Rides & Destinations: Sandy Hook, the Atlantic Highlands, and the Gateway National Recreation Area

For a change of pace, visit the Atlantic Highlands, Gateway National Recreation Area and more along the Jersey shore.

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by Joe Berk
The Atlantic Highlands (that’s the region, the town itself is called Highlands) hugs Sandy Hook Bay, directly opposite New York City.

What: Sandy Hook, the Atlantic Highlands, and the Gateway National Recreation Area.
How to Get There:
Pick up New Jersey SR 36 anywhere along the Jersey shore, and head north (if you’re south of Sandy Hook), or south (if you’re north of Sandy Hook).
Best Kept Secret:
Bahrs Landing in Highland. Try anything on the menu; everything is magnificent. If you want something truly special, lobster preceded by a cup of clam chowder is just what the doctor ordered.
Leaving without checking the weather: New Jersey can get cold and icy during the winter.
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A ride along the Jersey shore is a different kind of motorcycle adventure. It’s not focused on twisties or mountain scenery. Instead, your ride north on the Jersey shore will showcase magnificent seaside homes on the left, the mighty Atlantic Ocean on the right, and the sounds and smells of boardwalks, pizza, salt air, and what can only be described as the best seafood in the world. Any motorcycle will do, but it’s sometimes a slow putt through surface street traffic (New Jersey is our most densely populated state).

A good day ride is to find your way to Point Pleasant along SR 34 and SR 35, turning left when you hit the ocean and following Ocean Avenue north along the eastern edge of our continent. The highway numbers change as you go north, but the Ocean Avenue moniker mostly stays the same. You will veer inland a few times (not all of the area’s many inland waterways have bridges), but stick to the coast and continue north. You’ll pass through Manasquan, Belmar, Asbury Park (yep, of Bruce Springsteen fame), Deal (where the rich people live), Monmouth Beach, Sea Bright, and then you’ll arrive at our destination for this trip: the Atlantic Highlands, Sandy Hook, Fort Hancock, and the Gateway National Recreation Area. It’s a strategic region, as it controls the sea and air lanes of the greater New York metropolitan area. This region played key roles during the American Revolution and all that followed. Of tremendous military significance, it was also a haven for bootleggers during Prohibition.

The Atlantic Highlands (that’s the region, the town itself is called Highlands) hugs Sandy Hook Bay, directly opposite New York City. This is the highest point south of Maine on our eastern seaboard, with hills that rise nearly 300 feet above the Atlantic. As you ride through Highlands, grab East Highland Avenue and then Scenic Drive, which take you directly to Mt. Mitchill and its commanding views of Fort Hancock, Sandy Hook Bay and New York City. There’s a 9/11 monument at the peak (the Twin Towers and their destruction were clearly visible from here). The monument is a large eagle clutching a Twin Towers I-beam, and if you look closely, you’ll see a tear in its eye. Names of local residents who perished that day are inscribed on the base.

Retrace your ride back south to the intersection of SR 36 and the southern end of Sandy Hook Bay, exit right, and follow the signs to Fort Hancock and the Gateway National Recreation Area. You’ll turn onto Hartshorne Road, named for the man who owned this area and turned it over to the U.S. government in 1806. At the very tip stands the oldest operating lighthouse in the United States, the Sandy Hook Lighthouse, built in 1764.

The Gateway National Recreation Area includes old Fort Hancock, an army base that dates to the 1800s. The area was an Army proving grounds for monstrous coastal artillery pieces, as one of Fort Hancock’s first missions was to protect New York from seaborne invaders. There are numerous weapons on display, including Battery Potter, a unique concept with huge underground guns raised via steam power into their firing positions. As the threat evolved, so did Fort Hancock’s weaponry. During the Cold War, Fort Hancock shifted its focus from the ocean to the skies. It became an anti-aircraft installation, first with 90mm and 120mm anti-aircraft guns, and later with Nike Ajax and Nike Hercules missiles. On the ride in, you’ll pass between both missiles, proudly displayed on either side of Hartshorne Road. Fort Hancock was decommissioned in 1974, but the old post still remains as a key component of the Gateway National Recreation Area, and a portion of it still serves as a U.S. Coast Guard base.

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