Perched on the northern-most tip of a peninsula positioned in northern New Jersey, is the Gateway National Recreation Area, a National Park and summer beach recreational area. This summer hot-spot possesses varied interests, including the country’s oldest functioning lighthouse, an active Coast Guard station, decaying Fort Hancock facilities, former military proving grounds, birding observation decks, long swaths of beaches, and trails you can walk, jog, or bike. Gateway is an interesting blend of history, abandoned structures, and plenty of nature and wildlife.
Most people I know refer to this area as “Sandy Hook” – which might get confused with the infamous town by the same name in Connecticut. But for this story, I’ll be referring to New Jersey’s Gateway National Recreation Area by its familiar name: Sandy Hook.
New Jersey Lighthouse Challenge
My first opportunity to visit Sandy Hook was in 2018, and during the New Jersey Lighthouse Challenge.
SIDEBAR: My friends! Why didn’t anyone tell me about the NJ Lighthouse Challenge? It is exactly the type of craziness that I love – completing a list of goals. It’s the ideal stupid thing for me to do in a weekend! Do you guys know of any other challenges that are in the region?
My visit to Sandy Hook in October to check out the NJ Lighthouse Challenge was too brief. The national park is fairly large and has a diverse collection of interests. I knew I had to return. I made the decision to return as soon as I was able, before the summer crowds returned. And that was this winter weekend.
Holiday Break and No Government
During the holiday I planned to advantage of my first free day with reasonable weather to visit Sandy Hook again, and spend time exploring the Lighthouse and museum. I called a friend and invited him to join me on a day trip. What I didn\’t plan on happening was the government shut down. Naturally.
I mean, we should know my luck by now. Of course the government shut down. My entire reason for visiting the park was moot since the lighthouse would be closed. But the park would remain accessible. So I opted to continue with our day trip plans. We would visit the park and explore the abandoned military structures. Since I thought we would be able to climb over the abandoned military structures, I grabbed my Safety Girl steel toe boots and bundled up against the cold December weather.
The National Recreation Area is located on a long, thin peninsula. The region has strong military history. It was formerly a proving ground, used to test weapons. They bombed the peninsula until the weapons ability to travel great distances outgrew the long peninsula. It was also a defense point for New York waterways. As you might imagine, you can easily see New York from the beaches of Sandy Hook.
Good news – the military no longer bombs the beaches of this peninsula. Which I’m sure is an immense relief for the summer visitors. This long, well bombed peninsula, is now a National Park and popular summer hot spot. My friend and I arrived very early in the morning. Although I had read online that the gates would be open for visitors, I was still relieved to find the gates open. You just never know with the government. I mean… it is the government. Keep expectations in check. I was grateful the gates were open.
We slowly drove the length of the peninsula, agreeing to start our explorations at the northern tip and working our way south. The park has well built roads, multiple large parking lots, and service areas to cater to large summer crowds. The place is designed to handle large crowds, so I can only imagine what it is like during the peak of summer. Today? It is virtually abandoned of humans, save two other vehicles.
The Fisherman\’s Trail
We passed by military monuments, support walls, collapsing structures, and the closed Sandy Hook Lighthouse. We passed the fenced-in Coast Guard station as we drove to N. Bragg Road and parked. At the end of the parking lot we found a sandy trail named The Fisherman’s Trail. A fisherman was on the trail and walking away from us carrying his fishing gear. I can only assume he is heading to his favorite fishing spot. We parked and quickly followed him.
From the parking lot you will see a large structure called Battery Peck. Research informs me that the structure is named after Fremont Peck, a man who was killed in an accident during an ordinance testing. The structure is behind fencing with signs warning about the dangers of the crumbling structure. But it is very clear that there were plenty of people behind this fencing, and several sections of the fence collapsed into the sand. Footprints were everywhere.
Crumbling Battery Peck
A quick review of the structure shows that the metal doors on Battery Peck are secured with heavy chains and locks, or soldered shut. Park services has obviously employed efforts to keep people out of the building. And it was easy to see why.
This structure is cracked and crumbling, with chunks of cement strewn along the base as evidence of its decay. Ribbons of rusting rebar are exposed, staining the exposed cement a dark red-brown. Areas that had paint are chipping and peeling off in thick scales. The decay is beautiful and fascinating. If you look closely to overhead areas you’ll see tiny mineral deposits forming along the ceilings with the beginnings of mini-stalactites. Nature is definitely reclaiming her territory.
If you continue along the fisherman’s trail you’ll come upon another structure partially hidden behind scrub and plant growth. We found and followed a thin footpath leading towards the structure and found another abandoned building. Since there were no fences surrounding this building, we explored this area freely. It was a sturdy brick and cement structure that appeared to remain solid and relatively whole.
The large room was easily accessible and we found plenty of evidence of old fires and meals from previous visitors. Graffiti colored the inner walls. Apparently our secret building isn’t that secret to the locals! But exploration must be done, and so we explored.
We looped up along the trail and this is where we found a large observation deck with views over the peninsula with New York on the horizon. I imagine during the spring months this area is popular for migrating birds.
We continued to explore the park for several hours. There are various information displays telling the story of the military’s history and the ordinance testing performed on this slip of land. There are only a few monuments commemorating the military’s history here. But there are large and impressive structures still scattered about the land. In one section there are rails that were used to transfer machinery, or to allow for the rebound after launching a weapon. Along one wall, we found massive metal rings still secured in a cement wall. The wall shows the erosion caused by the ring smashing against the wall. I can only imagine the hurricane strength winds required to lift and slap that metal ring against the cement wall. And what kind of noise does that racket make?
As the hours passed, a few people were found walking the trails of the park. But mostly we were alone with the grazing deer. We walked along the beach and could see quartz and perfect seashells along the water’s edge. I am left wondering what kind of post-storm items you will find washing up on these shores. Especially if you consider how close this park is to New York city.
Overall we spent hours strolling, exploring, learning and discovering all about Sandy Hook and her history. I just wish I could have toured the Sandy Hook lighthouse like I had originally planned. I’ll just have to wait for the government to reopen the National Parks. Which means I’ll have to return to Sandy Hook one more time. Early spring, maybe?
Time to Eat!
Our stomachs dictated our departure – it was time to eat. After hours of walking around, exploring, and photographing the park – we agreed it was time to get warmed up and to put food in our empty bellies. We left the park and drove over the bridge, heading into the town of Highlands. We found Bay Avenue which has a large selection of shops and eateries. Some appeared closed during the off-season. Being unfamiliar with the area, we stopped at the first open restaurant: Bahrs Landing restaurant.
It was a good choice! We were extremely pleased to find a beautiful restaurant nestled along the water’s edge with views of the dock and beaches. Most importantly, Bahrs has a full service bar and amazing food. The clam chowder and seafood potpie were thick with real seafood and a yummy treat. This was a perfect way to warm up after spending hours outside in the cold.
The restaurant was selling a local author’s book about haunted river locations. I was sorely tempted to buy the book – but I knew if I did I would only be adding more “things to do” to my already very heavy to-do list. Maybe next time. 😉
Bahrs’ meal was a small touch of luxury on our Day of Discovery and a perfect ending to our adventures. Since it was off-season, we had a prime window seat and could look out over the harbor – which was charmingly decorated for Christmas. With a decorated tree, a wreath, and a disco-ball, the pier was very festive. We warmed up and relaxed with hot food and amazing views. It was a perfect ending to an adventurous day.
Will you visit?
I hope you have the opportunity to visit New Jersey’s Sandy Hook beaches at the Gateway National Recreation Area. I will try to return on year during the spring season. I’d like to see what wildlife might populate this park. If you visit, make time to walk the trails and learn about the history of this park. I read that the Ntl Park Rangers give tours, including the opportunity to climb upon one of the more stable battery buildings. Then stop by Bahrs Landing for some hearty seafood.
If you know the area well – where do you recommend we eat the next time I visit the region? Because I’ll be back! And I love exploring local eateries.
Visitor Tip: If you are in the Sandy Hook region and enjoy history and/or lighthouses, I recommend visiting the Twin Lights Historic Site in Highlands, NJ. It is the same area as Bahrs restaurant. You’ll be climbing up a narrow, curvy residential road, but there are small brown signs helping you navigate the residential neighborhood.
Twin Lights lighthouse is another gem of coastal history with a museum at the base. Normally, only one tower is open. But if you are tempted, consider joining the next NJ Lighthouse Challenge and visit during this special weekend – they may have both towers open for guests to explore.