The Unique Sunken Forest of Fire Island

Apr 2024

Editors Note: This post was originally published in October 2014 and updated April 16, 2024

sunken forest fire island new york

Fire Island’s Sunken Forest is often referred to as the Island’s Crown Jewel. After visiting this unusual 300 year old environmental spot, it’s easy to see why. Inside a hideaway, explored through a system of boardwalks, you’ll find a beautiful canopy of twisted vines and maritime forest nestled between dunes, ocean and bay.

Where is Fire Island?

You might start by asking “Where the heck is Fire Island?” This unique beach destination is a popular spot off the coast of Long Island that comes alive in the summer. The sounds of New York City quickly disappear when you arrive “on island”. Gone are the honking horns-in fact most of the island is car free!! Wagons and bicycles are the main form of transportation and the night sky is awash with sparkling stars.

Only 32 miles long and about a mile across at it’s widest, this escape from the city is both family friendly and home to a rocking summer hot spot, depending on which of the diverse sixteen communities you decide to visit. Each has its own unique personality adding to the ambiance. Names like Kismet, Saltaire, Robbins Rest and Ocean Beach set the stage for the island’s focus.

When I first visited as a child, Fire Island Pines and Cherry Grove were welcoming communities to the LGBTQ+ communities.  In fact, the Grove is also known as America’s first gay and lesbian town. The boardwalk and natural beauty have attracted artists and creative types for decades. Sixty odd years later, I can say this unusual place is one of the most eclectic and distinctive spots I have ever visited.

Sink your toes into the sand and discover the natural habitat of Fire Island’s Sunken Forest with me.

fire island new york black and white photo of beach

How to get to Fire Island’s Sunken Forest

Sailors Haven is home to one of the best-known areas of Fire Island National Seashore—the Sunken Forest. It is located near the midpoint of the island across the Great South Bay from Sayville, New York. It is accessible by Sayville Ferry from the mainland (approx.. ½ hr), private boat, water taxi and foot/bicycle power. On this narrow stretch, visitors can walk the ¼ mile from east (ocean side) to west (bay side) during their time at the nature trail.

Sail to Sailors Haven

The Sailors Haven Marina is a 48-slip marina with 45 slips available to the public. The marina can accommodate boats with beams between 10 and18 feet with a five foot draft. The majority of slips are between 10 and 14 feet wide. All slips have electric and water (extra fee charged).

When is the best time to visit the Sunken Forest?

High season, runs during the summer months, but in my opinion, she shoulder season is the best time to visit this island national seashore park. You can explore this rare habitat (when ferries run from Sayville to Sailors Haven). The rest of the year, it’s possible to walk along the boardwalk, but facilities and other services are not available during this time.

How did the Sunken Forest get its Name?

Fire Island’s Sunken Forest is inhabited by a maritime holly forest. Some of the growth has been tested to be approximately 300 years old.

None of the trees found within will grow taller than the dune system that protects them. Visitors will find the forest is literally sunken behind the unique double dunes of the area.

Other trees found in this forest include:

  • American Holly
  • Sassafras
  • Catbrier
  • Juneberry aka Shadbush
  • Oak
  • Black Cherry

The rare holly forest is the only one of its kind on the east coast and exists behind well established sand dunes along the Atlantic. I found it remarkable that this gem of the National Park Service, one of six types from the classification system,  has survived the storms that come through this spit of land off the coast of Long Island, NY. Recognized as Globally Rare by the New York Heritage Program, “there are few remaining occurrences of this assemblage of plants throughout the world.”

sunken forest sign and entrance to the park boardwalk

When is the best time to visit the Sunken Forest?

High season, runs during the summer months, but in my opinion, she shoulder season is the best time to visit this island national seashore park. You can explore this rare habitat (when ferries run from Sayville to Sailors Haven). The rest of the year, it’s possible to walk along the boardwalk, but facilities and other services are not available during this time.

History of the Island’s Crown Jewel

Approximately two hundred to three hundred years ago, the area now known as the sunken forest was a barren site of windblown sand. Nutrients in the sand were non existent. Over time, wind-blown seeds of dune grass and plants began to take hold, trapping blowing sand.

They were followed by coastal plants like the Woolly Beachheather and ubiquitous goldenrod. The root system of this growth helped to stabilize the habitat by preventing the continued movement of sand in the wind. As these plants went through their growth cycle, they added their own organic material to the sand further enriching the “soil”. The increasingly diverse plant life included post oak, black cherry, a pitch pine community, highbush blueberry and red cedar. These plants were protected by the double dune system surrounding the area.

woman walking on boardwalk in Sunken Forest

What is the Climax Stage?

The climax stage of the forest saw the replacement of the above growth with a holly, juneberry and sassafras maritime forest. Samples have been scientifically traced to approximately 1804 as the beginning this stabilization.

The use of the term “climax” forest is understood as the final growth stage of the maintenance of the major tree species. The process of plant succession leading to a climax forest stage is estimated to have taken around 300 years in the case of Fire Island’s Sunken Forest.

Twisting and turning over freshwater bogs, the 1.5 mile trail passes through a variety of trees, shrubs and grasses. White tail deer, fox and an abundance of birds call this sea level environment home.

Private citizens first spearheaded the campaign to preserve this tract of land in the 1950’s and the 50 acres of beach, dune and forest was eventually pieces together as a sanctuary. The rare ecological system of the Sunken Forest was preserved as part of the Fire Island National Seashore in 1966 under the conditions that it remain in it’s natural state and no road be built through the land. If you are in the area, the habitat can be visited when the ferries are running to the part of the Island known as Sailors Haven, by water taxi, or it is accessible by walking from other surrounding towns.

sunken forest fire island new york

Insider Tip: Fire Island is known for the rampant poison oak and ivy growing wild here. Leaves of three, let it be! Read up on my post for  natural potions for Poison ivy and learn how to identify it. Also be mindful of deer ticks which carry lyme disease.

Take a Field Trip or Join a Park Ranger-led Tour

Tours are offered for school groups and visitors from May through October by the National Park Service. Tours are typically 1-2 hours long and leave from the Sailors Haven Visitor Center. Find more information on public tours of and field trips to the Sunken Forest.

While there is no visitor/information center on the Sunken Forest preserve, Sailors Haven offers a visitor center; snack bar that offers fast, casual, dining; gift shop; picnic tables and grills. In the summer, the beach has a lifeguard. In addition, there is a 45-slip public marina with electricity, water and a free boat pump-out station. Restrooms and showers along with water for drinking. Note that these additional services close in October.

Sunken Forest Trail Guide

There is an out of print guide which includes trail numbers and scientific names along with information for your visit.  Email the NPS for a copy of the Sunken Forest Trail Guide.

Tips for Eco Friendly Visits to the Sunken Forest and Fire Island Beaches

Beaches are the gateway to the ocean and enjoyed by communities around the world. Protecting the largest ecosystem on earth is the job of everyone. Overuse and abuse can damage sensitive habitats and marine health. Luckily, there are many ways we can all help to protect these fragile environments. A few of my top responsible travel tips to follow:

  • Bring a reusable drink bottle(s).
  • Pack snacks in reusable containers or bags.
  • Remember to leave only footprints – take only memories.
  • Stay protected from the sun with ocean-safe sunscreen. Bring or wear sun-protection clothing to protect yourself from harmful UV rays and eliminate the need for all over sunscreen.
  • Pack in, pack out – if you do have waste, be sure to collect it all to properly dispose of it before leaving or take it with you. Bins for recycling and trash are available onsite at all areas.
  • Protect our dunes by staying off and encourage (insist) children to do the same. Fill in any holes and flatten any sandcastles when you’re done because they can be dangerous.
  • Before you leave, rinse or brush yourself and your gear off to prevent species from traveling to new habitats.
  • The beach is a great place to celebrate, but balloons can be extremely dangerous to wildlife. They are forbidden at many parks and can wreak havoc with sea turtles, birds and other marine animals.

 Conclusion  for Fire Island’s Sunken Forest 

Any regular readers of Green With Renvy are well aware of the sense of empowerment I feel when near the water. I’m not alone with that special relationship. Grab a cup of coffee and enjoy three young city dwellers from NYC in a Poetry Slam. They discover just how inspiring a change from their normal frenetic urban life can be when they visit the Fire Island National Seashore.  It’s hard to believe, that just a short subway ride away from the hustle and bustle of Manhattan, acres of coastal wilderness can inspire these poets to look inward and share what their personal experience with natural beauty means.

The National Park Service is made up of 401 areas representing 84 million acres in every one of the United States. Many are located close to urban metropolitan centers and can provide a needed sense of calm. The National Parks belong to all of us, visit them often and appreciate what they can do for your spirit.  As Sergio so succinctly declares in the video “nature is part of the family that you have to visit now and again“. It’s a visit that can do wonders for a person’s psyche.

*On another note, a gigantic thank you all so much for the positive feedback regarding my Good bye to Fire Island post. It is so rewarding to receive encouragement from readers and fellow bloggers for work that is so meaningful for me.

 This post is part of the Travel Photo Monday series. Have a look at some of the other great destination reads you’ll find there.
  1. anna parker says:

    Love this sort of place – it calls out to the geographer in me! Discoveries like these are great for local trips or part of a holiday as they get you away from the crowds and enjoying something fascinating

  2. What a beautiful spot! I hope that places like this can be protected and preserved … they are so special! Thank you for sharing your trip with us! 🙂

  3. Erin says:

    “nature is part of the family that you have to visit now and again“. It’s a visit that can do wonders for a person’s psyche.

    We had a recent visit with nature and this described it perfectly. Thanks for walking us through here.

  4. Sounds like a fabulous place to explore and photograph. And how wonderful that it is in such easy reach of Manhattan, the perfect antidote to hectic lives.

    • alison says:

      To be honest Kat, I wouldn’t say it’s exactly and easy reach, but everything is relative right!? Once you see the water, all travel time disappears in my mind.

  5. The world needs wonderful wild places of nature like this, protected for future generations :-). The Sunken Forest looks like a great place to escape to for some peace and serenity…

  6. Wow! I had no idea this place was on fire island, and pretty near by me! Thanks for sharing.

  7. What a magical place. How wonderful that preservationists worked to keep it pristine. Truly another world – you can almost envision fairies and ghosts.

  8. Great to read that for once the residents urged the establishment of a protected park! I agree: it sounds unbelievable to find such a gem within reach of the local subway system – what a treasure!

  9. How cool! Always heard about Fire Island but never really knew anything about it thanks. Another place we have to visit.

  10. What an interesting place. It’s so fortunate that it was saved for everyone to enjoy now and into the future!

  11. Although I’m a New Yorker, I never heard about this hidden gem~

  12. Wow, what a stunning place. Who’d realise it was in New York! Insane!

    LOVE your comment form by the way! Amazing!

  13. I’d love to visit the Sunken Forest at Fire Island National Seashore someday. Lovely.

  14. Michelle says:

    What a beautiful place to go for a hike/nature walk. Give me nature and fresh air over city any day! I love what the people in the video had to say about their experience.

    • alison says:

      Michelle-I’m so glad you took the time to watch the video. I was really moved by what those teens had to say. It just demonstrated what an incredible impact our environment can have on the psyche.

  15. Lauren says:

    I love how this place is preserved and won’t be wrecked by construction or anything like that! The boardwalk looks lovely to walk along through the forest.

  16. It’s great when a group of people can come together to save a gem like this. So happy to hear that no roads will be built there and that they will keep it in it’s natural state. We love those kinds of places.

    Thanks for sharing it with us.


  17. noel says:

    Wow, it has been like 30+ plus years since I’ve been here, thanks for taking me back to see this amazing forest and area.

  18. budget jan says:

    I am always amazed by how many National Parks there are in the States. This one looks unusual.