Fire Island National Seashore | OTIS PIKE WILDERNESS

Typical terrain in the Otis Pike Wilderness

Typical terrain in the Otis Pike Wilderness

Otis Pike Wilderness Visitor Center

Beaches

Backcountry Camping


The Otis Pike Wilderness makes up the majority of Fire Island National Seashore. It runs from Watch Hill near the center of the park to the eastern boundary at the Otis Pike Wilderness Visitor Center, a 7.5-mile stretch of land. Prior to 2012, the Wilderness was interrupted only by the privately owned Bellport Beach located around the halfway point. However, in 2012 Hurricane Sandy blew a hole through the island about two miles west of the Visitor Center, and this breach has never closed, thus preventing anyone from hiking from one end of the Wilderness to the other. While government officials initially clamored to have the breach filled, fearing it would lead to higher tides and flooding in Long Island, it was soon noticed that the water quality in the bay improved due to its flushing with fresh ocean water. The breach will most likely close on its own one day, but for now the National Park Service’s stance is to leave it alone unless it is proven to cause flooding or other damage to the surrounding area.

Breach in Fire Island

Breach in Fire Island

The only parking on National Park Service property at the Otis Pike Wilderness is at a free 15-minute parking lot next to the Visitor Center that you can use to drop off gear or to run inside to get a park brochure. For long term parking, visitors must use the Smith Point County Park parking lot, an enormous lot a half-mile long and a tenth of a mile wide that is capable of holding over 3,000 vehicles. There is a fee to enter the park, but this includes the use of the beaches, bathhouse, concessions, and other amenities. To enter the Wilderness from the Watch Hill end, visitors must either take a private boat or public ferry from Long Island to Watch Hill or make a 13-mile hike from Robert Moses State Park at the western end of Fire Island.

While there is an Atlantic Ocean beach that runs the length of the Wilderness, most of the area is covered with impenetrable brush that can only be explored on narrow foot trails or the Burma Road, a wide, sandy trail that runs the length of Fire Island in some shape or form. A park Ranger told me that nobody ventures beyond the beach in the summer due to the proliferation of ticks, mosquitoes, and poison ivy that thrive in the wilderness. The poison ivy grows so tall—as tall as some small trees—that long pants won’t do you much good, and in spots the mosquito population is on par with that of the Everglades. Most people who hike or backcountry camp in the actual wilderness do so only in the winter when the vegetation and bugs have died off. Park volunteers also clear the trails during this time.

Burma Road

Burma Road

The Otis Pike Wilderness is not termed “wilderness” simply because it is an undeveloped natural area. This is a Federal government designation that carries with it certain restrictions, the most pertinent to visitors—particularly backcountry campers—being that no wheeled devices are allowed. This means that you can’t bring a bike, a wagon, or a cooler on wheels into the vegetation, even on the trails (this does not include the beach). You can, however, drag your cooler along the ground, damaging everything in its path, or carry your gear on a sled. It’s the stupidest thing since Anna Nichole Smith, but them’s the rules.

Sand dune in the Otis Pike Wilderness

Sand dune in the Otis Pike Wilderness

Since I visited Fire Island National Seashore in the summer, I did not venture into the wilderness other than through a short section along a quarter-mile boardwalk that begins at the Visitor Center and ends at a sandy path that leads down to the beach. The boardwalk gives visitors an idea of what the Wilderness is all about without having to walk through the tick- and poison ivy-infested vegetation. However, you still can’t avoid the mosquitoes, and I can vouch for their abundance.

Short boardwalk gives visitors a look at the wilderness without the ticks and poison ivy

Short boardwalk gives visitors a look at the wilderness without the ticks and poison ivy

Path at the end of the boardwalk leads down to the beach

Path at the end of the boardwalk leads down to the beach

The walk from the Wilderness Visitor Center to the breach is 2 miles, one way. The breach was originally 1,500 feet wide, and it supposedly it hasn’t changed much.

First glimpse of the breach

First glimpse of the breach

Swimming is allowed (though not encouraged) from any of the beaches that flank the Wilderness except for the beaches that have formed in the breach. The narrow channel that now connects the ocean to the bay causes a rush of water to flow in and out during the changing of the tides. I read a report by a person who claimed that riding the waters through the channel is a lot of fun, comparing it to one of those “lazy rivers” at a water park. However, I do not advise doing so without a life preserver, if even then. Personally, I’m more scared of what else may be riding along with me, for in the wake of cleaner water, marine life has flourished in the bay as well.

Turbulent waters flow through the breach as the tide changes

Turbulent waters flow through the breach as the tide changes

Once at the breach, I tried to work my way around to the bay, but the sandy beach quickly petered out and I was met with thick vegetation. I could see the bay, but could not get to it.

Where sand meets wilderness at the Fire Island breach

Where sand meets wilderness at the Fire Island breach

Some of the more remote beach areas at Fire Island National Seashore have been turned into unofficial nude beaches. Though technically illegal, the National Park Service tolerated the practice and never enforced the anti-nudity laws, which are state, not federal laws. However, after Hurricane Sandy leveled many of the sand dunes that provided seclusion for the nude bathers, people started to complain, and the National Park Service has attempted to put a stop to it. Of course, not everyone follows the rules, and I encountered a few nude sunbathers during my hike to the breach. I will say that the bathers at least had the courtesy to put up privacy fences so they could not be seen, and they do walk a good ways from the populated areas before settling down.

Privacy fence used by a nude bather

Privacy fence used by a nude bather

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Last updated on May 29, 2020
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