Fire Island National Seashore | WATCH HILL NATURE TRAIL

Watch Hill Nature Trail

Watch Hill Nature Trail

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Length: .6-mile loop, plus .2- to .4-mile round-trip walk from the marina, depending on which trailhead you use
Time: 45 minutes
Difficulty: Easy

The Watch Hill Nature Trail circles through both the saltwater marsh and the wilderness area of Fire Island National Seashore. There is a one-page brochure that goes along with the hike, so be sure to pick one up at the Watch Hill Visitor Center. This gives some information on the different terrains and points out some of the plants growing on the island.

In the summer, the wilderness—an area of thick brush, shrubs, and small trees—is known for a proliferation of poison ivy, ticks, and a mosquito population on par with the Everglades…but I never got the memo. I arrived at Watch Hill unaware of the problem and did not bring mosquito repellent with me. When I first attempted to hike the Watch Hill Nature Trail by starting at the trailhead near the Watch Hill Campground, I had to turn around and literally run back to the marina to buy some mosquito repellent at the general store.

There are two entrances to the Watch Hill Nature Trail. One is located near the campground and the other is at the mouth of the marina. To get to the campground trailhead, follow the signs to the campground. To get to the mouth of the marina, follow the bulkhead around to the east. After my run-in with the mosquitoes at the campground I didn’t want to go anywhere near that place, so I began at the marina entrance. It is a .2-mile one-way walk from the ferry dock to this trailhead.

Trailheads for the Watch Hill Nature Trail

Trailheads for the Watch Hill Nature Trail

The marina trailhead begins at the salt marsh. No sign identifies the trail, but just be on the lookout for a boardwalk that leads into the marsh. The entire trail is a boardwalk, regardless of what terrain it traverses.

Marina trailhead for the Watch Hill Nature Trail

Marina trailhead for the Watch Hill Nature Trail

The trail splits a short ways down, marking the start of the loop. I chose to go around in the clockwise direction by taking a left, which starts you off hiking towards the bay and through the salt marsh. This is very pretty terrain and a great place for spotting birds.

Boardwalk through the salt marsh

Boardwalk through the salt marsh

Small stream cuts through the marsh

Small stream cuts through the marsh

A tenth of a mile from the start of the loop is a small observation deck that overlooks the bay. There is a bench on the deck, and there are benches and other decks at various locations along the boardwalk. Mosquitoes aren’t that bad here if there is a breeze, so sitting a while to take in the scenery is certainly an option. Once in the wilderness, which is another tenth of a mile ahead, you’ll want to walk as fast as you can.

Observation deck overlooking Great South Bay

Observation deck overlooking Great South Bay

When you first enter the wilderness, you will be in a maritime forest that grows on the top and sides of a sand dune. As with the Sunken Forest at Sailors Haven, Watch Hill has a primary sand dune that parallels the Atlantic Ocean and protects all of the vegetation that grows behind it from wind and salt spray. There is also a second, smaller dune that has formed behind the primary dune. Protected from salt spray and elevated high enough to keep vegetation out of the low-lying saltwater marsh that borders the bayside shore, trees took root on the slopes and top of the secondary dune creating a unique forest. It is interesting to note that the trees on the secondary dune will only grow as high as the primary dune because branches that attempt to grow higher end up dying after getting hit with salt spray that passes over the top of the primary dune. The result is what looks like a forest of short Bonsai trees.

Watch Hill Nature Trail enters the maritime forest

Watch Hill Nature Trail enters the maritime forest

You’ll eventually come to a T-shaped intersection, the intersection with the campground trailhead. A left takes you to the campground, so take a right to continue the hike.

In another 25 yards the boardwalk makes a 90º turn to the right. Just after that you have an option to take a short detour up a set of stairs or turn left and stay on the main trail. The stairs lead up to a small loop that gives you a nice view of what is called the swale, a depression between two ridges, or in this case, two sand dunes. This is where the campground is located. Notice that the vegetation in the swale consists more of brush and small shrubs than trees like those found in the maritime forest. If you take the detour, you’ll come out on the main boardwalk about 25 yards farther down from the stairs.

Stairs leads to an overlook of the swale

Stairs leads to an overlook of the swale

The Watch Hill Campground is located in the swale

The Watch Hill Campground is located in the swale

If you are in a wheelchair, you have no choice but to take a left and bypass the stairs. The boardwalk does climb some small hills as it goes up and over various sand dunes, so unless you are in good shape, you may need somebody to push you from time to time. Other than the hills, the boardwalk is flat and wheelchair accessible.

Hilly section of the boardwalk

Hilly section of the boardwalk

At the very end of the hike, the trail comes back to the salt marsh. You’ll be able to see the starting point up ahead.

Back at the salt marsh

Back at the salt marsh

Other than the mosquitoes, the Watch Hill Nature Trail is a pleasure to walk. It gives you a great opportunity to see the major types of terrain on Fire Island: dunes, maritime forest, salt marsh, and swale. In fact, it’s the only trail in the park that allows you to see all four ecosystems. However, hiking it in the summer is not for the fainthearted. From what I was told, the mosquitoes really start swarming from July through October, so it may be best to skip it during this time and only do the hike if you are at the park outside of the summer months.

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Last updated on May 30, 2020
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