Fire Island National Seashore Overview
Fire Island National Seashore provides a magical time slip into the wild, primeval era of a now highly urbanized region. One hour east of New York City, the 32-mile-long barrier island protects Long Island's populous southern shore from the open Atlantic. In addition to the national seashore, the island supports a state park, a county park, many communities, and a seven-mile stretch that is the only federally designated wilderness area in New York State.
Fire Island is a quick-change place. Its dune beaches are the main lure for the city's eclectic diaspora of nude, gay, and straight sunbathers. Bodysurfers and surf-casters relish the tidal delight of crashing waves that pound the coast. In the winter, harbor seals are one of the few creatures thick-skinned enough to ride the Fire Island surf.
You owe it to yourself to step inland and explore the island's other environments. Beyond the dunes, the forest offers shady respite from the glare of the beach and a change in wildlife: Shorebirds give way to songbirds, and you might surprise a deer. Continuing on, in a few minutes you emerge from the forest into the vibrant marsh, chattering with birds and rustling grass. Beyond the marsh is the (usually) placid Great South Bay, populated with all manner of small watercraft, from sea kayaks to Tony Soprano-class powerboats.
Fire Island is an easy train ride from Manhattan's Penn Station: The Long Island Railroad provides regular service to ferry terminals at Patchogue, Sayville, and Bay Shore. Station wagons and jalopies can access Fire Island via two bridges: The Robert Moses Causeway will deliver you to Robert Moses State Park at the western end, and the William Floyd Parkway spills out onto the eastern end of the island at Smith Point Park.
Comb the Fire Island Wilderness
You'll feel like a castaway as you explore the remote Otis G. Pike Wilderness. This coastal swath of 1,300 acres stretches for almost eight miles, from Smith Point to Watch Hill, and is the only designated federal wilderness in the state of New York. The wilderness is vast coastal plain distinguished by windswept dunes, saltwater marsh, and grasslands. Expect to see an abundance of white-tailed deer, red foxes, and waterfowl and shorebirds—the island serves as sanctuary for some 330 species of bird, including rare winter guests such as the snowy owl.
Explore the Sunken Forest
Unlike the science-fiction world of Dune, Fire Island is not all sand. A 1.5-mile boardwalk snakes its way through Fire Island's 300-year-old Sunken Forest. The nature trail penetrates deep into a forest of holly, sassafras, and shadblow. Along the way, you will also traverse other Fire Island ecosystems, including saltwater marshes, dunes, and the tidal flats of the Great South Bay. The pervasive suburban myth is that the forest is "sunken" below sea level: Not true, it is so named because it is sunken amid the dunes.
Spy Raptors at the Lighthouse
Birders will no doubt want to migrate to the Hawk Watch near the Fire Island Lighthouse. Osprey, sharp-shinned hawks, northern harriers, peregrine falcons, and American kestrels show up in record numbers during the month of October. The bald eagle also makes the occasional guest appearance. The 168-foot brick lighthouse near the Hawk Watch was first lit in November 1858. It was the first glimmer of light seen by many immigrants arriving in the New World.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication