Updated: Sep 13
Going along the Delaware Bay north of Cape May Point, the final walkable section of Cape May Island is a roughly two-mile beach, part of Lower Township. Because there are no lifeguards, beach patrol or signage, the beach may seem like one uninterrupted stretch.
However, it is comprised of three distinct areas: a section of Cape May Point State Park, an area of the township commonly known as Sunset Beach and the state-run Higbee Beach Wildlife Management Area -- one of the most famous sites for bird watching in North America and the world.
Sunset Beach plus the evening flag ceremony
Starting in the middle and at the most accessible point of this beach is Sunset Beach. As the name suggests, the beach is the most popular place to watch the sunset at the Jersey Shore. Although the sun can never set over the Atlantic Ocean at the Jersey Shore, this westerly view across the widest part of the Delaware Bay suffices for an unofficial ocean sunset. Get there at least 30 minutes before the sunset and park anywhere you can, even along the Sunset Boulevard. It's chaotic but fun.
Beachgoers will find the free beach enticing especially for the Delaware Bay's tranquil waves and calm water. Walking north, you will encounter Pond Creek, which cannot be easily crossed via foot due to an unusually deep water. You are strongly advised not to swim across the channel, but you can learn how to access the remainder of the beach below in the section about Higbee Beach.
Saluting the Flag
At the end of Sunset Boulevard is the family owned Sunset Beach Gift Shops, Mini Golf and Grille. Every summer night since 1975, the Hume family has honored a departed U.S. veteran in a flag ceremony at the beach. Casket flags are flown daily by arrangement with veterans’ families and then lowered in a 20-minute ritual. Information about the honoree is read, recordings of
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at the Emlen Physick Estate
Stop at the Gift Shop at the historic Victorian Emlen Physick Estate for autographed copies of the #1NJ Travel Guide, 100 Things to Do at the Jersey Shore. The shop is located at 1048 Washington Street. While there, tour this historic estate or take a trolley ride.
“God Bless America” and the national anthem are played and taps are sounded—sometimes live—as the veteran’s relatives lower the flag.
The evening flag ceremony is held daily at 7 pm the Memorial Day Weekend, 7pm Saturdays in June, daily at 7pm in July and August and at 6pm Saturdays in September. All of the flags that we fly at our mast are veterans' casket flags that families bring with them from their loved one's funeral.
(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.)
SS Atlantus, the Concrete Ship
Not far out to sea from the parking lot at Sunset Beach are sunken remains of SS Atlantus, the most famous of the 12 concrete ships built by the Liberty Ship Building Company during and after World War I. In the case of the Atlantus, she didn't begin service until after the war, transporting American troops back home from Europe and carrying coal in New England. After two years of service, the ship was retired in 1920.
In 1926, Colonel Jesse Rosenfeld purchased the Atlantus for use in the creation of a ferry dock at Cape May. The Atlantus was repaired and towed to Cape May later that year. On June 8, a storm hit and the ship broke free of her moorings and ran aground 150 feet off the coast of Sunset Beach. After several attempts to free her, the private company gave up. Only a small section of the 259-foot ship is still visible.
WWII Lookout Tower in Cape May Point State Park
Just south of the Sunset Beach shops is a small section of Cape May Point State Park, noncontiguous to the larger section of the state park that includes the Cape May Lighthouse. The most visible structure in this part of the park is the World War II Lookout Tower, now on the National Register of Historic Places.
The federal government must have been very concerned about a German attack along the East Coast because not only did they build the Cape May Canal, but they built 15 lookout towers from North Wildwood to Bethany Beach, Delaware, to detect enemy vessels and direct the artillery fire from nearby coastal batteries. While no German boats made it up the Delaware Bay to attack the Philadelphia Navy Yard, German submarines sank many merchant vessels off the coast of Cape May.
In 2004, Cape May MAC (Museums+Art+Culture) leased the property from the State of New Jersey and raised $1.3 million with the help of the New Jersey Historic Trust, the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority and the state. After building spiral staircases in the tower so the public could safely climb to the top and constructing a walkway from the road to the tower, MAC opened the tower for tourists in April 2009. Since then, they added memorial plaques to allow family members to honor veterans of any war or engagement.
This tower was originally one of four in Cape May County. Two others have been torn down. A third tower is located inside Cape May’s Grand Hotel at Beach and Philadelphia Avenues.
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. In the article describing the beach, the author wrote, "At dawn on a good day, legendary Higbee Beach offers front-row seats to a feathered fashion show. With a little luck, you can see 20 species of warblers, each in its own colorful costume.” On my walk along the beach, I was greeted with flocks of birds enjoying the winds above the maritime forest. Other times, it's been quiet, but bird watchers still flock there every day.
In 1977, the state of New Jersey purchased 200 acres and opened the Higbee Beach Wildlife Management Area for public access. It's now more than 1,000 acres of dune, scrubland and salt marsh and a key stopover for migratory birds in the spring and summer. The beach is open for walking, and there are trails along the canal, but there are no trails into the interior. You can access the beach parking lot by the canal via Route 641/New England Road.
Whether or not you are lucky enough to see flocks of birds, you will be able to see a striking coastal forest unlike anywhere else at the Jersey Shore. You might also see...
Nude Beach where you could (in theory) get a ticket
Despite a legal rebuke from 20 years ago, some nude sunbathers still use Higbee Beach for something other than bird watching. Because Higbee isn't easily accessed and no wildlife or Lower Township personnel supervise the area, the beach is a bit of a free-for-all. Along the first half mile or so on the beach, you'll see people walking their dogs or taking a leisurely stroll. Further south, sunbathers of all sorts hang out, knowing that most people don't come to Higbee for a long beach walk and that Pond Creek's deep channel effectively cuts off walkers and runners from popular Sunset Beach.
Prior to 1999, Higbee was a popular place for nude bathers. After complaints, in 1999 a Lower Township police officer went "walking with binoculars on Higbee Beach trying to find nude people to charge with violating the public-nudity ordinance." He found Arlene Vogt and issued her ticket for "nudity in a public place". Ms. Vogt appealed saying she had the right to be topless just like men have the right to be topless. She was sentenced to pay a fine of $500 of which $450 was suspended, together with $30 in costs.
Her appeals continued to the Superior Court of New Jersey, which ruled against her appeal in 2001, writing, "We conclude that Arlene's state equal protection claim fails the balancing test. The nature of the right..appearing topless in public..is not central to the ordinary person's life enjoyment or liberty. The ordinance does not totally prevent Arlene from pursuing her "right." She can exercise it at a private beach or at a public beach elsewhere where nudity is permitted."
In New Jersey, that means she has to travel about 145 miles to the Sandy Hook Unit of the Gateway National Recreation Area and visit Gunnison Beach.
Cape May Canal
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.
Higbee Beach provides the best view of from the island of the dock of the Cape May-Lewes Ferry and of boats coming in and out of the canal.
Tips for visiting Lower Township Beaches
What's New: Nothing to report.
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 on Lafayette Street and head west along Sunset Boulevard. The road ends at Sunset Beach. There is free parking. A few blocks east is access to the World War II Lookout Tower. The main street in Cape May Point is Cape Avenue. The Cape May Lighthouse and the World War II Lookout Tower are not part of the town.
Beaches: All three beaches along this stretch are free.
This spring and summer, Jersey Shore author and expert R.C. Staab walked 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. See profiles of every beach and town along the Jersey Shore at www.jerseyshorewalk.com
A final word on the last stop of the Jersey Shore Walk
Thank you to my wife, Valari, for supporting the crazy idea that I could walk the entire Jersey Shore coastline over the spring and summer of 2021.