There are a lot of places in New Jersey that I haven’t visited — most of them are along the shore as my parents never took my brother and me to the beach (my first trip to the shore was to Seaside Heights when I was 17) — and Sandy Hook had been on my list for a long time.
I wasn’t able to go to Sandy Hook, which is part of Gateway National Recreation Area in Monmouth County, before the summer shore traffic began because all parks in NJ were closed due to Covid-19. But in June, my company offered everyone a “mental health day” on a Friday to give us all a break from the stress of working from home. The forecast was great, so I decided I needed to get out to nature — that’s when I settled on an early morning trip to Sandy Hook.
Driving down the Garden State Parkway has never been my idea of a pleasant time, particularly in summer when everyone from New York heads down to the Jersey Shore, but with most people staying home due to Covid-19, I figured early Friday morning wouldn’t be too bad. I was right. Traffic was light and I made it to Gateway National Recreation Area at about 8 am. There were only a few cars at the toll booth to pay for parking when I arrived.
The park ranger at the entrance told me I didn’t have to pay for parking if I was just going biking — he directed me to a parking lot at the northern end of the park that was mostly for cyclists. I declined the offer and paid for parking because I wasn’t sure whether I’d take some time on the beaches; besides, it was only a few dollars going to the National Park Service.
I reached one of the first open parking lots that had few cars — there was easy access to the beach and bike path. The cycling route through Sandy Hook is only about 7 miles, but it can be longer with a few detours along the way (and I should have taken a few more of those). In all, according to MapMyRide, I biked only 14.72 miles (though it was likely a little more as the GPS tracking drew a straight line, including over water, for a good portion of it).
I took a brief stroll on the beach before the crowds arrived — listening to the tide. It wasn’t easy looking out at the Atlantic in the morning with the sun in my eyes, but it was beautiful to listen to the waves before getting on my Dahon Eco 6 for the bike ride.
Early morning in June, the bike ride was pleasant — there was plenty of shade along the path and the weather was not yet hot. Later on it would get hot, and it was more difficult to bike with less shade on the route.
Along the ride, I got to check out the area’s military history — and there is a lot of it dating back to the Revolutionary War. The British gained control of the area in 1776 and launched attacks from there into New Jersey (it was pretty much the only part of the state the British could control because this is NJ).
The first stop was a small memorial to Hamilton Douglas-Halyburton, a 1st lieutenant of the Royal Navy during the Revolutionary War, who died along Sandy Hook in 1783 as he searched for crew members who had deserted the ship. The memorial was erected in 1937 after the sailors’ remains were discovered in 1903 and re-interred in Brooklyn.
The bike route traveled through the houses of Fort Hancock and the current Coast Guard station (though the latter part is gated off). During normal times, there’s more to see at Fort Hancock, but Covid had all interior access blocked off. It’s still cool to see the somewhat modern fort exterior.
Upon reaching the barracks and other facilities, the bike trail through Sandy Hook got a little confusing. There was no longer a clear bike trail, but there were a lot of roads in different directions. Fortunately, it all went around in circles — it’s not like this narrow piece of land is so big that you can get lost.
Past the barracks of Fort Hancock, I came to the dilapidated batteries that are off limits to visitors due to safety concerns (and possibly contamination from munitions as there is a history of the military using uranium munitions in NJ). And while tourists aren’t allowed inside the gated area, sometimes wildlife gets in.
At the northern end of Sandy Hook, I would have liked to go farther, but the trail turned to deep sand and even pushing my bike through was a chore. I turned down another sandy path and was welcomed by a lookout tower that provided a great view toward Staten Island and Bayonne.
Along the ride back south, I detoured along the eastern side through the Proving Grounds, where visitors can see what remains of structures used to test military weapons like cannons and missiles. It’s cool to see these sites, but not all the signs are readable (some are faded or covered in graffiti), so it would be helpful to know a bit more before visiting.
The only part of Sandy Hook that I missed out on was Gunnison Beach, which is the only clothing optional beach in New Jersey. I also was not able to enter the Sandy Hook Lighthouse for obvious reasons due to the pandemic. It would’ve been great to see inside that 18th-century lighthouse, which is the oldest in the US, but I’ll have to wait for another trip.
Overall, it was a great day out on my bike. As a mental health day from my company, it worked out well — being out on a bike in nature was relaxing and freeing. It also helped to see something new in my home state.
On the way out of Gateway National Recreation Area just after noon, the line of cars to get in was backed up for miles, and I was thankful I had arrived early. I decided to stop in nearby Atlantic Highlands for lunch, but none of the restaurants had outdoor seating. When I got to Carton Brewing, I was told that the town hadn’t implemented a plan to allow restaurants to have outdoor seating. I picked up a couple beers to bring home and waited until I arrived back in Jersey City to enjoy lunch.
I was disappointed that Carton didn’t have any porters or stouts available, but they did have Dune Fruit, a very nice light sour beer made with prickly pear, which grows wild in the area. I highly recommend this beer for next summer.