Updated: Apr 19, 2022
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.
Particularly at the northern end (Lot M is best), it's a hike from the parking to the beaches. However, you will be rewarded with a spectacular view of New York City, a bird-watching platform near the parking lot, the best spots to fish along the coast, wide stretches of sand at low-tide and wildlife nesting among the dunes. Surprisingly, the main shipping channel coming out the southern part of Raritan Bay is only a few hundred feet from the shoreline. How do these huge container ships navigate without going aground?
The northern part of the park, its widest and wildest section, has an abundance of wildlife -- deer, rabbits, raccoons, osprey, seagulls, oyster catches 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 (parking at Lot L), the only authorized clothing-optional beach on the Jersey Shore. (For the unauthorized clothing-optional beach, keep reading my Jersey Shore Walk stories.)
Stop at Bahrs and discover the Other 99 Things at the Shore
Get the scoop on quiet beaches, historic sites and outdoor adventures with the #1 NJ Travel Guide. Say hi to owners Jay and Becky Cosgrove at Bahrs Landing Famous Seafood Restaurant and pick up autographed copy of100 Things to Do at the Jersey Shore Before You Die. (That was Bahrs in the Super Bowl commercial with electric Chevrolet Silverado.)
Keep a watchful eye on the chimneys of the Fort Hancock buildings for osprey. These are nesting now and soon their offspring will be testing their wings over the parade grounds.
Bay Side: Munitions Came, Exploded and Left
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. Old-time residents can still recall days when they hear the munitions exploding in the distance.
Most of the Army's buildings are in bad shape due to neglect and storms over the years, particularly Hurricane Sandy which completely flooded this area. There are 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 McFly's Deli near the Lighthouse, open seasonally. In the summer, a bike rental concession operates in the Fort area. There are several biking/hiking trails that start from the northern end and wind their way around Fort Hancock and south through the park, crossing only a few roads.
The First US Life-Saving Service Station, Reopened in 2020
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 and to provide "surf boat, rockets, carronades and other necessary apparatus for the better preservation of life and property from shipwreck". By 1878, the volunteer life-saving role was assumed by a new federal agency, the Life-Saving Service, which refurbished, replaced or built stations from Sandy Hook to Cape May and along the nation's coastlines. (This Jersey Shore Walk 2022 series of articles spotlights life-saving station buildings still in use -- public and private.)
The first life-saving station was at Spermaceti Cove in Sandy Hook. But don't start there to see the original station. Instead, travel across the bay and up the hill to Twin Lights Historic Site in Highlands where the original station was moved in 1955. Last year for the first time in a decade, this small but interesting museum re-opened. It features historic small craft, including two Francis Lifecars which were used to save people from shipwrecks.
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.”
How Sandy Hook got its name
Sandy Hook is derived from the Dutch phrase that means a "spit of land", not "hook" as many people. For centuries, this southern section of the New York Bay, was used 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. At the northwestern tip, separated from the main rows by a fencing, the U.S. Coast Guard still operates a base.
Tips for Visiting the Northern End of Sandy Hook
What's New: Concerts are back this summer. A small convenience store, McFly's on the Hook opened last year 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. As of last summer, the daily admission fee increased to $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. The parking is open 6am to 8pm daily, but may close to vehicles once the parking lots are full.
Amenities: In the summer, food trucks can be found scattered in Parking Lots B, C & D. Changing rooms and toilets are food near Gunnison Beach. There are toilets near the lighthouse.
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 recounts his walk of the 139 miles of the Jersey Shore coastline from Sandy Hook to Island Beach State Park, from Old Barney to Beach Haven, from Brigantine to Cape May. Read stories about each beach town at www.JerseyShoreWalk.com