Maybe this park needs a new name. Island Beach State Park isn't an island but a long peninsula with limited access from the north on Route 35. The park's only road is two lanes and goes straight south past wondrous dunes and abundant wildlife that have largely been left undisturbed by people through the centuries. Beyond the two official "swimming beaches" which draw crowds, it's possible to walk for miles and never see a single person.
The two-lane road unceremoniously ends at a dead end, but there's a long stretch of walkable beach that eventually leads to a break-taking view of the Barnegat Inlet, with Old Barney lighthouse (now covered in scaffolding) standing tall across the channel on Long Beach Island.
Even with its out-of-the-way location, the park is a very popular destination in the summer, often temporarily closing when more than 2,000 cars have passed its gates.
Fish year round and drive on the beach
For New Jersey anglers, the park is a must stop. It’s the only beach that allows 4x4 vehicles with fishing equipment to drive onto the beach 24 hours a day, 365 days a year (and the only one with summer access). Click here and then go to the drop down menu for Mobile Sport Fishing Permits for more information. Or go directly to this site to purchase a pass.
Applications for 2023 permits open up October 1 of this year. Vehicles are only permitted south of Gillikins access area.
Where Chris Christie sunned and created an uproar
When the state purchased the park in 1953, it converted a 1920s residence built by Henry Phipps into the state's official vacation residence for the governor.
In a budget battle with the Legislature in 2017, then Governor Chris Christie shut down the government on July 1, including closing the state's beaches. The state only controls about 20 miles
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of the beaches along the Jersey Shore coastline, but Island Beach State Park is by far its most popular so people lined up at the entrance and were turned away. Over 4th of July weekend, Christie and family and friends were photographed in beach chairs on the beach by the governor's vacation residence. It made national news, and Christie received widespread public ridicule and barbs from late-night talk-show hosts.
Christie said, “That’s just the way it goes. Run for governor, and you can have a residence.”
Scary shack on the dunes
For the uninitiated, walking along the southern section of the park seeing only high dunes, empty sandy beaches and vast oceans, there looms an odd building on the horizon, perched unceremoniously on top of the dunes. It's a strange sight - sad, forlorn, looking mostly abandoned.
This is the Judge's Shack, believed to have been built about 1911 as a fishing shack. Originally six miles further north, it was bought by Judge Richard Hartshorne in 1942 and moved to its present location. It remained in the family until 2016, when the state purchased it. It is now preserved and managed by the Friends of the Judge's Shack. Because of its fragile structure, it is closed to the public for now.
Life Saving Service Station & Today's Coast Guard
Before there was the United States Coast Guard, there was the United States Life-Saving Service. In 1848, NJ Congressman William Newell advocated for a law to establish eight unmanned lifesaving stations from Sandy Hook to Long Beach Island to provide "surf boat, rockets, carronades and other necessary apparatus for the better preservation of life and property from shipwreck". This was typically after the ships had wrecked. Island Beach (then known as Six Mile Beach) was one of the original sites with a station (really a large boat house) constructed in 1848. Later that station was replaced by a Jersey Pattern Station House in 1898. That building is still in use today as the maintenance headquarters for the park. You can easily see it from the road on the ocean side soon after entering the park.
There is a second building -- the Nature Center -- that was once the Forked River Life Saving Service Station.
From 1871 through 1914, the Service aided 28,121 vessels, and rescued or aided 178,741 persons. It's unofficial motto: “Remember, you have to go out, but nothing says you have to come back.”
From 1902 to 1996, the station was used by the Service and then by Coast Guard as an electronic shop. It was decommissioned in 1996 and sold to the borough for $1.00.
History of Island Beach State Park
There are a couple of theories about how Island Beach got his name. In 1635, Charles I of England issued the first Earl of Stirling land grants that included land that would become Island Beach State Park. Later, a descendent regained the family title. The area then became known as Lord Stirling's Isle.
Another possibility is that during the 18th century, there was a Cranberry Inlet further north near where Ortley Beach is today. For a time, the area south was definitely recognized as an island, but the inlet closed in 1812.
But I suspect that Henry Phipps should get the credit for the name. The Pittsburgh steel magnate walked away with $48 million in 1901 from his share of Carnegie Steel Corp. when it was sold to United States Steel Corp. With his earnings, he began major real estate investments and development in Cape Cod, Great Neck on Long Island, Palm Beach and Miami. In 1926, he purchased the Island Beach property to create an exclusive summer resort. He certainly would have promoted the "island" aspect of his property. He built three homes before the stock market crash halted further development.
Fortunately for New Jersey residents, the State of New Jersey purchased the property from the Phipps heirs in 1953 for $2.7 million.
Tips for Visiting Island Beach State Park
What's New: Nothing new to report.
Starring Role: The park is featured in movie Stealing Home.
Access and Parking: The only route to Island Beach State Park is through Seaside Park and South Seaside Park via Route 35. Parking is available throughout the park in designated lots.
Amenities: Showers, changing rooms and restrooms are located at Swimming Areas 1 and 2. Other restrooms are available throughout the park.
Beaches: There is an entrance fee per vehicle from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day. New Jersey residents (driver's license required) pay $6 weekdays, $10 weekends and holidays. Motorcycle entry is $5. Non-New-Jersey residents pay $12 weekdays, $20 weekends and holidays and $7 for motorcycle entry. Anyone walking in at Fisherman's Walkway (at Parking Area 7) pays $3.
Starring Role: Island Beach State Park was featured in the movie Stealing Home with Jodie Foster and Mark Harmon.
Follow Jersey Shore author and expert R.C. Staab as he recounts his 2021 walk of every beach along the 139 miles of the Jersey Shore coastline from Sandy Hook to Cape May. Read all updated stories at www.JerseyShoreWalk.com.