Editor's Note: This week's Day Tripper column sends you to Sandy Hook, for all its federal-park, lighthouse-tall, miles-of-beach wonderfulness. Take the Garden State Parkway North to Exit 109, and head northeast to Route 36 for a trip that's about an hour's drive from Toms River. Enjoy the March serenity of Sandy Hook, before it gets as crowded as our own Island Beach State Park does come Memorial Day.
It may still be a little chilly for this idea, but the thought is a warm one, worth a try. The weather is actually getting nicer; and it'll still be a while before the throngs of sometimes testy tourists hit the Jersey Shore highways.
So, don't forget, if you're looking for something relaxing and free (and that's for me) to do on a lazy Sunday afternoon these days, there's always the enigmatic, still basically barren Sandy Hook.
While natives to our area may raise objections over chilly conditions and cold Atlantic waters (and it does indeed still seem a little to brisk to brave the clothing-optional Gunnison Beach), you can remind them that Sandy Hook, part of the Gateway National Recreation Area system of federal parks is and always has been more than just sand and surf. It's a BENNYless time for shore residents right now.
For starters, historic Fort Hancock is found at the end of the peninsula. There are several rotating exhibits on view at the Sandy Hook Visitors Center, and, in case you natives have forgotten, the site is home to America’s oldest continuously operational lighthouse.
If the weather is warm, you can grab the bikes and hit the seven-and-a-half-mile bicycle trail, or bring the binoculars for a bit of coastline bird-watching.
Best of all, the park is free to visitors (and shore area residents can actually get near it) until peak beach season begins on Memorial Day and ends on Labor Day.
If the sun is out and you’re ready to mix your exercise with a bit of history, Sandy Hook is a good head-turning reminder of one of nature and history's sanctuary that sits right in front of us every day.
So, let these outlined facts serve as a simple reminder of what a trip it would be to visit before the tourist floodgates open ...
Why it’s worth the trip: The Sandy Hook peninsula is a long strip of land, and offers miles of space for activities. There are those unique sights, such as old battlements and displays of weaponry once used by the U.S. Army, as well as long stretches of natural vegetation for viewing wildlife in the area. Sandy Hook offers several different options in one great location.
You’ll probably get hungry: Bring a picnic basket with you to the park with some goodies from Whole Foods or Slater's Subs on Route 35 in Middletown. But if you’d rather have a meal out, drive into Sea Bright. There you’ll find Mad Hatter Pizza, Ichabod’s, and several bars and pubs. If you’re working on a stricter budget, grab something quick from 7-11 orDunkin' Donuts. If you want a more elaborate meal, dine at McLoone’s Rum Runner.
While you’re in the area: You can view the hotly contested, yet newly completed bridge that connects the Sea Bright/Sandy Hook side of the Navesink River to the Highlands side. You can also take stone's throw jaunt over to the Twin Lights Lighthouse Station up in the Highlands hills, located 200 feet above sea level (This visit is suggested only to travelers with vehicles with well-functioning transmissions, as, in case you've forgotten, the roads of the Highlands are very steep and can rise well above at 45 degree angle).
Park Ranger Tyrone Nulls, of the Sandy Hook Unit of Gateway National Park, pointed out some of the major sites of the property.
"Fort Hancock has America’s oldest continuously operating lighthouse, which was built in 1764. We have lighthouse tours every day from 1 to 4:30 p.m.," Nulls said. "On the weekends, from 1 to 5 p.m., we have the 'History House' tours, which are for the Lieutenants Residence for Fort Hancock officers from 1898.”
Fort Hancock, in conjunction with Leonardo-stationed Earle Naval Base, was a significant line of defense for New York Harbor from the Spanish-American War up to the Cold War.
The Sandy Hook Visitors Center highlights another side of the property.
"[The center] is a former life-saving station for the area," Nulls said. "It regularly has exhibits of equipment that was used in rescues, as well as wildlife exhibits." The Visitors Center is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.