Size: 50 acres
Date of hike: Aug. 4, 2018
The Sunken Forest is a place I've seen listed among the best hikes on Long Island, but I had yet to go there since it requires a ferry ride to reach it. Fortunately, an invitation to a bachelor party finally forced me to take the ferry to Fire Island, and I seized the opportunity to sink my teeth into the highly regarded forest. Needless to say, I'm happy I did. The hike definitely lived up to the hype.
The Sunken Forest is a globally rare ecological community with a 1.5-mile boardwalk through a holly forest located behind sand dunes along the Atlantic Ocean's coast. Some holly trees are up to 300 years old with other tree species including sassafras, shadbush and juneberry, according to the National Park Service's website. "None of these trees will grow taller than the unique double dune system protecting them," the website said. "The forest is 'sunken' behind the dunes." Apparently, the land was originally comprised of bare windblown sand and evolved into a forest via the invasion of seeds from pioneering dune plants – including beach grass, woolly beachheather and seaside goldenrod – that stabilized the habitat by trapping the blowing sand. "There are virtually no nutrients to be derived from windblown sand, so pioneer species got their nourishment from the air, windborne minerals from the sea, and from land," the website added. "Gradually conditions were created that enabled increasingly diverse plant associations to grow." In 1966, the property was donated to the recently established Fire Island National Seashore after being "cobbled together" through a fundraising campaign headed by the Wildlife Preserves, Inc., and The Nature Conservancy.
To reach the Sunken Forest, I took a roughly 20-minute ferry ride from Sayville to Fire Island using the Sayville Ferry Service, which has its times online and is located at 41 River Road. The correct ferry to take is the one that goes to Sailors Haven, which is near the center of Fire Island, and the ferry website says the round-trip cost for adults is $14. But since the bachelor party was at neighboring Cherry Grove, I took a ferry there with friends and then walked west for about a mile or so until I reached Sailors Haven. If you are a boat owner, Sailors Haven has a 48-slip marina that can accommodate craft with 10 to 18-foot beams and five-foot drafts, according to the National Park Service's website. "Marina rates range between $2 and $3 across the shoulders and busy seasons and reservations are available through LoveFins.com," the website said. In addition, leashed dogs are allowed but not on the ocean beach at Sailors Haven from March 15 through Labor Day. For those interested, Sailors Haven also has a snack bar, gift shop, picnic tables, grills, restrooms and showers.
The trail's entrance is just south of the marina and west of the Sailors Haven Visitors Center. Ranger-led walks are held five days a week in the summer, according to fireislandferries.com, but I decided to hike on my own. The first thing I saw was an informational display that said barrier islands, like Fire Island, are always in motion. "Every day the shape of the shoreline changes as sand is moved with wind, waves and currents," the sign said. Specifically, the island's natural movement of sand has been interrupted by structures such as bulkheads, docks and marinas along the Great South Bay, with dredging operations taking sediment from the bay's bottom and placing it upland away from the shoreline, according to the sign. "The results of this project will determine if this is an appropriate restoration technique here at Sailors Haven, and potentially at other sites on the bayside of Fire Island," the sign said.
From there, the boardwalk zigzagged like a wilderness rollercoaster, with trees shooting out through some wooden planks. Knowing that the hike was a short one, I savored every step. Two things I quickly noticed were: 1) the mosquitoes were brutal; 2) the birds were beautiful. The latter reminded me of something I read on the Fire Island Ferries' website: "Sitting on a bench on the forest's nature trail and listening to a bird song, the light rustle of wind through leaves, and the distant sound of ocean waves is one of Fire Island's premiere experiences." The trail eventually loops around and returns the way it came, but I opted for a paved path just south of the forest. To my delight, I spotted the showers and rinsed off for the party.
With regard to wildlife, the forest has everything from white-tailed deer to red foxes, according to the Sayville Ferry Service's website. Meanwhile, its freshwater bogs have various species of ferns and moss, cattails and other freshwater plants, according to loving-long-island.com. You might also see edible blueberries, the website said. Lastly, I should note my music of choice was Long Night's Journey Into Day, the superb new album by progressive metallers Redemption. I must've played the title track three times in a row. Damn, I love that band.
In summary, I'd say the Sunken Forest is indeed a wonderful spot for all Long Island hikers, although it takes a little planning to visit. Sure, it's a much shorter hike than I typically like, but you can also enjoy the adjacent beaches and bars. Or, in my case, a good drag show!
Video: Sunken Forest (360-degree view)