The Sunken Forest located in Sailor’s Haven on Fire Island is a rarity even by global standards. “According to the New York Natural Heritage Program, the Sunken Forest was ranked as ‘globally rare,’ meaning there are few remaining occurrences of this assemblage of plants throughout the world.” This is considered “The Jewel in the Crown” of Fire Island National Seashore.
Although there’s not a spot on Fire Island that our family doesn’t love, this has to be among our favorite retreats. If you’re not familiar with Fire Island, it’s a barrier island along the south coast of Long Island, NY. It separates Long Island from the harsh waters of the Atlantic Ocean giving us the Great South Bay in between. There are about fifteen different communities on Fire Island, each with its own charm and specialty. There are a few access points you can reach by car, but the majority can only be accessed by boat, foot or bicycle. Sailor’s Haven can only be accessed by boat (or foot if you can endure a 7 mile hike in the sand, we’ll leave the bike out of it since you will be dragging it most of the way). This special area receives visitors mostly from May to October when the ferries are in service.
Sunken Forest, Fire Island
When you enter the Sunken Forest and walk along its 1.5 mile boardwalk, you experience the enchanted lure of this 300 year old primeval holly forest that was a thousand years in the making of evolutionary ecology. It is a one-of-a-kind find on the East Coast of the US and possibly, the world. The boardwalk will lead you from the bay to the ocean under a diverse canopy of leaves passing freshwater bogs, wildlife, and gorgeous view points. Hiding in between this unique double dunes of the island, you feel like you are “sunken” into a magical place.
Sunken Forest Facts
- The forest we see today is a holly-sassafras-juneberry maritime forest
- Some of the trees are estimated to be up to 300 years old
- Oaks & Black Cherry also grow in the forest
- “A core taken from one American holly in the mid-1970s indicated that it began to grow about 1804 — the year Lewis and Clark started their western expedition!”
- None of the “trees will grow taller than the unique double dune system which protects them.”
- ”The forest is ‘sunken’ behind the dunes
Visit the Sunken Forest
Exploration of this rare habitat is best when the ferries are running and the buildings are open. The area is staffed from mid May to mid October shortly after the first ferry arrives to just before the last ferry departs.
Accommodations at the Sunken Forest
- Restrooms with Showers
- Small Gift Shop
- Concession Stand
- Interactive Ranger Station/Visitor Center
- Ocean Beach (swimming permitted during Lifeguard hours)
- Picnic area with tables and barbecue pits
Activities near the Sunken Forest
- Swimming in the Atlantic Ocean
- Fishing in the Great South Bay
- Enjoy a ranger-guided tour or walk through the globally-rare Sunken Forest on your own
- Explore the Ranger Station/Visitor Center (get your passport to National Parks stamped here!)— the touch table and fish tanks are cool. Phone: 631-597-6183
- Picnic or enjoy some snacks from the concession area (yes, they have ice cream!) Phone: 631-597-6014
- Purchase a cool shirt or boat in a bottle at the gift shop Phone: 631-597-6014
- Of course, there’s always beach combing and awesome photography
Fire Island Ferry to the Sunken Forest
- Sayville Ferry departs from Sayville, Long Island and will take you on a lovely boat ride across the Great South Bay to Sailor’s Haven.
- They run rain or shine, but could cancel for inclement weather— call ahead
- They offer a charter service for days/times the regular ferry does not run
- Trips across the Bay are about 20 minutes one way
- Dogs are allowed— on a leash
- Phone: 631-589-8980
- 41 River Road, Sayville, NY 11782
Notes about the Sunken Forest
“Pets are not permitted on the ocean beach at Sailors Haven from March 15 through Labor Day. You may bring your dog, but remember that this may restrict your options for enjoyment of Sailors Haven. Pets must always be leashed and under control, and you are required to properly dispose of your pet’s excrement.”-nps.gov
Ferries run on a weather-permitting basis, call ahead if you’re not sure. Phone: 631-589-8980
The Visitor Center is also open for special tours and programs during “shoulder seasons”.
Bring bug spray! You may not need it, but if you arrive on a day when they are out, you will be thankful. (The gift shop sells bug spray, but don’t take the chance that they are sold out or closed.) If you brave the forest sans spray it may feel more like a quest than a stroll.
Sailors Haven is accessible by private boat, passenger ferry, or on foot from nearby Fire Island communities. The closest communities are Cherry Grove (3/4 mile), Fire Island Pines (1 3/4 mile), and Ocean Bay Park. Any further is a brutal (but do-able) hike. There are many great communities to visit further west, but using a water taxi will be more enjoyable.
The Sunken Forest Preserve- nps.gov
“First protected from development in the early 1950s by a concerned group of private citizens, a roughly 50-acre tract of beach, dunes and ancient holly forest just east of Point O’Woods was gradually cobbled together through a fundraising campaign spearheaded in 1952 by the Wildlife Preserves, Inc, and The Nature Conservancy. The Sunken Forest Sanctuary was officially dedicated as the Sunken Forest Preserve in 1960. The entrance plaque can still be seen along the western trail entrance.
In May 1966, the Sunken Forest Preserve, Inc. donated the property to the recently established (1964) Fire Island National Seashore, under the condition that the property shall always be maintained in its natural state and operated as a sanctuary, and that no public road or highway shall be built through it.”
Fire Island Marina near Sunken Forest
The Sailors Haven Marina is a 45-slip public marina with electricity and water (extra fee charged) and a free boat pump-out station. It can accommodate boats with beams between 10 and 18 feet with a five foot draft. The majority of slips are between 10 and 14 feet wide. Reservations are available through LoveFins.com. Phone: 631-597-6014
Family Adventure Rating ♥♥♥♥
Cost– Transportation is your main cost. A family of five can buy round trip tickets to Sailor’s Haven for $53.50-59.00. You will stay need to factor in the cost of travel to the ferry— train tickets and taxi or gas and parking. Parking usually averages $15-20 per day for ferry lots. You will always save money bringing your own food, drinks and accessories.
Parking & Transportation– You can travel to Sayville and take the ferry over. There’s a parking lot across the street from the ferry terminal with a daily parking rate. There’s also a train station in Sayville (LIRR) with taxi services to the ferry terminal.
Day Trip or Overnight– This is most likely a day trip. There are no accommodations at this national park to stay overnight. You can venture over to a neighboring community and stay at a hotel, rent an airbnb, or even camp out at Watch Hill if you want to plan a nice vacation.
Experience– This is one of our family’s favorite local destinations. If you enjoy the ocean and nature, you will love Sailor’s Haven and the Sunken Forest. It’s clean, fun and family friendly. This area doesn’t get too crowded and that’s a bonus for us. It’s relaxing and therapeutic for the soul, even with kids.
Combination– This state park can easily be a full day adventure, especially if you add any of the amenities. If you can’t get enough of Fire Island, you can begin to explore its different communities. Our favorites include Ocean Beach and Robert Moses State Park. You can also visit the Fire Island Lighthouse year round—it’s accessible by car.