Hiking/Biking Path– Sandy Hook, Gateway National Recreation Area – Fort Hancock (Highlands), Monmouth County, NJ
Distance: I’ve done hikes of 4 miles and 6 miles here. Could definitely do longer if you wanted, or much shorter.
Type: Out and back with some small loops
Difficulty: 3 of 10 – can be buggy. Parts of trail exposed to the sun.
Total score: 8 of 10.
Terrain – beaches, beaches, beaches
Trailheads – 40° 28.074’N, 74° 0.053’W. This is Parking Lot J at Fort Hancock. There are a bazillion more trailheads.
Directions – Take Rt 36 north, then continue straight into the park. This park should be in every GPS made.
Standouts – dunes, birds, nature, oldest lighthouse in the country, and lots of defensive works.
Markings – None. Use map and you should be fine!
Map – Click for a PDF of the map for Fort Hancock and the trail map for the hiking/biking trail and Dune Trail.
Camping – There is camping available for youth groups only (used it with the Scouts, it was awesome), reserve well in advance! Anyone else looking, Cheesequake State Park and Allaire State Park are your closest bets (both individual and group sites).
NOTE: There is a day-use fee ($15 last time I checked) for the beach parking lots from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
Description: Sandy Hook, part of the Gateway National Recreation Area, has just about everything – nature, birds, dunes, fortifications from WWII on back, missile systems from after that, the oldest lighthouse in the country (okay, the one in Boston is older, but it had to rebuilt after the War for Independence. This one is still standing the same way it was when it was built in 1764), and view of New York City if you’re into that sort of thing.
Despite all the accumulated awesomeness at Sandy Hook, I never went there once until 2008, mostly because I like to stay out of parts of New Jersey where I may have to fight Devils fans. That year, my buddy Mike (all people named Mike are friends) convinced our Scouts that they should go camping up there. We didn’t really know what to expect.
What we got was pure, unexpected awesome. Huge gun batteries, miles of hiking/biking trails (we hiked), and a great weekend of camping. Since then, I’ve been back three more times with the Scouts, and twice without them. Every time, we discover something new. I’m going to squish the six trips into one post here (3 were hiking, 1 biking, 2 exploring by car) in a giant loop, so expect lots of pictures and ideas and probably more ground than you could really cover in a day (and far more weather and lighting conditions).
START: I usually start at the parking lots at the north end of the Fort Hancock complex, Lot J is a good one. The multi-use trail heads West, across the road. Before you cross your second road, look left to check out Battery Potter, a large gun emplacement. If you are particularly lucky, it might even be open for a tour that day…
Backtrack to the trail and use it to cut across the Fort Hancock complex, across the parade grounds, passing the old barracks and ending up on the side of the hook opposite the ocean at the head of Officer’s Row. Check out the large cannon on the way.
The trail will then turn south, heading between Officer’s Row and the seawall. For those of you who visit old fort complexes (this one looks a lot like Fort Mott down in Salem County, or not to dissimilar to the Presidio in San Francisco for that matter), Officer’s Row nearly always faces the parade grounds. This one, however, is unusual in that in faces the water. The view was just too good to pass up I guess. Like many parts of the Jersey shore up that way, Fort Hancock took a beating in Hurricane Sandy. I’ve included some pictures of Officers Row from before and after the storm.
At the bottom of Officer’s Row, you’ll cross the road toward the giant missiles in Guardian Plaza. These are actual missiles from the Nike Missile bases that protected New York and other eastern cities from Soviet nuclear bombers, but not armed of course. These are an Ajax missile (the first missile used in these bases) and the Hercules missile (the final type of missile used in these bases). The idea behind the Nike system was to fire a nuclear warhead at oncoming bombed squadrons, thereby making it impossible for them to drop nuclear bombs onto the cities. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but would have been a disaster if used.
So why here? Sandy Hook had it’s own Nike base, but we’ll get to that later.
There is also a memorial here to eight people who lost their lived in an accident at a base in Leonardo, NJ.
From here, we’ll cross another road and turn right to head south on the trail. You’ll head into the trees away from Fort Hancock, go through one intersection, then a second intersection (really just the entrance to a parking lot – we’ll stop here on the way back), and then come upon the Halyburton Memorial. The story here is that, after the War of Independence came to a close, several men from the Royal Navy deserted here. A group, including Mr. Halyburton of noble blood, was sent to find the deserters. Instead, they froze to death in a snowstorm, and were buried here. The original marker was placed here by the mother of the dead officer, but was destroyed by the French only a few decades later. The current marker was erected by the fine men of the CCC in the 1930s.
Onward! A very short walk down the trail from here will bring you to the radar station portion of the Nike Missile Base on Sandy Hook. Another mile South is an Nike Ajax missile, this one on a launcher, as well as another Nike missile. The launch site is off to the left.
Another half mile South will bring you to the old Lifesaving Station. This was the visitor’s center, but I think has been discontinued as such in the last two year, with the visitor’s center moved up to the lighthouse. This is as far South as we’re going to walk, time to turn around and hike almost two miles back North to…
… Horseshoe Cove, which is on the bay side. Cross the street and walk down the trail/boardwalk. To your left is the open water of the bay, to the right is a salt march. Cut down the left side to the sand and look for a variety of birds and sea creatures. This may be covered up at high tide.
Climb back up to the trail, pass over the pipes that separate the two…
As you walk down the trail, keep an eye out to the salt marsh on the right side. There are lots of birds hiding out in there. You’ll end up walking along a thin strip of beach between the bay and the marsh.
Pretty soon, you’ll hit the remains of the old wharf and Battery Arrowsmith, which was dismantled during WWI. Heed the warning signs, but you can across by following the edge of the salt marsh to get to the beach on the other side.
As the previous picture stated, walk right up the beach, then turn left to walk up the road. When you get back to Guardian Park, take the right fork and walk straight up the road to the lighthouse. The trail doesn’t really run through here, so be careful walking on the road.
So you made it to the lighthouse! Sandy Hook Lighthouse can be a pain to get a ticket to get up (lots of demand), so get your ticket early if you can. Of my six times here, I’ve only made it up this lighthouse once, and that was during the New Jersey Lighthouse Challenge. Still, this is the oldest original lighthouse in the United States, and the view of Fort Hancock from the top is pretty awesome.
Next stop, cross the street and go through the big ol’ wall into the mortar battery. There are two areas you can walk back to. Beware of goats! The park service has been renting them in the summer to eat the poison ivy.
Walk down the path, keeping the lighthouse on your left, and you’ll soon emerge onto the multi-use trail again. Yay! Make a right and head for the beach! You’ll soon arrive at Gunnison Beach (at the intersection, stay right/straight!), named for the sweet gun emplacement here. Why is this different than any other on the Hook? Because this one has a gun in it! And well maintained at that.
Gunnison Beach has another claim to fame too.
That’s right, this is the only legal nude beach in the state of New Jersey. Luckily for us, it was too cold that day for any clothing-optional folk. (First rule of nude beaches: the type of people you would want to see naked on them will never, ever be there.)
Backtrack until just before you’d cross the road, then turn right to follow the trail north. You’ll have a nice little walk before returning to the parking lot where we started our tour. Feel free to go home now. OR NOT. I’d much rather suggest cutting across the parking lot toward the HUGE parking lot, next to the concrete structures that we haven’t checked out yet. This is Nine Gun Battery, perhaps the most photogenic of the fortifications on the island. Follow the battery along behind all the way, you won’t be sorry.
When you run out of Nine Gun Battery (and hit another parking lot), follow the trail along the back of, and eventually past, the edge of the defenses. You can follow this to the beach, or to a lookout tower for birders with a view of New York City.
That’s it for our tour! Head back to the packing lot and go home!
Want even more fun? Head up for an open house day at the James J. Howard Marine Sciences Laboratory. Their facility is open to check out, complete with large fish tanks, and awesome displays. You can even touch sea creatures!
And finally, a plug for the good people at the American Littoral Society, who have a headquarters at Fort Hancock. They run a lot of great programs, like dune replenishment and grass planting, fish tagging, and clean water initiatives that help protect, preserve, and improve the water quality. Join up if you can! (Note to self: I need to send my membership renewal in)
Overall recommendation: Go next weekend. Seriously. Cancel whatever plans you had.
Nearby: Navesink Lighthouse in Highlands, NJ. Also, awesome dinosaur statue just outside the park.