Standing at the last jetty in Cape May and looking west is the picture perfect image of a crescent beach. The ocean is smooth. The waves break evenly against a wide sandy beach. A maritime forest blocks the view. In the distance is the Cape May Lighthouse.
If you dream of peaceful walks on the beach, walk past the last lifeboat in Cape May into a world of where the only human sound you hear is "namaste."
While you're technically walking into Lower Township, the beach is essentially governed by two entities. Adjacent to the southern beach of Cape May is South Cape May Meadows, land owned and overseen by the nonprofit Nature Conservancy. Seamlessly connected to the Meadows is Cape May Point State Park, dominated at its western end by the formidable Cape May Lighthouse.
A town disappears and a birder's paradise re-emerges
Not surprisingly, the southernmost tip of New Jersey once boasted hotels, homes and even a railroad. In 1894, South Cape May was incorporated as a summer vacation colony. Over time, storms eroded the land, and the town was diminished. The Great Atlantic Hurricane of 1944 wiped out most of what was left, and a 1950 storm finished off the town.
According to the Nature Conservancy, for the next 50 years, South Cape May’s natural systems wore down. In 2007, South Cape May Meadows was restored to a natural harmony with dunes and freshwater wetlands.
The efforts of the Conservancy, the state, the federal government and other nonprofits in Cape May County have paid off. A few years ago, National Geographic named Cape May as one of the Top 10 birding destinations in the world and the only one in North America.
Although large sections of the sand are cordoned, there's plenty of space to walk and jog along the beachfront. Keep an eye out of the oyster catchers and piping plovers that are nesting in this area and freely walk from the water's edge to their fenced-in area.
(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.)
Only yards from the beach through the maritime forest, take a walk to see awe-inspiring wetlands.
Look up to see osprey, hawks, terns and seagulls and watch ducks, geese and swans fly in for a landing on the ponds. River otters and muskrats swim in the wetland, and deer and foxes move through the dunes. For bird watchers and camera enthusiasts, there are platforms and a bird blind.
Your only danger is the swinging of errant tripods carried by flocks of bird watchers on the trails of the Meadow.
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Cape May Lighthouse shines through
Since 1859, the Cape May Lighthouse has cast a watchful eye over ships along the Atlantic Ocean and the Delaware Bay at the point where two bodies of water meet. It's the third lighthouse at the point and still an active aid to navigation. The location of its predecessors is under water due to erosion.
Although technically owned by the State of New Jersey, the Lighthouse was opened to the public in1988 by Cape May MAC (Museums+Arts+Culture) which spent 15 years and more than $2 million on the restoration. More than 2.5 million visitors have climbed the 199 steps up the original, cast iron spiral stairway to the top. While its 157 feet are impressive, it's only the third tallest lighthouse in the state.
Cape May Point State Park, Part 1
Beyond the lighthouse, Cape May Point State Park has 244 acres of freshwater meadows, ponds, forests, dunes and beach and is spread across two noncontiguous beaches, separated by the city of Cape May Point. (More on its smaller section in a subsequent story.). The park was opened in 1972. Outside of the Victorian section of Cape May, it is one of the most popular attractions on the island with three trails along the wetlands and through the woods. Bug spray is useful while walking in the maritime woods.
At the eastern edge of the parking lot is large bird-watching platform where you'll see people from dusk to dawn. During the fall migration from September through November, there are Cape May Hawkwatch volunteers on the platform literally counting hawks of all varieties. On one day in 1977, the volunteers counted 21,800 hawks in Cape May, earning it the nickname as "The Raptor Capital of North America."
At the beach is a reminder of the park's past -- the Cape May Military Reservation, active during World War 1 and World War II. Remnants of a WWII gun battery sit as hulking mass on the beach. Only the bunker for Battery 223 remains visible, stripped of its original earth cover.
Particularly in the morning, the beach is a haven for joggers, walkers and fitness enthusiasts of all ages and sizes.
Tips for visiting Cape May Point State Park and South Cape May Meadows
What's New: Nothing to report.
Access and Parking: Both areas can be reached from Cape May via Sunset Boulevard. There is a free parking lot for the Meadows right off Sunset Boulevard. There is a much larger parking lot at Cape May Point State Park that is reached by making a left off Sunset Boulevard on Route 629 and following the road until it ends.
Amenities: Restrooms are located at the State Park.
Beaches: Beaches are free. No swimming is permitted. Sun bathing is discouraged.
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 Point at Jersey Shore Walk Mile post 139. See profiles of Cape May, Two Mile Beach and Diamond Beach and every beach and town along the Jersey Shore at www.jerseyshorewalk.com