December 2008: Fire Island National Seashore

Shirley, New York

The origins of the name Fire Island are lost to obscurity. Perhaps it was a mangled spelling of the Dutch numeral “vier” (4) to identify the number of inlet islands in the area. When Fire Island Beach appeared on charts in the 1850s many believed it referred to land-based pirates who built fires on the open sand to lure cargo ships to their doom on the beach. Some favor the explanation that abundant poison ivy - it turns bright red in the fall - gave the island its colorful moniker. By any name Fire Island has attracted settlers for centuries, drawn by its bountiful stores of seafood and waterfowl. But by 1964 Fire Island was the only developed barrier island in the United States without any roads and the national seashore was established to keep it that way.  

Your dog’s adventure at Fire Island is dependent on the time of year. Dogs are not allowed on the beach during piping plover nesting season from March 15 to Labor Day but dogs can still visit Watch Hill and Sailors Haven, each accessible only by passenger ferry. Dogs are allowed on the ferries for a fee. At Watch Hill your dog can trot through the Sunken Forest, where 200-year old holly and hardwood trees bravely battle relentless salt sprays. The prime time for dogs, however, is after Labor Day in the Otis Pike High Dune Wilderness Area, established by Congress in 1980 to protect 1,400 acres on a seven-mile stretch of oceanfront. Starting at the Wilderness Visitor Center at the eastern end, this spectacular sliver of Fire Island reaches to Watch Hill to the west. The ferries run for a few more weeks after Labor Day so it is possible to execute this hike as a car shuttle, otherwise you will need to hike back from your turnaround point. Every pawfall for your dog will be on thick, soft sand with little shade so the entire 14-mile round trip is unrealistic. Closely monitor your dog’s effort to determine when to head back. A good destination is Old Inlet with an attractive dock off Pelican Island about two miles away. You can do the entire hike on the beach at water’s edge or make a loop behind the dunes on the Burma Road, a sand path that can be indiscernible and virtually impassable in places.  

Part of the national seashore on the mainland is the William Floyd Estate, the vestiges of a rambling Colonial plantation. Between 1718 and 1976, eight generations of Floyds resided here, including William Floyd, a Major General in the American Revolution and a signer of the Declaration of Independence, who was born in the house in 1734. A self-guided tour today visits 12 outbuildings and the family cemetery (estate is closed in the winter). 

From the Long Island Expressway take Exit 68 and follow the William Floyd Parkway (Route 46) south to its end.