It's easy to forget you're not far from the dense suburban crush of Long Island when you're standing amid 40-foot-high sand dunes covered with flowering beach plum plants and pitch pines, listening to mockingbirds and catbirds trilling in a joyful chorus over a bass line provided by crashing surf, and there's not a man-made structure for miles.
Despite the development wave that has washed over most of the Island since World War II, there are plenty of wild places left, large and small; forests whose timber has never been cut, meadows never farmed, swamps never drained to build houses.
How did nature win out?
John Pavacic, executive director of the Central Pine Barrens Commission, offers multiple explanations.
The creators of huge estates carved out during the Gold Coast era opted to leave swaths of their properties intact, and "we're the beneficiaries," he said.
"Sports people, hunters and fishermen banded together and set aside some large blocks of property for hunting preserves, and eventually these were transferred to the state or the county," Pavacic added.
And, finally, he said, wetlands and "areas like the pine barrens, because they were considered unfertile, were passed over."
Five of what naturalists cite as the Island's most pristine wild places open to the public are described below. For more information on these and other natural treasures, including islands off the East End that are closed to the public, see newsday.com/lilife.
Otis Pike High Dune Wilderness, Fire Island National Seashore
Even at more than 1,300 acres, this eastern section of Fire Island National Seashore is the smallest wilderness area in the national park system and the only federally designated wilderness in the state.
Because the wilderness area is seven miles long, the beach seems endless and desolate.
"You actually get to feel that sense of solitude and get a chance to explore on your own," park spokeswoman Paula Valentine said amid dunes as tall as a house.
A ferry to Watch Hill, at the western end of the wilderness, provides the easiest access to the most pristine area with the highest dunes west of Bellport Beach, where a beach pavilion for village residents is one of the few man-made intrusions. You can also walk in behind the dunes or on the beach from Smith Point County Park on the east end. Most visitors come for the day, but about 900 people a year remain overnight for backcountry camping.
Those who visit will be treated to a variety of birds in each ecological zone from the beach to the dunes to the bayside marshes. And evidence of deer and fox can be found.
One caution: If you venture inland away from the ocean breezes in summer, park biologist Jordan Raphael warns, "the mosquitoes will pick you up and carry you away."
Charles T. Church Preserve at Shu Swamp, Mill Neck
Walking through the old-growth forest in the 65-acre preserve west of Frost Mill Road brings the feeling of being transported to prehistoric times.
"You get the large skunk cabbage with huge leaves and ferns," said Tom Hornosky, who manages the site for the North Shore Wildlife Sanctuary. "There are amazing tulip trees, 70 feet tall. Huge oaks. Tupelo trees and even poison sumac, which is rare on Long Island."
Foxes also roam. And at lower elevations, 21/2 miles of trails and boardwalks circle the streams, where baby brown and brook trout dart frenetically. The creeks feed Beaver Brook and a large pond where river otter, muskrat and snapping turtles weighing in at 65 pounds have been spotted.
In the spring, plants including jack-in-the-pulpit, dwarf ginseng, trout lily, marsh marigold and spring beauty can be seen. The preserve is also home to a shrub called hearts-a-bustin, which is found nowhere else in the state.
Bird-watchers come to see wood and other ducks, osprey, red-tailed hawks, great horned owls, chickadees, warblers, cardinals and woodpeckers. They provide a constant soundtrack unless they are drowned out by a Long Island Rail Road train on an embankment that cut the largest pond in half and reduced the water flow out to Mill Neck Creek, so sediment is turning it into a marsh.
"Although we try to keep things very natural, man has had an impact already," Hornosky said.
Montauk County Park
Montauk contains the Island's biggest area of unspoiled terrain -- rolling glacial moraine moorland, large freshwater ponds and dunes.
At Montauk County Park, 290 of the 1,100 acres have been designated a maritime grasslands management area. Crews mow to stop the natural succession process in which woody vegetation would take over because "the grasslands habitat is a vanishing landscape on Long Island," said Nick Gibbons, principal environmental analyst for Suffolk parks.
The grasslands are the result of centuries of fires and grazing. The hills are covered with native grasses such as bluestem, switchgrass, Indian grass and various goldenrod species. They are home to owls, red-tailed hawks and other raptors and a variety of warblers and other songbirds.
The area is accessible to hikers -- although ticks are rampant in late summer -- and by trail rides from the park stables.
To the west near Big Reed Pond is a swampy, moorland habitat that retains its old-growth forest with its predominant tupelo or sweetgum trees up to 4 feet in diameter as well as sassafras and maples with scattered glacial erratic boulders and ferns carpeting the ground.
Around the pond, declared a national natural landmark in 1979, are arrowood trees, lavender, marshmallow plants, cattails, loosestrife and the delicate white flowers and sweet aroma of pepperbush plants.
Dwarf Pine Plains County Preserve, Westhampton
The 290-acre tract southeast of the intersection of Sunrise Highway and County Road 31 is part of a 2,500-acre dwarf pine habitat on Long Island, one of only three such areas in the country.
A dwarf pine barrens is different from the 100,000 acres of regular pine barrens on the Island. Because the soil is even less fertile and the vegetation more sparse, the pitch pines grow only to about 40 feet instead of their normal 70.
"These plants are pretty much growing in bare sand," said Nick Gibbons, principal environmental analyst for the Suffolk parks department, which owns the site with the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
"You find plants that can thrive on very low nutrient conditions," he said. Besides pitch pine, there are also scrub oaks, cedars and shrubs with shiny leaves to prevent evaporation in the dry conditions such as lowbush blueberry, bearberry and Hudsonia. These species, visible from a 0.6-mile loop hiking trail, can grow only after an area is cleared by fire.
Visitors can see black-throated green warblers, American kestrels and marsh hawks by day and owls, nighthawks and whippoorwills by night.
Mashomack Preserve, Shelter Island
The 2,039-acre former hunting preserve that covers a third of the Island delights visitors with 10 miles of shell-covered shoreline, tidal creeks, mature oak woodlands, meadows and freshwater marshes.
The Nature Conservancy bought the property in 1980 to protect the nearly pristine peninsula and one of the densest populations of breeding ospreys on the East Coast. There are also sizable populations of endangered piping plover and least tern.
During a recent visit, site director Mike Laspia drove through the 1,400 acres of upland oak and beech forest, some trees hundreds of years old. Where the sunlight breaks through the canopy, he pointed out patches of native huckleberry, blueberry and New York ferns.
Laspia showed why Mashomack is a major birding site, pointing out robins, great crested flycatchers, white-breasted nuthatch and oven birds.
"This area never lent itself to agriculture because of the wetlands," Laspia said as he drove an old pickup toward Mashomack Point, where the beaches were covered with shells. Proof, he said, of the productivity of Mashomack Creek and nearby bay bottom.