Gateway National Recreation Area
|Fall colors on Staten Island, New York (Joel Sartore/National Geographic/Getty)|
Gateway National Recreation Area could not be more aptly named. Two wings of this park stretch into New York Harbor like a stuck-open gate. These immovable masses jut out of both New York and New Jersey, reaching toward each other. However, the park serves up much more than peninsulas. Several sections in both states, broken up like pieces of a puzzle in Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, and Sandy Hook, New Jersey, offer great beaches and bird-watching. Who knew?
All of this preserved land set aside in one of the world's most populous areas seems like an anomaly. But it is a welcome respite from the concrete jungle that surrounds it. Where else can you watch a peregrine falcon dive against the backdrop of a skyscraper skyline? And the marshlands of Jamaica Bay are just one part of this park. Fantastic beaches, old military forts, and wildlife are the big draws to this unexpectedly diverse park.
Hike the Forts
That this rec area resembles a gate is no coincidence: The area was truly the gateway to America for arriving immigrants—and invading armies. Because of the land's strategic position, it proved necessary to build military forts here, and the structures that remain make for great exploring. In Brooklyn, Fort Tilden has been a defense point for the city since the War of 1812. Wandering around the fort in the sandy dunes, which are topped with tall grasses, as well as in the upland areas of young coastal woodland, makes for a great walk.
Then head to the New Jersey side and Sandy Hook—the other main strategic point. Explore Fort Hancock's many buildings, which are still largely intact. Tours are offered in the summer. And don't miss the lighthouse, which dates from 1764—America's oldest in continuous operation.
Bird the Woods
Birding in New York City? It's not as crazy as it sounds. In fact, sitting smack in the middle of the Atlantic flyway, the city is a natural resting spot for migrating birds. Gateway offers the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge for just that purpose. And what a spot—more than 325 species have been observed in this area.
So what can you see here? Take a seat on a bench near the West Pond and look for black-bellied plover, American oyster catchers, marbled godwits, egrets, and herons, to name just a few. The northern bayberry attracts warblers and mockingbirds, and long-eared owls roost in Japanese black pine trees. And though the refuge was created with the flyway in mind, it's not just for the birds. Other creatures that make their homes here include butterflies, reptiles, and amphibians. The best times to go are during the spring nesting season and the fall migration, when thousands of ducks and geese stop over while passing through the Atlantic flyway.
Relax on the Beach
They may not have the pure, white sand of the Caribbean, but New York beaches are worth checking out—and even relaxing on. Summertime swimming is popular, and though these beaches may get a bit crowded on the weekends, the calm waters and expansive sand make for unbeatable walking or sunbathing. In the Breezy Point section, on Rockaway Peninsula, check out Jacob Riis Park. Find terrific swimming on Staten Island at Great Kills Park in the waters of Lower New York and Raritan Bays. And more clean, spacious beaches can be found on Sandy Hook. Just keep an eye out for the signs: One stretch of this beach is devoted to nude sunbathers.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication