Just miles from New York City's skyscrapers, herons stalk through grassy wetlands and startled white-tailed deer leap over thickets of catbrier and the ubiquitous poison ivy in the Otis Pike Fire Island High Dune Wilderness. Fire Island, now protected as Fire Island National Seashore, shields Long Islanders from the raging Atlantic Ocean. This island attracts springtime rafts of migratory waterfowl bobbing on mainland-side waters and summer swimmers basking on the white beaches bordering the Atlantic.
Fire Island traces a thin line along the coast. Orientated east-west, this barrier island stretches 32 miles long and ranges from 200 yards to one-half mile wide. A seven-mile stretch on the eastern half has been designated Wilderness. The Otis Pike Fire Island High Dune Wilderness extends from the Wilderness visitor center, west, to Watch Hill. It includes everything from the toe of the primary dune with its patches of seaside plants, and extends across areas of pine forest with hidden groves to the sheltered marshes along the Great South Bay. The Wilderness area does not include the ocean front beaches but provides for a remote and pristine experience. The area provides excellent backcountry camping opportunities and hiking along the trace of the old Burma Road, which ran the full length of what is now the Wilderness. Anglers cast for bluefish, striped bass, winter flounder, among other saltwater species, and scenic views and abundant wildlife attract bird watchers, wildlife viewers, and nature lovers, alike.
Leave No Trace
How to follow the seven standard Leave No Trace principles differs in different parts of the country (desert vs. Rocky Mountains). Click on any of the principles listed below to learn more about how they apply in the Otis Pike Fire Island High Dune Wilderness.
The Otis Pike Fire Island High Dune Wilderness and visitor center is located within Fire Island National Seashore just 60 miles east of New York City. Located on the eastern end of Fire Island, the wilderness is only accessible by foot. Parking is available in the adjacent Suffolk County Park, Smith Point, at the southern end of William Floyd Parkway. The western end of the wilderness is accessible from Watch Hill. The Watch Hill ferry operates from Patchogue, May through October. The wilderness area begins at the eastern end of the Watch Hill campground. The wilderness area can also be accessed by private boat by anchoring off in the Great South Bay and wading onto shore.
Digital and paper maps are critical tools for wilderness visitors. Online maps can help you plan and prepare for your visit ahead of time. You can also carry digital maps with you on your GPS unit or other handheld GPS device. Having a paper map with you in the backcountry, as well as solid orienteering skills, however, ensures that you can still route-find in the event that your electronic device fails.
Motorized equipment and equipment used for mechanical transport is generally prohibited in all wilderness areas.
This includes the use of motor vehicles, motorboats, motorized equipment, bicycles, hang gliders, wagons, carts, portage wheels, and the landing of aircraft including helicopters.
(No official title, designates Otis Pike Fire Island High Dune Wilderness) - Public Law 96-585 (12/23/1980) To Designate Certain Lands of the Fire Island National Seashore as the “Otis Pike Fire Island High Dune Wilderness”, and for other purposes.
Visitors to the Otis Pike Fire Island High Dune Wilderness (Fire Island Wilderness) will enjoy a preserved natural area, clean water and habitat for a variety of plants and animals including rare and endangered species. In the winter, seals can be found basking on the beach and, though elusive, snowy owls are occasionally spotted adding to the extraordinary opportunities for solitude. On a clear winter day the wilderness can offer some of the most breathtaking scenery such as snow covered beaches and wetlands and spectacular sunsets over the ocean.
A permit is required for wilderness/backcountry camping. Reservations for a required backcountry permit may be obtained at Recreation.gov for overnight stays. Check-in is required at the Watch Hill Visitor Center during regular hours of operation (staffed on weekends mid-May to mid-October and Wednesday-Sunday during the summer; phone 631-597-6455) at the Watch Hill Ranger Station after hours during the times noted above or at the Wilderness Visitor Center at 631-281-3010 (weekends) or the Division of Interpretation at 631-687-4780 (weekdays).
Watch Hill is accessible during the times mentioned above, only by private boat or by ferry from Patchogue, with overnight parking available at the Patchogue-Watch Hill Ferry Terminal. Patchogue is easily accessible by public transportation.
The Fire Island Wilderness provides many recreational opportunities. Visitors can enjoy rewarding recreational activities like hiking, backpacking, canoeing, backcountry camping, bird watching, surf casting, waterfowl hunting (in season), sunbathing, and stargazing.
Wilderness camping is available year-round. Late fall through early spring is the best time to camp to avoid the harsh summer conditions as well as mosquitoes and ticks. A permit is required and must be reserved through Recreation.gov. (There is a $20 cost recovery fee for each permit, but no charge per night or per person.). Check-in is required at the Watch Hill Visitor Center during regular hours of operation (staffed on weekends mid-May to mid-October and Wednesday-Sunday during the summer; phone 631-597-6455) or at the Watch Hill Ranger Station after hours.
Waterfowl hunting is allowed during the fall/winter months of the waterfowl hunting season. A valid New York State Waterfowl Hunting license is required along with a Fire Island National Seashore Waterfowl Hunting Permit. A Fire Island National Seashore Waterfowl Hunting permit can be obtained from the Wilderness Visitor Center 631-281-3010, or at the West District Ranger Station 631-661-2556. There is no fee for the seasonal waterfowl hunting permit.
Sportsmen, off-road vehicles are generally allowed via a special recreational driving permit on the ocean beach side adjacent to the Wilderness area, between September 15 and December 31, for fishing or waterfowl hunting only. Due to a breach created by Hurricane Sandy in October of 2012, recreational driving is currently limited to an approximately 1.5 mile stretch of ocean beach. A Fire Island National Seashore Recreational Driving permit can be obtained from the Wilderness Visitor Center 631-281-3010.
The wilderness area and the adjacent ocean beaches are designated as carry in and carry out areas. Do not litter and carry out all your trash with you.
Climate and Special Equipment Needs
The Fire Island Wilderness has the same range of climate as Long Island, New York except it could be 10 degrees cooler in the winter and 10 degrees warmer in the summer. Early spring and late fall are the best time to visit the wilderness area. Temperatures can range from 60-75 degrees. The cooler temperatures allow for less tick and mosquito activity. It is also the best time for viewing migratory birds. The summer can be very hot and humid with temperatures ranging between 80-90 degrees. Temperatures in the wilderness area in the summer can reach over 100 degrees. The heat, high humidity, mosquitoes, ticks and poison ivy can make the wilderness in the summer very uninviting. If you are visiting in the summer you may choose to spend most of your time on the adjacent ocean beaches. Clear stretches of sandy beach, warm ocean water and a cool sea breeze is the reason a majority of visitors choose to visit in the summer months. If you choose to visit during the summer make sure you have sunscreen, mosquito and tick repellant and enough water for your stay. Dress appropriately for hot weather, wearing a hat, sunglasses, and light colored clothing. The winter months offer some of the best opportunities in the wilderness area. The absence of mosquitoes and ticks during the winter can make your visit comfortable and memorable. The late fall, winter and early spring months are some of the best months to hike and explore the wilderness. Be careful of the temperatures which can drop into the teens. The prevalent offshore winds during the winter can dramatically affect the wind chill making it cooler than mainland Long Island. If you plan on visiting during the winter, dress in warm layers. Anytime you plan on camping in the wilderness, make sure you have a tent, sleeping bag, plenty of food, water, a first aid kit, a portable cooking stove, sunscreen, mosquito and tick repellent, and a cell phone or portable radio. Always check the local weather forecasts and advisories before camping or visiting the wilderness.
Safety and Current Conditions
While in the Otis Pike Fire Island High Dune Wilderness, please be aware of the following safety concerns: Ticks and salt marsh mosquitoes are abundant during the summer months, so wear light colored clothes, use insect repellent if necessary, and always check yourself for ticks.
Also be aware of poison ivy, changing weather conditions, sun stroke, heat exposure, cold exposure, ocean conditions, rip currents, and small craft warning. Swimming is at your own risk. Never swim by yourself; beware of signs of hypothermia and exertion, and always be wary of the weather and hazardous swimming conditions.
Want to Volunteer for Wilderness?
Citizens who volunteer their time to steward our wilderness areas are an essential part of wilderness management. Contact the following groups to inquire about volunteer opportunities.