Fire Island National Seashore

Camping at Watch Hill
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Watch Hill, part of Fire Island National Seashore, is a superb facility. Particularly if you don't have the money or the taste for a seaside resort, this national seashore outpost offers access to the same beach enjoyed by the glitz-erati summering a few miles down the island at places like Bellport and the Pines. Watch Hill also has a 188-slip marina, camping facilities, and, best of all, access to the seven-mile-long Fire Island Wilderness area, the only federally designated wilderness in New York State. You can have a perfectly comfortable and relaxed time if you're well prepared.

I went camping at Watch Hill during the middle of a July heat wave. Perfect time for the beach, right? Not if you're camping in the swale, which is the area on the other side of the dunes from the beach. The dunes focus the light and heat on these areas like a magnifying glass, and I scorched unmercifully. Basically, it was like camping in a desert that, because of the high humidity, doesn't cool down at night. And did I mention the bugs? July is the height of the mosquito and green fly season. I burnt my citronella candles at both ends.

My preparations for the weekend were based on my typically mountainous camping experience: small alpine tent and a warm sleeping bag. The campers who seemed most comfortable had big airy tents, cots, and, I assume, light sleeping bags. I did have the foresight to bring lots of sunblock, insect repellent, a wide-brimmed hat, a long-sleeved shirt, pants, a sweater, and beat-the-heat beachwear.

Don't get me wrong. I had a good time. I love the beach early in the morning, at dusk and after nightfall. But during the brightest part of the day my pale face Swedish genes forced me to seek the comfort of shade. I found relief and delight along the boardwalked nature trail. The trail leads off the swale into the maritime forest. That's where I found a bugless bench in the shade, perfect for a picnic and a long afternoon's reading binge. I shared the forest with innumerable catbirds, a flock of redwing black birds, a yellow-belly sapsucker, a yellow warbler, and, for a good half hour, a grazing doe with her fawn.

If you don't stop to enjoy the shade, the trail continues into the salt marsh. A branch leads off to the marina and a view of the Great South Bay. The bird life, even in the middle of summer, was excellent, with many swallows and a busy egret. During the fall migration season, Fire Island is along the Atlantic flyway and I understand bird viewing is magnificent.

That's when I plan to come back. The rangers inform me that after Labor Day, the seashore is deserted. I'm planning an overnight hike along the wilderness coast in October. The fall color should be in full swing. Come late afternoon, I'll cross over the dunes and set up camp in a clearing. Maybe in the morning I can make it through the forest to the salt marsh, where, with my binoculars, bird book, and a good lunch, I can spend the afternoon in splendid isolation 45 miles from New York City.

Planning already...

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Apr 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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