Fire Island National Seashore, Long Island, New York: A Hiking Guide
If you’re looking for an escape that offers extensive backcountry hiking, miles of seashore and secluded campsites, Fire Island National Seashore is the place.
The one-half mile wide barrier island has been a destination for New York City residents for decades due to its proximity to the city, its services and its more than 25 miles of shoreline. And while the island supports a number of close knit seasonal communities that are well worth a visit, the area also offers a range of outdoor activities that will interest both the recreational camper and the more adventurous traveler.
As a barrier Island, Fire Island provides the southern shore of Long Island with a natural defense against the wind and waves of the Atlantic Ocean. A remnant of the glacier that once covered the region, the Island’s north shore is undulating and relatively rocky while the south shore is an expanse of fine yellow sand extending 30 miles from Robert Moses State Park on the western end of the island to Smith Point County Park on the east. In the 20+ miles between these two high-traffic parks, hikers, naturalists and seclusion minded beach-goers will find lots to enjoy.
Hike Highlights for Fire Island
While a visitor could spend an entire weekend traversing the park and its dunes, swales, beaches and grassland areas, we recommend taking a look at a couple unique Fire Island sites.
One of the most interesting parts of Fire Island is the Sunken Forest–a rare maritime holly forest that is listed as globally imperiled by The Nature Conservancy. Situated beyond a second set of dunes just a few hundred feet from the Atlantic Ocean, this forest supports a range of plant and animal life endemic to the area. Gnarled from wind and salt spray, the 200-year-old trees which dominate the forest twist among one another in a leaf-littered understory of vines and freshwater bogs. Within this cover, the Sunken Forest supports an abundant community of whitetailed deer, song birds and a variety of reptiles and amphibians.
Another area that’s worth a visit is the Otis Pike Fire Island High Dune Wilderness (Otis Pike Wilderness). Situated roughly halfway between the island’s ends, the 1,380 acre Otis Pike Wilderness is the only federally designated wilderness area in New York State. Relatively untouched by development, this expanse of dunes, grassland, and wildlife habitat is much as it was during New York’s colonial period.
Camping on Fire Island
If planning to camp on Fire Island, you’ve got two options. The first is Watch Hill Campground, a tenting area with access to water, restrooms and electricity. Price: $25/night, with a two-night minimum during the weekend. Option two is the Otis Pike Wilderness area, which is reserved for backcountry camping (situated 2-4 miles from services–including potable water. Visitors can fill their bottles at Watch Hill). If tenting at Otis Pike, the rate is $20/night. While there are no identified campsites there, the park does have restrictions on the total number of people who can stay on any given night. Divided into two regions, the western region of the Otis Pike Wilderness can support up to 24 campers and the eastern region, 12. Check availability and make reservations at recreation.gov. And, as with any wilderness camping situation observe rules regarding where to pitch your tent, how to cook, as well as how to manage human waste. Consider visiting the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics to learn more about protecting vulnerable areas while enjoying them.
Getting to Fire Island
Taking the LIRR to Fire Island: If you live in the greater NYC area, the easiest way to access Fire Island is by mass transit, which will likely include a trip on the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) and a short ferry ride to your destination. But, because Fire Island is quite long, and the distances between towns and sites can be significant, the traveler will need to decide, first, where to go on the LIRR and, second, which ferry route to take. Let’s start by taking at look at the map below. As you can see, there are two Long Island towns which offer ferry service to Fire Island: Sayville and Patchogue. Round trip fare to either Sayville or Patchogue from Penn Station, off peak, is $26.50.
Getting from the LIRR to either Marina: From the Sayville station, it’s a 20 minute walk along small side roads to the marina. If headed to Patchogue the distance is a bit less, probably no more than a 15 minute walk to the Davis Park-bound Ferry. The Watch Hill Ferry is located just around the corner from the LIRR station. But, if you’re in no mood to walk, taxis are typically at hand at both Sayville and Patchogue train stations. Review the map above for details on the best walking route from the station.
From the Sayville Marina to Fire Island: The Sayville Ferry Service station offers transport to Sailor’s Haven (providing access to the Sunken Forest and the NPS Visitor Center – $13 round trip), Cherry Grove ($16 round trip) and Fire Island Pines ($16 round trip). Transport time from the marina to port is typically 20-25 minutes.
From the Patchogue Marinas to Fire Island (yes, there are two marinas): The Davis Park Ferry Company offers transport to Davis Park ($16 round trip) and Watch Hill ($16 round trip). If you’re looking to get as close as possible to Watch Hill Campground or the Otis Pike Wilderness, you’ll want to take the ferry to Watch Hill. For early spring and fall campers you may need to take the ferry to Davis Park (the Watch Hill ferry does not begin operation until the middle of May). Remember: there are two marinas in Patchogue that run ferries to Fire Island. One is reserved for Davis Park transit, the other, Watch Hill. Transport time from either marina to port is typically 20-25 minutes. Please review the map above for directions to both marinas.
Driving on Fire Island: Other than the parking lots at Robert Moses State Park and Smith Point County Park there are no public roadways on Fire Island. However, if you’re aiming to visit towns west of Cherry Grove, the Fire Island Water Taxi provides limited inter-island water taxi service between Ocean Beach and Cherry Grove.
Driving to the Marinas: Those wishing to drive to Sayville or Patchogue will find parking at both marinas in public and private lots. For parking rates at Sayville marina, call 631-589-7548. For parking rates at Patchogue marina, call 631-451-6100.