Gateway National Recreation Area: Sandy Hook


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Sandy Hook in New Jersey is one of Gateway National Recreation Area’s three geographical units. The other two are in Staten Island and Queens, with the three parks framing the ‘gateway’ to New York Harbor.

I grew up on Staten Island and Sandy Hook was the closest beach to us for summer Jersey Shore trips. We’d load up the station wagon with family, friends and beach paraphernalia and head ‘down the shore’ several times during the hot summer months each year. Without a commercial boardwalk, it was the quietest beach within our day-trip radius, but we still left bright and early to avoid the traffic.

As kids, we thought of it as a welcome escape from the heat and a chance to body surf in waves less gross than on the Staten Island beaches. We didn’t realize that the peninsula had more to offer than the beach just after the entry gate or a life outside of July and August.

Spermaceti Cove Life-Saving station was built in 1894 as a base from which to rescue shipwreck survivors

I started visiting Sandy Hook again in recent years when a group of friends hosted a photo meet there on a mild March day. We spent the entire day walking the northern end of the peninsula, beginning at Fort Hancock.

Fort Hancock was built in 1896 and served as a primary defense of New York City up through the cold war. In 1954, operations were converted to a Nike missile base. The fort was decommissioned in 1974. There is still an active Coast Guard station just north of the fort.


What remains of the fort are the ruins of the batteries and the distinctive row of yellow houses (Officer’s Row.) When I visited with the photo group in 2014, little more than a year had passed since Hurricane Sandy had devastated these buildings and the charter school located in the complex. The school was rebuilt shortly afterwards and I’m guessing the homes have now been stabilized as well because the NPS is bidding out 60 year leases for them (according to their website.)


Sandy Hook is also home to the Sandy Hook Lighthouse. Sandy Hook claims to be the oldest lighthouse in the USA, and indeed, every time I post a photo of it on social media, a few fervent admirers will sing its virtues as THE oldest light still in use.


However, I have been to Boston Light and heard exactly the same thing from the lighthouse-obsessed couple that live on that isolated island and keep the light running when not conducting tours.

People who love lighthouses are very passionate about them and their claims to fame.

So which IS the oldest working lighthouse? It looks like Sandy Hook might actually be the winner by a technicality. Sandy Hook was built in 1764. The ORIGINAL Boston light was built in 1716 but was destroyed by fire and rebuilt in 1783. Thank you, Wikipedia!

Leaves of three, let it be!

That same year, I chaperoned a class trip to Sandy Hook for my daughter’s middle school. There were rangers and environmentalists on hand moving the kids through stations to learn about various aspects of the local ecosystem.


We learned about the horseshoe crab, a living fossil that has been on this earth for 450 million years. Their blue blood is invaluable to the medical industry and there is no synthetic substitute for it. Over-harvesting has led to a marked decline in the population in recent years and the species is threatened.

We were too late to save this one

After learning about the horseshoe crabs, the kids went out on to the beach and rescued the ones that had been beached by turning them over near the shore line and watching them swim away with the next wave.

This one happily swam away with the next wave

A year or two after the field trip, by the miracle of Instagram, I discovered that there were seals to be seen in Sandy Hook during the cold winter months! I checked the NPS website and found that I could sign up for a free ranger-guided viewing of the seals. We met our ranger at the lighthouse and caravanned to an undisclosed location. The NPS is having trouble with people traumatizing wildlife for the sake of photos, or doing plain stupid things like taking selfies with grizzlies for social media, so the rangers asked us not to post location specifics. Remember folks, it is a violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act to come within 100 yards of the seals, so if you are lucky enough to see one on the beach, keep your distance.


When we got to the viewing spot, the rangers set up some telescopes so we could see the seals more clearly. Even with my longest lens, the photos were still pretty far off, so we were in no danger of harassing a marine mammal that day. It was still pretty exciting to see them!


Another great thing about Sandy Hook in the off-season is that dogs are allowed. There are lots of great paths winding through the fort area towards the beach at the very tip of the peninsula. On a clear day, you can see lower Manhattan from this beach.

And in the summer, I hear it’s a nude beach…no dogs or cameras allowed. 🙂

Location: 85 Mercer Rd, Highlands, NJ 07732

Designation: National Recreation Area

Date designation declared: 10/27/1972

Date of my visit: March 2016




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