As one of New York City's most popular summer playgrounds, Fire Island National Seashore is easy enough to reach. But once you're there, it can be fairly difficult to get around, which is why most visitors tend to stay in one place. There are no roads on the island to speak of, and you can't have cars, scooters, roller skates, or Rollerblades. The use of bicycles is restricted in many places. So you walk. (Yes, wheelchairs, strollers, and little wagons are OK). If you do want to go from one community to the next, you might just have to use a water taxi.
This lack of mobility is no great hardship. Although the island is some 32 miles long, it is at most a mile wide, in some places considerably less. Walking along the sands, paths, and boardwalks is a pleasure, in any case. Since the park was established in 1946 by an act of Congress, it has remained a place where conservation is taken very seriously. When you hike or picnic here, you have to take back with you whatever you bring in, including your garbage.
The origin of the name "Fire Island" is obscure; some claim it stems from beach fires in the dim past, others insist it comes from old Dutch maps when a group of inlets was labeled vier inlets, meaning "four" inlets, and vier became fire.
The primary highlight is the water, followed by any kind of marine- or land-based activity. From swimming and boating to hiking and wildlife watching, there's pretty much something for everyone.
Hikers and wildlife watchers like the Sunken Forest, and everyone enjoys the Fire Island Lighthouse, which dates back to 1826. At that time, it stood on the western end of the island, but is now some five miles from the end (the island has grown by accretion over the years). The Lighthouse now graces the Robert Moses State Park, which is surrounded by the national seashore to left and right.
The William Floyd Estate features a park visitor's center; the other visitor centers are the Wilderness Visitors Center at the south end of the Floyd Parkway, one at Sailors Haven and another at Watch Hill. For history buffs, Floyd was one of the four signers of the Declaration of Independence from New York State, and a Revolutionary War general.
Animals and Birds
In high season, park rangers patrol the beaches and paths on horseback, a pleasant sight and a welcome one, too. Whales cruise offshore but are rarely seen. I did spot a couple of sharks some years past and was attacked by a swarm of bees, but otherwise survived both of my trips to the island. In addition to the deer, you might spot voles, rabbits or a fox now and then. Sometimes, a cold-stunned sea turtle will wash up on shore. If you spot one, let a park ranger know immediately. Do the same if a whale or other sea mammal washes up. If you should visit in winter, you might spy seals resting on the beaches. In every season, keep an eye out for white-tailed deer, very small but not altogether timid.
As one of 40 "Globally Important Bird Areas" recognized by avid spotters, Fire Island is a bird-watching heaven. The endangered piping plover (also threatened) is widely seen in spring and fall migrating periods. Among other endangered or threatened species here are the terns (the roseate, the common and the least, to be specific). As always, the bald eagle, no longer endangered, takes pride of place.
You can drive right onto Fire Island at either end (Robert Moses Freeway on the west, William Floyd Parkway on the east), but I recommend taking the Long Island Railroad to one of the three stations where ferries connect. Easiest is Patchogue; the rail station is an easy walk to the Watch Hill ferry. The other two rail stations are Sayville (boats to Sailors Haven, Cherry Grove, and Fire Island Pines) and Bayshore (boats to the western end of Fire Island). At the latter two stations, take a short taxi ride to the ferries. It takes about 90 minutes from New York City's Penn Station to Sayville on the LIRR (tel. 718/217-LIRR; www.mta.info/lirr). Full ferry service is available in July and August; lesser service in other months of the year; practically none in winter.
There are no admission fees to the national seashore, but you do have to pay parking fees and/or transport fees for the ferryboats from the mainland of Long Island to Fire Island itself. (Ferry fares for adults run about $6.50 or $7 each way; parking lots cost around $9 to $10 for the day). There are certain pet restrictions from mid-March through Labor Day on the island, so inquire ahead.