and safely in their natural habitats. This means that we are lucky enough to observe and coexist with a wide range of animals as they pass through.
While friends and family back down on Long Island muttered feelings of being under “house arrest” with the lockdown’s restrictions, my husband and I had never felt more open and free to engage in the world around us. Thankful for remote jobs, we were able to take lunch breaks exploring winding trails and evening strolls through open fields. We enjoyed the occasional “safe distance” greeting from neighbors also taking advantage of the availability of outdoor recreation.
A Few of Our Favorite Trails:
NSOLF Preserves offer something for everyone. While Baxter Preserve, the Racetrack, is one of their larger and more frequented parcels, having time during the lockdown allowed me to discover the unique offerings each individual trail offers. The inner loop around an 8-acre pond is the main attraction, which is easy to understand when you pass fields of high grasses dancing with butterflies and birds, long lush paths embraced by stone walls, and a pond always rich in aquatic action. When I want to truly find some space to think and be away from people (this was a big requirement during the pandemic) I take the left fork at the sugar maple in Baxter Preserve and follow the second and third trails bringing me into a new world of open spaces. I personally call it “the road less traveled” as many people don’t even know they are there. It is easy to escape reality on these trails as the gorgeous backdrop of rolling hills creates a setting that feels more like living within a painting. I spend many hours in reflection and peaceful recovery from daily stresses there.
When I am looking for a little more cardio, Marx Preserve offers some of the more challenging climbs with rewarding scenic views over Route 138. There are two entrances, one along Sullivan Road and another on Route 138 that is easy to miss but has good parking capability. Both start you immediately on an uphill climb that feels like it will last forever, but rewards you with varied terrain for a full body workout and great seasonal views from the top!
Durand Preserve, tucked behind Ruth Keeler Memorial Library, is the perfect spot for families. First, access to bathroom facilities within the library is key! Secondly, the Adirondack chairs and picnic tables are perfect for grabbing a book to read before your hike or sharing a post-hike snack afterward. The trail begins at a pollinator pathway full of critters to observe. Butterflies, bunnies, honeybees, and crickets are frequent visitors. This loop trail has a lot of fun climbing, crossing, and varied terrains for developing balance and coordination. Wooden planks, bridges to cross, and small rock walls to step over make this trail truly an adventure for all ages.
My favorite path so far has to be at Lances Preserve located at the southern intersection of Routes 116 and Route 121. Nestled in the nook of these two roads, Lances transforms you immediately into a world that feels more like a storybook than real life. It is the perfect trail for our community’s littlest feet with easy, flat terrain and a short loop trail. It follows a babbling stream that softly sings to you as the trees create art with light and shadows. Despite being settled between two major roadways in town, it maintains a feeling of serenity and safety as a lush canopy gently covers the trail. Andrew Middlebrook agrees, “In the spring, it’s one of the first places I go with all its early emergent species.” During the pandemic he also found it to be “a place I could go and get away from it all and find some peace and serenity down by the water. I valued that a lot,” he reflected.
The beauty of North Salem’s natural world once again showed its power as we engaged with this bucolic town despite a global lockdown that could have delayed building a foundation in our new home. Through these preserves, we were able to continue to live healthy lives, both physically and mentally, build relationships and memories in our new hometown and connect with nature and neighbors (from a six-foot distance). I welcome you to explore all North Salem has to offer and consider becoming a member of NSOLF to support the maintenance and protection of these beautiful lands we are fortunate to live among.