Gateway National Recreation Area
The park is made up of four separate pieces of land in both New York and New Jersey. Created in 1974 when several military bases were decommissioned, the gateway is formed by the south end of Far Rockaway, Queens, and Sandy Hook, New Jersey. Sailors approaching from the open sea would pass between these peninsular gates into the Raritan bay and then to all of New York and New Jersey’s ports. Gateway’s 26,000 acres offer beaches, dunes, wooded uplands, bays, a holly forest, a wildlife refuge, old coastal fortifications, historic airfields and the nation’s oldest lighthouse in continuous operation.
Breezy Point is the peninsular landmass forming the northernmost gate to the bay. The bathhouse, boardwalk and outdoor clock have been landmarks since the 1930s. Fort Tilden is a 317-acre former army base used intermittently for coastal defense since 1812. Hike through the back fort area to explore trails and old military remnants. The beaches here contain one of the last natural dune systems in the city. Breezy Point Tip contains nesting colonies for various endangered bird species, so recreation here is limited to fishing. Swimming is not permitted. Jacob Riis Park has a guarded swimming area, food services and restrooms.
Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge supports some 300 bird species. A trail system allows visitors to explore the fringes of the habitats. Also here is the North 40 nature trail and Floyd Bennett Field, the city’s first airport, later a naval air station, now known for its great abandoned runways upon which cyclists and in-line skaters frolic. Canarsie Pier, built in the 1920s, is open daily for fishing and picnicking; there’s also a restaurant and children’s play area. Dead Horse Bay offers nature trails and fishing.
Sandy Hook, the southerly gate to Raritan Bay, is the only part of the park in New Jersey. Sand dunes are anchored by deep-rooted plants which in turn protect the Hook’s uplands from sea winds. The lighthouse here is the oldest in continuous operation in the United States. Fort Hancock is the last of several forts erected to protect shipping. Tours of the fort and natural areas are offered in summer, along with lifesaving demos and children’s shows in the fort’s theater. Four campsites are open by reservation. The Hook is also popular with bikers, hikers and, like Jamaica Bay, bird watchers.
Staten Island’s southwestern side is the site of Great Kills Park. Once an Algonquin Indian village, today it’s a favorite spot of fishermen and swimmers. Athletic fields, a model airplane field, walking trails and educational programs are open to the public. Miller Field, further north, was a service point after World War I for U.S. Air Service hydroplanes. Environmental field trips can be taken here by school groups during spring and autumn. Birding, geology and stargazing walks are offered on weekends. In summer there are discovery walks amid the abundant woodlands, grasslands, dunes and beaches. Crooke’s Point is being returned to its natural state as a habitat for plants, birds and other animals. It is one of the stopping points for the threatened Monarch butterflies in their annual migrations to and from Mexico.
The Floyd Bennett Field and Breezy Point recreation areas hold lotteries to make gardening plots available to families. The Urban Outback program allows families to camp out for a night with a ranger; all camping gear is supplied. A total of 35 family members can participate in these camp-outs, which occur once each spring, summer and fall. Or, families can also camp out on their own anytime, but must supply their own gear.
Each recreational area offers a variety of free activities and workshops for families throughout the year (usually on weekends).
Family Contact Garden plots: Floyd Bennett Field, 718-338-3799; Breezy Point, (718) 318-4300; Camping: (718) 338-4306; weekends: Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, 718-318-4340; Floyd Bennett Field/Ecology Village, (718) 338-4306; Breezy Point, (718) 318-4300; Staten Island, (718) 351-6970
Family Admission: Garden plots: free by lottery; Urban Outback and weekend activities: free; private camping: $25 permit fee
Guided Field Walks for Classes: School groups can take guided field walks through the four New York sections of the Gateway National Recreation Area. Preparatory teacher workshops are a requirement for all guided walks.
Programs and Workshops for Teachers: Several classes are offered to teachers in preparation for subsequent student activities. The Camping Leadership Course, offered only in the fall, is a ten-week course that teaches camping basics so that teachers may bring students on an overnight camping trip at Ecology Village. Project Feederwatch trains teachers to involve students in the research and identification of birds. Eco-Inquiry explores the concepts of food chains, decomposition and nutrient recycling.
School Contact Department: Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge: (718) 318-4340; Floyd Bennett Field/Ecology Village: (718) 338-4306; Breezy Point: (718) 318-4300; Staten Island: (718) 351-6970
School Season: Field Walks: year-round; teacher programs: varies
Reservation time: Fall Field Walks: ASAP after Labor Day; spring Field Walks: ASAP after Jan 1; camping: course must precede camping trip; other teacher programs: varies
School Admission: Field Walks: free; teacher programs: vary