Updated: Sep 1, 2021
Forget the image of the dainty Victorian men and women gently walking on the beach. Traversing the two plus miles of the Cape May beach may be tougher than walking all the five-mile beaches of the The Wildwoods plus the Seven-Mile Beach of Stone Harbor and Avalon. The soft sand and steep incline to and from the beach to the waterfront don't compare to the hard-packed, wider beaches of Cape May's northern neighbors.
What makes walking the Cape May beach even tougher is the larger number of coves created by the seven jetties along the beach. It takes double the effort to walk back and forth and up and over the rocks along the jetties. If you're the vacation-only jogger, head over to other parts of Cape May Island (revealed in other posts on this site).
At the eastern or northern section is Poverty Beach, so-called because it was where the poorest residents shlepped from the fancy hotels to go swim or lay on the beach. The promenade ends much further west so there's a lot of trudging through the sand to reach this quietest area of the beachfront. The beach continues its zig-zag course past seven man-made jetties until it reaches the popular Cove at the western end of the promenade. Because of the gently sloping sand and easy-breaking waves, all kinds of surfers from novice to expert compete for long rides. Swimmers beware! See the photo at the bottom of the story.
If you're interested in strolling along the Cape May Beach like the Victorians might have, take a walk on the promenade for views of the beach on one side and the gorgeous Victorian homes on Beach Drive on the other side.
Digging the Cape May Canal to fight the Germans
For most of its history, Cape May was a peninsula. Starting as early at 1808, government and shipping officials advocated for the digging of a canal across the northern section of the Cape May to create a short cut from the Delaware Bay to the Atlantic Ocean.
That changed in World War II when the United States Army Corps of Engineers dug a 3.3-mile canal to provide a protected route to avoid German U-boats operating off Cape May Point and to become part of the Intracoastal Waterway. There are three bridges across the canal including Route 109 which is the main entry from the last exit of the Garden State Parkway to Cape May.
Report from the Coast Guard
The Coast Guard is the largest land owner in Cape May occupying a huge chunk of the island on the eastern section of the island. Walking east/northeast on Cape May's beach, you run into numerous signs -- okay, we get the point -- telling people not to go any farther. A spokesman from the Coast Guard reiterated that there are no plans to allow any access to its Cape May beachfront nor access to the Coast Guard section of Two Mile Beach on the northern side of the Cape May Inlet.
This is the only place on the entire Jersey Shore where the Coast Guard flexes its muscle on any inlet. The only other off-limits section is on the northwestern tip of Sandy Hook overlooking the New York Harbor. That's also a Coast Guard station.
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While it would be tempting to request the parts of this large section of the waterfront be open to the public, the Coast Guard's may rather focus its efforts to aid and protect commercial shipping vessels and leisure boaters. After all, the Cape May/Wildwood docks comprise the second largest commercial fishing port on the East Coast behind New Bedford, Mass.
(From the vantage point of the beachfront or boardwalk, this is a breezy overview of what you see, where to park and beach access, plus a bit or history and the latest happenings. See map below.)
A nod to Cape May MAC
A group of pioneering preservationists rallied in1970 to save the Emlen Physick Estate from destruction. Their fight led others to carry the the banner of preservation and stop the destruction of many of the famous painted ladies— beautifully restored and colorfully painted Victorian homes from the latter part of the 19th century.
While it’s easy to walk or drive by the Victorian homes, your understanding of Cape May’s history and architecture will be richly enhanced by taking one of the many trolley tours offered by the Cape May MAC (Museums+Arts+Culture). MAC also runs the Emlen Physick Estate, the city’s only Victorian house museum, which provides a fascinating look into the daily life of a wealthy Philadelphia family that moved to Cape May and stayed there throughout their lives.
How did Cape Mey/Cape May get its name?
Dutch Captain Cornelius Jacobsen Mey surveyed and named the area for himself in 1620, making it the oldest named town on the Jersey Shore. Mey name was misspelled as "May" in public records. The town's name lived on as Cape May.
Cape May calls itself the Nation's Oldest Seaside Resort. That's seems fair because in the 1700s, it was a convenient rest stop for those traveling between England and Philadelphia, the largest city in the Colonies. In addition to traveling via ship, Philadelphians also used stagecoaches and horse-drawn wagons to reach the seaside resort to escape the heat of the city.
By 1801, there were ads advertising Cape Island as a seaside resort. When steam boats started traveling the waters of the Delaware Bay, Cape May grew as a major vacation destination.
Tips for visiting Cape May
Access and Parking: The main access to the area is from the Garden State Parkway which ends at Exit 0. Go straight into Cape May proper and make a right on most streets and follow straight to the beach. Pittsburgh Avenue and Madison Avenue are wide streets with good access to the beach. Parking is a challenge throughout Cape May and mostly requires paying a meter or using Park Mobile app to park.
Amenities: Restrooms and showers are located along the promenade.
Beaches: Beach badges are required daily from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Full season badges are $30 for people 12 and older. Weekly badges cost $20. 3-day badges for consecutive-day use are $15. Daily badges cost $8. Badges can be purchased at the beach or via the Viply app.
This spring and summer, follow Jersey Shore author and expert R.C. Staab as he walks the entire 139 miles of the Jersey Shore coastline from Sandy Hook to Island Beach State Park, Long Beach Island from Old Barney to the Edwin Forsythe Wildlife Refuge and from Brigantine to Cape May.
Next stop: Cape May Parks at Jersey Shore Walk Mile post 139. See profiles of Wildwood Crest, Wildwood, North Wildwood, Stone Harbor and Avalon and every beach and town along the Jersey Shore at www.jerseyshorewalk.com