This one is a bit of a drive from Philly, but great if you want to combine a beach day with some military history.
Sandy Hook’s story actually begins long before the Revolutionary War, when settlers discovered that the most navigable way into New York’s harbor was to sail close to this sandy peninsula. Its importance was such that by 1764 a lighthouse was built at its northern end. Although today (thanks to changing shorelines), the lighthouse is now over a mile from the tip, it remains the oldest standing lighthouse in the United States.
Beginning with the Revolutionary War, Sandy Hook has been used as a military outpost for the defense of New York City. American troops tried (unsuccessfully) to disable the lighthouse in 1776, before the British took control for the duration of the war. Sandy Hook was the site where Clinton’s troops were ferried back to New York City after abandoning Philadelphia and retreating from the Battle of Monmouth.
Although used as a defensive position during the War of 1812 and the Civil War, not much remains from this period. In the 1890’s the area became home to a system of Endicott batteries -masonry structures hidden in the dunes, designed to house rifled cannons used for defense against enemy war ships. One of the oldest in the US is located next to the lighthouse. Others are located throughout the park.
The yellow brick buildings of Fort Hancock were built between 1898-1910 and remained an active defense/military training ground through World War 2, housing a population of up to 7,000 personnel.
The Army also had its proving ground (weapons testing) here between 1874-1919. So many munitions were launched that unexposed shells are still occasionally found, including 2 unexploded shells found during the clean-up after Super Storm Sandy. Paved trails are signed and lead around Fort Hancock, the batteries, and the proving grounds.
After the war the peninsula became home to a Cold War Nike Missile site, remains of which can be seen throughout the park. The site was decommissioned in 1974, and today the peninsula is part of Gateway National Recreation Area, with a section used by the US Coast Guard.
Today, in addition to the historic sites and beaches, there is a 4 mile paved multi-use trail (which parallels the road, so isn’t exactly peaceful, but does have these cool bike repair/tire filling pumps along the trail),
a seasonal ferry to New York (that’s a view of NYC from the north beach),
(NJ’s only) nude beach (sorry, no pictures!), and a nice dune trail, which can be combined with a beach walk or the multi-use trail for a good hike). There are also seasonal ranger programs which get you into sites normally off limits.
Tip: Lots of deer called the island home (I’ve seen at least a dozen on every visit), so watch out when driving!