The mysterious Walking Dunes of Montauk, New York are a unique ecosystem with a mind of their own. Naturalists from all over the world come to this unique site to view and study these four parabolic sand dunes that move 3.5 inches every year. Since their origin approximately 100 years ago, these dunes have migrated over a mile with the help of daily winds and seasonal hurricanes. These fascinating land forms are something to see and will make you feel like you traveled to a different world.
These coastal dunes offer a beautiful, yet fragile, look into a rare landscape overlooking Montauk. There is a wide variety of plant communities and animal life that call these mounds of sand home. The area is open to the public with a well-marked .75 mile trail which traverses a beach, natural scrub, a freshwater bog, and lots of sand.
The Mystery of the Walking Dunes Unraveled
These naturally shifting dunes are geologically very young at only around 100 years of age. Their daily movement is caused by the predominant northwest winds that are pushing the beach sand inland. In 1938 they received a tremendous boost from a vicious hurricane that also destroyed a fishing village on Fort Pond Bay (right next door to Napeague Bay).
The “walking” dunes move directly through the land swallowing anything in their path. Walking along the trail you will find trees becoming newly engulfed with only their tops sticking out of the mounds. You will also find the Phantom Forest; dead trees that were once buried in the sand and have been uncovered by the dunes’ movement.
Hold onto your hats as you reach the Wind Funnel. This excellent example of the dunes’ parabolic shape also strengthens the winds that funnel through the mounds. The northwest winds funnel in from between the Springs and Gardiner’s Island. It’s here that you can imagine why they chose this location for the desert scenes in the 1920’s silent film “The Sheik” with Rudolph Valentino.
The landscape of Long Island is always changing, especially on the east end. Tremendous storms continually re-sculpt the natural settings of the coastline. It is possible that the water level from Napeague Bay will rise and fill in the Walking Dunes within the next century. Don’t waste an opportunity to see this rare ecosystem while it remains.
Tips When Visiting the Walking Dunes
- The Trail Guide at the entrance offers educational information and will help you navigate through to each area.
- This adventure is best done off season to avoid crowds and intense summer heat in the dunes. The bulk of your hike will be in the sun.
- This trail is considered easy, but it is walking in sand with inclines. I found it easiest to walk barefoot through the sandy trail, but the rest of my group kept their sneakers on. (Honestly, a visit to Montauk should always be barefoot!)
- This is a natural area and there are no restrooms, benches, or water stations. Come prepared. A water bottle is highly suggested.
- Stay on the trail and do not leave any trace of yourself behind. Exploring past the trail increases erosion. Human foot traffic ruins the plants needed to keep the sand in place. Stick to the trail and let nature take its own course.
- Napeague Beach by Lazy Point Rd. may be closed during the summer to protect the Piping Plover habitat.
Visit the Walking Dunes, Montauk
- There is no fee to enter the Walking Dunes trail
- The Walking Dunes is part of Hither Hills State Park
- Parking is scarce along a beach road. Do not block the beach access and be sure to pull all the way over (you will be parking partially on sand). This is a dead end and it is not easy to turn around if the parking is crowded.
- Located at the end of Napeague Harbor Road off of Montauk Highway (Route 27). You will find Napeague Harbor Rd East of the Clam Bar and Goldberg’s Bagels on the north side.
- You can extend your hike at the completion of the trail loop (tide permitting) with a 2.5 mile walk along Napeague Harbor.
Family Adventure Rating
Cost– This adventure will cost you nothing if you are in the area. There is no parking fee or admission cost.
Parking & Transportation– Parking is scarce as noted above. If you don’t have your own vehicle, mass transportation is available to Montauk and the surrounding towns. The Long Island Railroad and several bus companies (Hampton Jitney is the most famous) deliver from Manhattan to Montauk and towns along the way. You may not find ride share options in the township of East Hampton, but they do have local taxis. You can also find scooter and bike rentals in Montauk.
Location– Montauk is one of the most beautiful areas you will experience. It’s location at the very tip of Long Island has thankfully spared it of over development. If you enjoy beach communities, the ocean, and a relaxing adventure this is a perfect place to visit.
Day Trip or Overnight– Not everyone is fortunate to afford or find overnight accommodations in Montauk. You will increase your chances if you go off season or book several months to a year in advance for a summer stay. Hither Hills offers camping, but it is very difficult to get a site due to its picturesque location on the ocean. If you are already on Long Island, you can make a nice day trip. Maximize your adventure by going off season and/or during the week to avoid traffic.
Experience– The Walking Dunes is a beautiful experience in nature and an opportunity to see something rare and different. Our family really enjoyed seeing this otherworldly landscape.
Combination– There are days worth of adventures to explore in Montauk. Some suggestions: The Montauk Lighthouse, Camp Hero, Ditch Plains, strolling through the village, or any number of beaches and restaurants to enjoy here.