Sunken forest can be reached only by a May-through-November ferry from Sayville, NY.

From NYC, take the Belt (Cross Island) Parkway to exit 30.
From there take the Long Island Expressway (Route 495) east about 36 miles to exit 59.
From the service road turn right at the first light and go south on Route 93 (Ocean Avenue, then Lakeland Avenue). At the fifth light, Lakeland Avenue is no longer called Route 93;
continue south to the eighth light (about 6.5 miles from exit 59).
At Main Street, follow the green-and- white signs to the Fire Island Ferry terminal;
for a fee, park at the commercial lot.
Take the ferry to Sailor's Haven.


There are several ways in which Fire Island may have gotten its name. The most popular theory is that "Fire" is a corruption of the Dutch word "fieve," meaning five, or "fier," meaning four, both of which referred to islands in the vicinity of Fire Island inlet during the 1600s. The name may have come from the fires that Indians, pirates, and whalers burned to signal the mainland. Another theory is that the Indians named the island after the burning rashes caused by the island's plentiful poison ivy. What is known to be true is that hundreds of years ago, this popular seashore destination was not an island, but a peninsula attached to land near Quogue.
(Cynthia Blair, Newsday Names of Long Island;

Fire Island National Seashore: Sunken Forest at Sailor's Haven

Fire Island harbors many unique and fascinating habitats, but one of the most enchanting is the Sunken Forest. The largest maritime forest on the island, it earns its name from its location down behind the dunes. Tucked between Great South Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, this unusual woodland is composed primarily of American holly, shadbush, tupelo, and sassafras. The height of the gnarled trees rarely exceeds 30 feet, although many of the specimens are known to be more than 150 years old -- this is testimony to the pruning effect of the constant salt spray.

The air is invigorating and the scenery spectacular as the ferry heads out toward distant Fire Island. More than 3,000 years ago this body of water was contiguous with the Atlantic Ocean, but as Fire Island formed, it cut off these inshore waters and created Great South Bay. The island protects the bay from the open-ocean forces and creates a shallow lagoon of more than 100 square miles, which slopes so gradually from shore that one can wade out quite a distance. The bay's sheltered waters allow many migrating waterfowl including brant, scaup, black duck, and red-breasted merganser to congregate. Flounder, fluke, and blackfish flourish, and the fishing here is renowned.

The boardwalk through the Sunken Forest begins just to the right of the ferry slip on Fire Island. The diversity of trees is fairly limited due to the combination of growing conditions, which include mineral-poor soil and strong saltwater influence. The first section of the trail is lined with the twisted and spreading boughs of shadbush, a dramatic contrast to the straight trunks of the adjacent American holly. The purple, berrylike fruit of the Shadbush will mature in June. It is a favorite food of numerous species of birds. The tree is recognized by its smooth gray bark with dark stripes; it often develops in a group of several stems. You will also see scattered sassafras here, with deeply furrowed bark of a reddish-brown color.

Old scraggly pitch pines, an occasional, tenuous red cedar, and dying oaks can be seen along the boardwalk at various locations. They are remnants of a past forest type in which they used to dominate. But over time, as succession continued and species such as pitch pine and oaks eventually created conditions unsuitable for their own further growth, better adapted species of trees began to flourish and give way to the present-day forest types. Thick stands of poison ivy seem to grow everywhere, regardless of conditions; caution is advised. Where the sun filters through to the forest floor, wildflowers such as starflower and wild sarsaparilla can be seen in spring.

Along with the flowers and tree blossoms of spring, the area is alive with winged migrants, some of which will stay to nest, while others head much further north. Brown thrashers, catbirds, rufous-sided towhees, yellowthroats, yellow warblers, and American redstarts all make their summer homes in and around the Sunken Forest, gorging on the abundant insect population and the berries of holly, shadbush, and other fruiting shrubs. The chickwill's- widow, recently expanding its range northward into New York, is also thought to spend summers here. Flickers, flycatchers, swallows (by the thousands in the fall), and warblers of all kinds pass through in good numbers.

One of the most colorful and animated avian summer residents is the American redstart.

The first real break in the canopy comes as you enter a small wetland. Here the groundwater table reaches the surface and forms a community similar to that found in an inland bog. Becuse the sandy soil is low in nutrients and drainage is poor, acidic conditions exist and bog-adapted plants take hold. Sphagnum moss, cattails, and ferns are rimmed by highbush blueberry. This wetland area is quite beautiful, with species of even height casting a wide range of colors.

Continuing just a bit further, the trail winds upward and ascends a short flight of stairs. One can now get a spectacular elevated view of the forest. The open ocean is off to the east, across the dunes, while the maritime forest trees line the bayside. In spring the dark green of scattered pitch pine, the kelly green of holly, the white of shadbush blossoms, and the pinks and purple of many blooming shrubs combine to create a classic impressionist setting. The uniformity of height is evident from here and reveals that the canopy of the Sunken Forest lies level with the dune tops. The constant salt spray keeps the trees pruned, and they can grow only as long as they remain in the protective shadow of the dunes. The ocean salt provides essential nutrients, such as calcium, magnesium, potassium, and phosphorus, but the salt can also kill foliage if sufficiently concentrated. As the limbs reach up into the zone above the dunes, they are susceptible to high salt concentrations and die back.

Small red cedar, some of which are more than one hundred years old, and bearberry are plentiful as you come to the edge of the forest, evidence again of earlier successional stages and the tenacity of red cedar. Approximately 250 years ago this area of the forest was barren sand. Eventually, beach grass and other pioneer dune species, such as beach heather and seaside goldenrod, took hold. The stabilization and added nutrients provided by these plants paved the way for taller, more woody species such as the red cedar and pitch pine, which then took hold. The Sunken Forest is the result of continued successional stages over the first couple of hundred years.

Continue up to an even more exhilarating view and then back down into the forest. Canada mayflower lines the trail as you descend the dune edge. Back in the heart of the woods you come to an enlarged section of the boardwalk complete with benches. The largest tees thus far, American hollies, grow up through cutout sections of the walkway. The smooth, gray-green trunks, often covered with cone-shaped growths, grow tall here and support crowns nearly 40 feet high. American holly is found along the Atlantic Coast, from Massachusetts to Florida, and through the Mississippi valley. A few sassafras may also be seen here, eking out an existence, along with an understory of catbrier, wild grape, and poison-ivy vines.

The trail winds around and comes out to a platform that overlooks the bay and its marshy shoreline. Phragmites, a roughly 5-foot- tall weed that grows in dense stands, dominates, although salt- marsh cordgrass still has a hold along the water's immediate edge. Erosion has eaten away at the marsh, and little remains to protect the forest vegetation now.

The boardwalk heads through the woods again and out into the open swale (the area between the dunes). You can continue along a cement walk that leads down the center of the swale and back to the ferry dock. Or you can follow the wooden boardwalk that climbs up over the primary dunes and follow the beach back. Both choices offer a chance to explore new barrier-island communities.

Entire walk takes about 1.5 hours, but you will probably want to explore further. Ferry runs May through November.

Source: Audubon Guide


Acer rubrum (red maple)
Amelanchier canadensis (shadbush)
Amelanchier laevis (smooth shadbush)
Ilex opaca (American holly)
Juniperus virginiana (red cedar)
Nyssa sylvatica (tupelo)
Pinus nigra (Austrian pine)
Pinus rigida (pitch pine)
Prunus serotina (black cherry)
Quercus coccinea (scarlet oak)
Quercus stellata (post oak)
Quercus velutina (black oak)
Sassafras albidum (sassafras)

Shrubs and sub-shrubs:
Arctostaphylos uva-ursi (bearberry)
Aronia arbutifolia (red chokeberry)
Aronia intermedia (purple chokeberry)
Aronia melanocarpa (black chokeberry)
Baccharis halimifolia (groundsel bush)
Gaylussacia baccata (black huckleberry)
Gaylussacia frondosa (dangleberry)
Hudsonia tomentosa (beach heather)
Ilex glabra (inkberry)
Iva frutescens var. oraria (marsh elder)
Myrica pensylvanica (bayberry)
Prunus maritima (beach plum)
Rhododendron viscosum (swamp azalea)
Rhus copallina (winged sumac)
Rosa rugosa (wrinkled rose)
Rosa virginiana (Virginia rose)
Rubus alleghaniensis (common blackberry)
Rubus hispidus (dewberry )
Rubus sp. (blackberry)
Vaccinium corymbosum (highbush blueberry)
Vaccinium macrocarpon (cranberry)
Vaccinium sp. (lowbush blueberry)
Viburnum dentatum (arrowwood viburnum)

Cuscuta sp. (dodder)
Lonicera japonica (Japanese honeysuckle)
Parthenocissus quinquefolia (Virginia creeper)
Smilax glauca (sawbrier)
Smilax rotundifolia (round-leaved greenbrier)
Solanum dulcamara (bittersweet nightshade)
Toxicodendron radicans (poison ivy)
Vitis aestivalis (summer grape)
Vitis labrusca (fox grape)

Achillea millefolium (yarrow)
Agalinis sp. (agalinis)
Aralia nudicaulis (wild sarsaparilla)
Arenaria peploides (seabeach sandwort)
Artemisia campestris spp. caudata
Artemisia caudata (tall wormwood)
Artemisia stelleriana (dusty miller)
Cakile edentula (sea rocket)
Chenopodium sp. (sea blite)
Chrysanthemum leucanthemum (ox-eye daisy)
Conyza canadensis (horseweed)
Erechtites hieraciifolia (pilewort)
Euphorbia polygonifolia (seaside spurge)
Euthamia tenuifolia (slender-leaved goldenrod)
Geranium robertianum (herb robert)
Gnaphalium obtusifolium (sweet everlasting)
Hibiscus palustris (swamp rose mallow)
Hieracium sp. (hawkweed)
Hypericum sp. (St. Johnswort)
Lactuca sp. (lettuce)
Lathyrus japonicus var. glabra (beach pea)
Lechea tenuifolia (narrow-leaved pinweed)
Maianthemum canadense (Canada mayflower)
Pluchea purpurascens (salt-marsh fleabane
Polygonella articulata (sand jointweed
Polygonum sp. (knotweed)
Rumex acetosella (field sorrel)
Rumex crispus (curled dock)
Salicornia sp. (glasswort)
Smilacina racemosa (false Solomon's seal)
Solidago sempervirens (seaside goldenrod)
Spiranthes cernua (nodding ladies' tresses)
Teucrium canadense (American germander)
Tragopogon sp. (yellow goatsbeard)
Triadenum virginicum (marsh St. Johnswort)
Trientalis borealis (starflower)
Typha angustifolia (narrow-leaved cattail)
Typha latifolia (braod-leaved cattail)
Verbascum thapsus (common mullein )
Xanthium echinatum (beach clotbur)
Zostera marina (eel grass)

Carex spp. (sedge)
Carex silicea (sedge)
Eleocharis sp. (spike rush)

Ammophila breviligulata (beech grass)
Digitaria sanguinalis (crab grass)
Distichlis spicata (spike grass)
Eragrostis spectabilis (purple love grass)
Panicum amarum (panic grass)
Panicum sp. (panic grass)
Phragmites australis (giant reed grass)
Spartina alterniflora (salt-water cordgrass)
Spartina patens (salt-water cordgrass)
Triplasis purpurea (purple sand grass)

Osmunda cinnamomea (cinnamon fern)
Pteridium aquilinum (bracken fern)
Thelypteris palustris (marsh fern)

Codium fragile
Fucus sp. (rockweed)
Sphagnum sp. (sphagnum moss)
Ulva lactuca (sea lettuce)

Sponsor: Torrey Botanical Club
Date: July 18, 1981
Leader: Richard Stalter

There are three distinct plant communities at Sunken Forest. The sunken forest dominated by Ilex opaca; a dune community; and a "salt marsh." The latter has been filled in by wind and wave driven sand, eel grass and assorted debris from the bay. We observed over 60 different species of plants.

dune community:
beach grass Ammophila breviligulata
purple love grass Eragrostis spectabilis
crab grass Digitaria sanguinalis
sand grass Triplasis purpurea
Panicum sp.
Panicum amarum
Carex silecea
sea rocket Cakile edentula
dusty miller Artemisia stellariana
A. campestris spp. caudata
seaside spurge Euphorbia polygonifolia
poison ivy Toxicodendron radicans
seaside goldenrod Solidago sempervirens
slender-leaved goldenrod Solidago tenuifolia
seabeach sandwort Arenaria peploides
beach clotbur Xanthium echinatum
wrinkled rose Rosa rugosa
bearberry Arctostaphylos uva-ursi
winged sumac Rhus copallina
yarrow Achillea millefolium
yellow goatsbeard (Tragopogon sp.)
ox-eye daisy Chrysanthemum leucanthemum)
bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica)
beach heath (Hudsonia tomentosa)
narrow-leaved pinweed (Lechea tenuifolia)
beach pea (Lathyrus japonicus var. glabra)
Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia)
lettuce (Lactuca sp.)
field sorrel (Rumex acetosella)
Pinus nigra
Spiranthes cernua
Agalinis sp.
hawkweed (Hieracium sp.)
sand jointweed (Polygonella articulata)

Sunken forest:

black oak (Quercus velutina)
scarlet oak (Q. coccinea)
post oak (Q. stellata)
shadbush (Amelanchier canadensis)
tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica)
red maple (Acer rubrum)
sassafras (Sassafras albidum)
black cherry (Prunus serotina)
pitch pine (Pinus rigida)
red cedar (Juniperus virginiana)
Vaccinium corymbosum
black huckleberry (Gaylussacia baccata)
dangleberry (G. frondosa)
Virginia rose (Rosa virginiana)
Viburnum sp.
swamp azalea (Rhododendron viscosum)
common blackberry (Rubus alleghaniensis)
Rubus sp.
common greenbrier (Smilax rotundifolia)
Sawbrier (Smilax glauca)
summer grape (Vitis aestivalis)
Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia)
poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans)
wild sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis)
Canada mayflower (Maianthemum canadense)
herb robert (Geranium robertianum)
starflower (Trientalis borealis)
sedge (Carex spp.) (two species)

cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon)
cattail (Typha angustifolia)
St. Johnswort (Hypericum sp.)
spike rush (Eleocharis sp.)
purple chokeberry (Pyrus floribunda)
inkberry (Ilex glabra)
fern sp.

brackish marsh:
giant reed (Phragmites communis)
dodder (Cuscuta sp.)
salt-marsh fleabane (Pluchea purpurascens)
groundsel tree (Baccharis halimifolia)
marsh elder (Iva frutescens var. oraria)
swamp rose-mallow (Hibiscus palustris)
wood sage (Teucrium canadense)
spike grass Distichlis spicata)
salt-meadow cord grass Spartina patens)
saltwater cord grass (Spartina alterniflora)
eel grass (Zostera marina)

Attendance was 6.

Other species found on July 17, 1982:

Japanese honeysuckle Lonicera japonica
bracken fern Pteridium aquilinum
beach plum Prunus maritima
curled dock Rumex crispus
Carex silicea
tall wormwood Artemisia caudata
bittersweet nightshade Solanum dulcamara
dewberry Rubus flagellaris
arrowwood Viburnum dentatum
cinnamon fern Osmunda cinnamomea
Triplasis purpurea
Rosa virginiana
horseweed Erigeron canadensis
sea lettuce Ulva lactuca
Codium fragile

The trees are distributed along a moisture gradient. Nyssa sylvatica and Acer rubrum occupy the wettest sites while sassafras and holly occupy higher, more mesic sites. Several oalks are interspersed with the hollies and shadbush. Black oak is the most common. Several post oaks and one scarlet oak were observed.

Change in the salt marsh vegetation. The salt marsh vegetation has been replaced by tall reed grass along with some swamp rose mallow and Teucrium canadense.

Fire Island Sunken Forest
Sponsor: American Littoral Society
Leaders: Rob Valanti

September 11, 1993

Why do they call it Fire Island? in the fall it is covered with the red of poison ivy plants.

The lineup is beach; primary dune; swale; secondary dune; and forest. There are lots of sassafras and shadbush in the forest.

beach plum -- with fruit; one bitter, one not bad
common mullein remains

along boardwalk:
red cedar
poison ivy
winged sumac
black cherry
American holly trees -- big ones
Quercus stellata
sassafras -- some of them have a beautiful cinnamon color
fox grape
smooth shadbush
Virginia creeper
not many herbs; lots of vines; thick, dense forest
highbush blueberry
black oak
lowbush blueberry

wet area:
marsh fern
winged sumac
swamp azalea
question mark butterfly
purple chokeberry (Aronia)
inkberry (Ilex glabra)

Phragmites area:
lots of blueberries and some purple chokeberry
pitch pine (Pinus rigida)
bracken fern
pitch pine area now
swampy area:
marsh St. Johnswort
Polygonum sp.
red maple
swamp azalea
male redstart
arrowwood viburnum
red maple

salt-marsh area:
black racer snake (white patch under chin) are excellent climbers and can bite
swamp azalea
poison ivy tree
*salt-marsh fleabane
matted eel grass among the Phragmites
red and black chokeberry
American germander
monarch butterfly

dune area:
beach heather
kestrel (our smallest falcon and most common one)
sand beach grass
bearberry -- light-green color; grows like carpet; vine-like
dwarfed black cherry
pitch pine
red cedar
*sweet everlasting -- host plant of painted lady butterfly; flowers smell like curry

the red stuff in the sand is red garnet and magnetite

beach plum
poison ivy
rockweed usually found on rocky beaches
eel grass -- lighter stuff

piping plover feeds at wrack line; eats amphipods

Doug Smyth? dig trenches along the sun line to show the layers of minerals; light layers are quartz, SiO2 from Taconic Mountains; January birthstone is garnet; magnetite; the thicker the layer, the worse the storm

this is not a healthy dune here; can see how deep beach grass roots go down; finest sand is in the dune because of the wind

egg case of sting rays

giant sulphur butterfly -- a southern species
cedar waxwing

Lots of excitement produced when they spot a chat.