The sound of waves crashing coupled with that amazing saltwater breeze only the ocean can provide is that much better when you’re spending a summer day at Sandy Hook Gateway National Recreation Area. The national recreation area is made up of seven miles worth of clean beaches, stretches of the bay, bike paths, walking trails, ocean swim areas, lighthouses, and historic buildings — all of which are nestled neatly between the sparkling New York City skyline and the charming scenery of Highlands. And, it’s one of the most family-friendly beach destinations for any #NJMOM, making it a go-to for my own family every single summer.
Sandy Hook is perfect for a day in or on the water
There’s something to do for every age at Sandy Hook, and some of the options aren’t your traditional boardwalk-and-sand-castle type of beach activities you’d typically find at the Jersey Shore. If you choose to spend a day along the shoreline within Sandy Hook Gateway National Recreation Area, you’ll have access to a variety of clean oceanfront beaches and pristine bay beaches, both of which are ideal for swimming and fishing.
Boating with your family is also allowed, as long as the boats don’t have a motor, so pedal boats and row boats are definitely a must-try! You can launch these from Beach Area C and Horseshoe Cove. If we’re feeling adventurous, my fiance and I will borrow our friend’s row boat and take our 3-year-old daughter for a boat ride in Horseshoe Cove. We always pack her life jacket whenever we go for this reason, just in case! These little boating excursions take our Sandy Hook beach visits to the next level, and definitely make the trip more memorable for her.
Park rangers also lead canoe cruises for visitors 14 and older. They’re a great way to explore Sandy Hook with older kiddos from the water! #NJMOM hack: you can reserve a spot for a cruise in advance by calling 877-444-6777.
Explore nature and history as you visit Sandy Hook
A winding, scenic pathway also runs through Sandy Hook, running parallel to the beach areas and cutting in and out of the forest. This is the best for family walks, runs, rollerblading sessions and bike rides. Our cardio of choice is usually running, so we like to use the pathway at Sandy Hook for this reason especially. If it’s a really hot day, though, we’ll stick to a nice, slow-paced nature walk instead.
There are also a few educational events held in the park for your little nature lovers, like bird watching. You can check out some of the 325 plus (!) species of birds that live within Sandy Hook. Park rangers lead the excursions on Saturday and Sunday mornings in the Lot M Observation Deck, between 9:30AM to 11:30PM.
Don’t miss a stop at the 250-year-old Sandy Hook Lighthouse! You and the fam can tour and climb this historic landmark as long as the kids are 48 inches tall. The tours are first-come, first-serve from May 1 through October 31, and run between 1PM and 4:30PM.
What to know before you go
So you’re sold on taking your family to Sandy Hook? There are just a few things to know before you head out on your road trip!
If you visit Sandy Hook beach any time between Memorial Day weekend and Labor Day, you’ll have to pay a park ranger to enter between 7AM to 5PM and display the parking permit on your car’s dashboard. It costs $15 per car per day or $75 for a season pass. Once you purchase your pass, you’ll pretty much have free reign of any beach parking lot you want to park in (depending on how far you’d like to drive).
If you plan on swimming with your family, lifeguards are on duty from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day, between 10AM and 6PM at every beach. There are separate men and women’s restrooms and changing faculties at each beach area, in addition to the body and foot showers that are perfect for rinsing off sand and saltwater. And don’t sweat it if you forget any necessary beach day essentials! We’ve already gotten to Sandy Hook and realized we forgot a beach chair back home, but luckily, beach chairs and umbrellas can be rented at each Sandy Hook beach on a daily basis. This has been a life saver for us a few times more than I’d like to admit. Sunblock and sand toys are occasionally sold also.
Although you can bring your own food and snacks, there are also some food trucks that set up shop in the beach area, offering yummy summer treats like hot dogs, acai bowls, ice cream, and iced coffee.
Tips and tricks to make it the best Sandy Hook trip ever
If you plan on spending a Saturday or Sunday at Sandy Hook during the summer, aim to get there as early as you can! Gates open at 7AM and parking lots fill up fast, and the park rangers will sometimes have to close the entrance gates to the public as early as 1PM. We’ve had this happen before, and it’s not fun. So definitely get there early. Sandy Hook also enforces a strict carry-in, carry-out policy…so if you bring a cooler of sandwiches or a picnic basket with your family’s lunch, be sure to also bring a few garbage bags to carry out your trash with you.
Traveling from northern New Jersey? Don’t cram all the activities Sandy Hook has to offer in just one day! There are plenty of options to stay overnight within the beautiful seaside town of Highlands, right next to Sandy Hook, from quaint inns to beach house Airbnb rentals.
For more information, visit Sandy Hook Gateway National Recreation Area Operating Hours Page or Sandy Hook Gateway National Recreation Area, FAQ Page.
Sandy Hook Gateway National Recreation Area
128 South Hartshorne Drive
Highlands, NJ 07732