Updated: Jun 5, 2021
Standing at the northern tip of the northern part of the Jersey Shore, it seems like you can almost wade to New York City. But turn your back on the hustle and enjoy one of the most peaceful bucolic places on the Jersey Shore -- Sandy Hook park of the Gateway National Recreation Area of the National Park Service. From the entrance to the Park near the Highlands Bridge to the parking lot near the northern beaches is roughly six miles.
Bruce Springsteen partied here. And was arrested.
If you live anywhere in New Jersey and New York, you read about Springsteen's DWI arrest in November 2020 near the Lighthouse. He eventually pled guilty to consuming alcohol in a closed area. It's not like any of the park is actually "closed". As you enter the park from the south, there's a new LED board at the entrance. Among the flashing messages is one that reads "Alcohol Prohibited,' presumably as a reminder to Springsteen.
Sandy Hook gets its name from the Dutch who referred to it as "spit of land" that juts out into the southern part of the New York Bay. For centuries, mariners have used it as a guidepost to the harbor, particularly with the beacon on top of Sandy Hook Lighthouse, the oldest continuously operating lighthouse in the United States. The U.S. Coast Guard still operates a base overlooking the harbor.
The northern part of the park, it's widest and wildest section, has an abundance of wildlife -- deer, rabbits,
raccoons, osprey, seagulls and pipping plovers, whose nesting patterns often cause the Park Service to close areas of select beaches. At low tide in the spring, seals can be spotted on the rocks in the bay near Fort Hancock. In the summer, a very different kind of wildlife -- the human kind -- can be found on Gunnison Beach, the only clothing-optional beach on the Jersey Shore.
Munitions Came, Exploded and Left. Finally, Ice Cream Arrives.
On the bay side overlooking Raritan Bay is the ghost of Fort Hancock, a U.S. Army post that once served as the proving ground for military weapons. Most of the Army's buildings are in deplorable shape due to neglect and storms over the years, particularly Hurricane Sandy which completely flooded this area. There' are a few hopeful signs of life with the advent of public-private partnership restoring some of the buildings and the introduction of a bed and breakfast and a new deli near the Lighthouse.
In the summer, a bike rental concession operates. There are several biking/hiking trails that start from the northern end and wind their way around Fort Hancock and south through the length of the park.
Tips for Visiting the Northern End of Sandy Hook
What's New: McFly's on the Hook opened April 1 near the Lighthouse, serving food, snacks, beverages and ice cream.
Access & Parking: State Route 36 is the only access to the park via car. The majority of the 4,000 parking spaces are located at the northern end. From Lot M, hike for the best view of the New York City skyline. The park service announced on April 22, 2021 that daily admission is now $20 per car from Memorial Day to Labor Day and $100 for the season. There is no fee for people walking, running or biking into the park. The Seastreak Ferry operates summer service from Manhattan directly to Sandy Hook on the bay side near Fort Hancock and the Coast Guard station.
Amenities: A new permanent food option, McFly's on the Hook, just opened near the Lighthouse. In the summer, food trucks can be found scattered in Parking Lots B, C & D. Changing rooms and toilets
The beaches are open. You're working virtually. Best summer yet at the Jersey Shore.
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are available throughout the park including North Beach and Gunnison Beach.
Attractions: Sandy Hook Lighthouse is the oldest continuous lighthouse in America. The lighthouse, museum and gift shop are closed due to Covid. Birding is best experienced from the platform north of Parking Lot M. In the winter and early spring at low tide, seals converge on rocks just west of the brick buildings of Fort Hancock. In season, bikes can be rented at Fort Hancock.
Beaches: At Lot L is Gunnison Beach, the only clothing optional beach on the Jersey Shore. North Beach offers the best opportunity to social distance by walking onto the wide, mostly empty beaches.
Starring Role: In Jersey Girl, Ben Affleck gloomily sits in Sandy Hook looking across to his failed life in Highlands.
This spring, summer and fall, follow Jersey Shore author and expert R.C. Staab as he walks the entire 139 miles of the Jersey Shore from Sandy Hook to Island Beach State Park, from Old Barney to Beach Haven, from Brigantine to Cape May.