Exploring Sandy Hook NJ: Fun Things to Do

What’s the closest Jersey Shore Beach to NYC? It’s not Asbury Park or Long Branch. Sandy Hook, one of 3 units operated by the federal government as the Gateway National Recreation Area, can be reached from Manhattan in about 30 minutes. Grab your cooler and a towel – here’s what to expect.

Sandy Hook beach made the news in 2021 when news broke about Bruce Springsteen’s DWI arrest. It happened in winter after the park closed for the day.

Hmmm. What was the Boss doing at the beach on a November evening?

I was curious enough to head to the Jersey Shore to take a look. I’ve enjoyed Sandy Hook in summer. It’s close to New York, has several beach areas with large parking lots and is close to one of my favorite fried seafood shacks.

What I’ve never done is head to the northern section of the park to explore remnants of its military history. Here’s a guide to the things to do at Sandy Hook including info on how to find (or avoid) the nudists.

That’s right.

Naked folk at a federal park. Read on.

Gateway National Recreation Area

Sandy Hook is one of three units operated by the National Parks Service as the Gateway National Recreation Area. The other two units are located in Jamaica Bay and Staten Island, New York. The total park spans 27,000 acres and includes beaches, former military installations and NYC’s first municipal airport. The beach at Sandy Hook is easily reached by visitors arriving by car via the Garden State Parkway. Or, hop the ferry from NYC.

Take the Ferry to Sandy Hook from NYC

Getting to Sandy Hook by car can be a hassle. The access road to the park gets very congested in the summer, particularly on weekends and holidays. If you’re coming from New York City, you can get depressed sitting in traffic. But, there’s a super easy way to get to Sandy Hook from Manhattan. The SeaStreak ferry to Sandy Hook beach departs from two NYC locations, E. 35th Street and Wall Street, from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Roundtrip fares for the 30-minute ride are $50. Once you dock, a shuttle bus brings you to the beach. Beach chairs and soft-sided coolers are permitted onboard the ferry and bus, but pets are only allowed on the ferry.

Sandy Hook Entrance Fees

There is no park entrance fee for Sandy Hook, but a parking fee is charged from Memorial Day to Labor Day, from 7 am to 5 pm. It’s $20 per day. The daily pass permits you to exit and re-enter the park on the same day. A season pass is $100. Vehicles longer than 20 feet are charged a fee of $30 per day or $200 per season.

Because Sandy Hook is operated as one of the 3 units of the federal Gateway National Recreation Area, there are additional discounts available. Free beach parking is available to America the Beautiful Interagency Military Pass holders and their families. If your child holds an Every Kid Outdoors pass (4th Graders), you can park for free too. 

Things to Do at Sandy Hook

Sun and Surf: Sandy Hook Beach Fun

You came to the Jersey Shore for the beach, right? Once you pass the entrance booths, you’ll have a number of parking areas to choose from. Looking for a typical day of fun at the beach? Pick one of the mid-park lots, Lots B, C, D or E. The walk to the beach is easy. There are comfort stations and minimal refreshments. I always pack a cooler for beach trips to Sandy Hook.

Further north is Gunnison Beach, home to the nudists. A large clothing optional sign marks the entrance. The crowd is large, fun-loving and naked. Use Parking Lot G for access.

Sandy Hook Dog Beach

Dog looking at Sandy Hook NJ cove with snow covering the sand.
I had to promise to bring my pup back when the water’s warm to go for a swim at Sandy Hook’s dog beach. Photo credit: Cathy Bennett Kopf

Sandy Hook is a popular Jersey shore beach because dogs are welcome. Walk your leashed pet on the park’s trails. Or, let your dog enjoy the ocean surf. Dogs are permitted on the oceanside beaches from mid-September to mid-March. The bayside beaches at Plum Island and Horseshoe Cove are pet-friendly all year round.

Launch a Small Boat at Sandy Hook

Have a kayak or canoe? You can launch your own boat at one of two locations at Sandy Hook: Horseshoe Cove and the bayside Beach Area C. Don’t own one? Rentals are available through Sandy Hook Kayaks. Find them at Beach Area C. They rent kayaks and stand up paddleboards, offer lessons and run tours too. You can also rent your own inflatable island. It’s $60 for two hours. The hardest decision Gilligan needs to make is whether to bring Ginger or Marianne.

Walk, Bike or Run the Sandy Hook Trails

The Sandy Hook Multi-Use Path runs parallel to the park’s road. It’s shared by bicyclists, runners and walkers. More interesting are the dune and beach trails, accessed from Parking Lot E. You’ll feel world’s away and get to see the old Nike missile base. Sandy Hook was one of over 250 active missile sites in the US and was deactivated in the mid-70’s.

Fort Hancock

Fort Hancock Historic Post welcome sign with missile behind it at Sandy Hook NJ beach
Welcome to Fort Hancock, an historic military installation located in the Sandy Hook Unit of Gateway National Recreation Area. Photo credit: Cathy Bennett Kopf

A unique feature of Sandy Hook is Fort Hancock, the remnants the the park’s history as a military installation. I expected to find a deserted ghost town, like the north end of Georgia’s Tybee Island, but the area still contains active labs, offices and housing mixed together with the abandoned buildings. Take a self-guided walking tour. If you’re a photographer, arrive early in the morning or in the hours leading to sunset to capture the line of golden yellow houses along the shore.

Climb the Lighthouse at Sandy Hook

Sandy Hook NJ lighthouse
The Sandy Hook lighthouse and keeper’s quarters are worth visiting during your time at Sandy Hook. Photo credit: Cathy Bennett Kopf

Currently operated by the US Coast Guard, the Sandy Hook lighthouse has kept watch for over 250 years. Prior to 1857 when a Fresnel lens was installed, whale oil was humped up 108 steps to keep the flame going. Guided tours are available daily.

Restaurants Near Sandy Hook

No trip to Sandy Hook is complete for me without a stop at Moby’s. Located on South Bay Avenue, it’s a quick detour once you leave the park and cross the Highway 36 bridge. Order your seafood from the window, stop by the bar and pick up a cold brew and wait at the bayfront picnic tables. I always get the clam strips. They’re as close to the ones I used to get from Howard Johnson’s. If you want something finer, Moby’s parent restaurant, Bahr’s Landing, is right next door.

Sandy Hook Hotel Options

Sandy Hook is separated from mainland New Jersey by the narrow Highway 36 bridge that gets really backed up during summer weekends and, sadly, almost all hotel options will necessitate driving to the beach. There are options south of the park near Monmouth Beach, but you’ll be adding more traffic to your trip.

Instead look west, to nearby Red Bank. There are multiple options available including two chain properties (Courtyard by Marriott and Extended Stay America) plus the Oyster Point resort has a great location on the Navesink River.