Camping Fire Island NY, the closest camping ground to Manhattan: 2024 review

Whether you’re visiting New York City or live here, finding a camping ground close enough to visit is easier than you think — especially when it’s camping Fire Island NY, just off Long Island.

As Aussies, we grew up camping, fishing, and living the good life outdoors. Ten years in New York City, we still get those same urges, especially as now we have a little toddler old enough to experience the great outdoors with us.

Where do you go camping near NYC?

Traditionally, most people head to the Catskills, Adirondacks, or Poconos to get back to nature. Upstate is also a haven for hiking, camping, and fishing. But nearly all these destinations require a car, or at the very least, a trek on a Trailways or Greyhound bus, fully ladened with camping equipment.

But is there camping near NYC you can get to by public transit/public transportation?

If you want to take the super easy way out and have everything done for you, take a couple of dollar ferry ride to Governor’s Island from the piers adjacent to the Staten Island Ferry. But if you have that fatalistic desire to do it yourself, do we have the adventure for you – the Watch Hill Campground at Fire Island.

Camping at Fire Island NY

You may have heard of Fire Island before. It’s renowned for being a party destination for bachelorette parties and the LGBTQ+ community, or for the less debaucherous, a haven for sea birds, fishing, and a place to see historic lighthouses. So, when we first heard that there was a camping ground accessible by a combination of public transit and a ferry to Fire Island, we were intrigued.

But first, an introduction to Fire Island

Fire Island is a National Park and a barrier island, offering a haven for fish and birdlife between it and Long Island’s Great South Bay. Its name has several theories, but the official guides attribute it to a spelling error in a 1789 deed. Some believe that it was an error in the deed’s description of the inlet islands it represented, written in error as either five islands or the Dutch for four, vier.

One of the island’s earliest inhabitants was William Floyd, a cosigner of the Declaration of Independence. The family estate, which was home to the Floyd family between the 1700s and 1976, still occupies a stretch of Fire Island. Other historic landmarks on the island are the 200-year-old Sunken Forest and the Fire Island Lighthouse, and the light keeper’s cottage.

How to get to Fire Island by boat

As a protected island, it is generally kept car-free for non-residents and visitors who face heavy restrictions on what they can bring to the island. There are several ferry routes from Fire Island Ferry Terminal at Sayville and Sailors Haven (Bayport) that take you to the island, with most focused on the more inhabited parts of the island, like the Ocean Bay Park, but for Watch Hill, (HINT: OUR DESTINATION) you’ll need to head further out Long Island to Patchogue.

Kismet, Ocean Beach, and Sailors Haven are the most popular destinations for daytrippers and weekenders. These are the places you’d head for traditional hotel or house-share stays. Around these areas are bars, nightclubs, restaurants, and spas. But where we’re heading, there are no luxury spas. The only luxury comes in the form of glamping tents. Luckily, when camping Fire Island at Watch Hill, you can use a water taxi service to get to the party zones.

Getting to Watch Hill Campground from New York City

The dead simplest way to get to Fire Island is by car. But if you’re like many New Yorkers and live a car-free life, you’ll have to rely on public transit. The LIRR (Long Island Rail Road) is the best way to get from Manhattan to the Fire Island Ferry at Patchogue. Take the subway to Penn Station and navigate your way to the LIRR terminal in the brand, spanking new Moynihan Train Hall. Only opened post-COVID, the Moynihan Train Hall has transformed one of the rattiest, gross, crime-riddled parts of the New York subway system into something palatable and, dare I say, enjoyable to visit.

Where in the past were rundown chain shopfronts and budget bodegas offering cheap eats and takeout beers for long journeys on the LIRR and AmTrak, today stands a glimmering hall and adjoining food court, offering a selection of some of NYC’s favorite eats, like SoHo’s Vesuvio Bakery.

We have to get around with a pull wagon full of camping equipment and a stroller, so it’s good to know which end of the track entrances have the elevators. Yep, the Madison Square Garden end, not the 8th Ave end. There are also escalators, but they’re narrow and precarious.

The Long Island Railroad Train to Patchogue

Thankfully, the LIRR trains are spacious and have room to store wagons, strollers, wheelchairs, and electric scooters. Most are double-decker and air-conditioned, with toilets and a few power outlets. You can also drink on the trains, if that takes your fancy. Before departing, ensure you’ve pre-purchased and activated your ticket from within the app. The first part of the route is underground, a black spot for cell phone reception. Likewise, you can still buy a traditional paper ticket from ticket machines around Penn Station.

Take the LIRR to Jamaica station in Queens. It’s a major transit junction. At Jamaica, you change trains to the Montauk Branch line. On weekends, you’ll get many passengers dressed to the nines, ready to hobnob with the rich and famous out at The Hamptons. But then again, you’ll also find yourself amidst a shabby group of hikers and campers who look like they’ve cleaned out their local REIQ in preparation to build a Fire Island base camp for their ascent into the heights of Long Island.

Disembark at Patchogue Station. It’s about an 8-minute walk from the station to the Patchogue Fire Island Ferry Terminal. The train station is fairly basic, without vending machines, but the main street of Patchogue is a couple of minutes’ walk in the opposite direction of the ferry terminal if you’ve forgotten something essential. Luckily, Watch Hill General Store will cover most basics once you’re on the island.

The Watch Hill Fire Island Ferry

Before departing Patchogue, fill up on fresh water, use the facilities, and pick up any information guides that may catch your eye. We were pleasantly surprised/disappointed to see a sign that the ranger hosts beach fishing lessons on a Saturday morning. The Watch Hill ferry terminal is clean and modern, and the staff is lovely. Bring cash for tickets, but I think they take cards, too. The ferry costs $20.75 round trip for adults and $13.50 for kids. Dogs can come aboard for $7.

Loading on time, we board a very dated and rudimentary ferry. It’s rough and ready, the type that stinks of diesel and the liberating scent of escape. Everyone’s here for a good time, not a long time. There’s plenty of room for pull wagons, the vehicle of choice for campers, along with a few bikes and strollers.

Chugging out of the inlet, we pass million-dollar yachts and million-dollar apartments. Local bars promise outdoor movies as we enter the warmer months, and there’s even a fake paddlewheeler booze cruise operating out of the Patchogue harbor. Heading out into the choppy waters of Patchogue Bay, we pass probably the world’s smallest lighthouse before pulling the throttle and splitting the waves, spraying a baptism of salt over those who’ve escaped the diesel smell for fresh air.

Watch Hill Campground at Fire Island

Unlike the more developed stretch of Fire Island, Watch Hill and its ferry terminal offer more basic accommodations. You arrive through a narrow waterway into the marina, a popular destination for Long Island boat owners. It offers a 175-slip transient marina with water, electricity, a pump-out station, a general store, and a bar/outdoor dining. To book at the campground, use this link. Due to the limited number of tent sites, it books out ahead of time.

The marina has clean restroom facilities, and the general store is surprisingly well-stocked. You can find everything from fishing poles and tackle to canned goods, ice cream, and cases of beer. There are even warm hoodies and jackets if, like us, you come underdressed.

Fire Island’s Watch Hill Campground consists of 26 sand sites for either two two-man tents or one five-man tent, along with about eight glamping sites. We choose to “rough it” with a simple four-man tent for our family. Thankfully, each site has a picnic table and small grill, though you’ll need to either forage for wood and kindling or pick up barbecue coals and fire lighter fluid from the general store, as they don’t allow these on the boat.

The campground is about a ten-minute stroll along raised wooden boardwalks that run between the marina, the main beach, and the campsites. Clean, modern bathrooms, though rudimentary, have hot and fresh water taps. Between every few campsites, there are also trash stations and sinks with fresh hot and cold water for washing up. It’s a great setup and reduces the need for a complete camping kit.

If camping isn’t your style, try glamping.

You may not like airbeds, rolling into your own sandy footprints, backache – all those badges of honor of a camping holiday. Instead, you can upgrade to a stress-free, everything-done-for-you glamping adventure in one of Fire Island’s glamping sites. Each safari tent is set up on purpose-built decking, furnished with queen-sized beds, throw rugs, dressers, nightstands, a small table, and foot/bed stools. There are even coolers and Adirondack chairs outside.

Those we saw embracing the glamping life could bring non-essentials like a telescope and a guitar instead of schlepping camping gear from Manhattan. We laughed dismissively when we arrived, but by morning, we realized that, just maybe, it could be a future option.

Amenities at Watch Hill Fire Island

We were pleasantly surprised with the facilities and amenities around Watch Hill. Firstly, there’s a patrolled beach with lifeguards on duty during the daylight hours. There’s also an on-site ranger who offers talks and classes, a large modern playground for kids, and live entertainment on weekends.

The Truck on the Sand is a bar and food truck that is open from 9 am until late. It serves breakfast, basic coffee, cocktails, burgers, and the like when you don’t feel like camp cooking or want to get social. There are also games like Corn Hole and Jenga to get into after a few brews.

Beautiful beaches make it worth the journey.

Finally, let’s talk about the beaches. Fire Island’s beaches are a cut above after days at the Rockaways, Jersey Shore, the North Fork, and Coney Island. You can come here for miles of unspoiled beaches, no pollution, no high-rise buildings, and no overcrowding. It truly is a revelation.

An essential when you’re with kids is swimming at a patrolled beach like this one at Fire Island.

BUT, before you go >>>>> A major word of warning: Watch Hill campground, though protected by the sand dunes, if situated on swamp land. Just yards away is prime breeding grounds for mosquitoes; they flourish in the summer months. We came prepared with strong mosquito repellant but went home covered with bites and welts.

The downside of camping Fire Island is the prevalence of mosquitoes as the campground is adjacent to tidal swamps.
The one downside of camping Fire Island is the mosquitoes that breed in the adjacent tidal swamp.
After all that, the mozzie bites fade, but the memories of making smores by the campfire and the joy of our little girl’s exclamation upon waking the next day, “I LOVE CAMPING!” made it all worth it. If you don’t have a car, Watch Hill Campground and a weekend camping Fire Island is an essential for families and singles alike.

Looking for more vacation and road trip ideas in the northeastern United States? We have great ideas in New York State, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Maine—or explore our full international destination guides.

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