Travel

This New Jersey State Park Is the Beach Escape You Need Right Now

This is not the Jersey Shore you're expecting.

A local resident at Island Beach | Tick Tock Photo / Shutterstock
A local resident at Island Beach | Tick Tock Photo / Shutterstock

People in New Jersey spend a lot of time defending New Jersey. I’m not here to tell you my home state is better than the rest, or that the bagels here are superior to New York's (they are). But I am here to tell you that, hidden beyond all your preconceived notions of the Garden State, there exists a breathtakingly beautiful, largely isolated beach, an all-timer devoid of fist pumps and all things GTL. And it's open for recreation right now. 

Just south of the carnivalesque Seaside Heights, Island Beach State Park is a pristine hideaway that’s heavy on nature and low on Jersey Shore chaos. Rivaling the best of the Northeastern shoreline, this beach's quiet sands are waiting to provide a much-needed respite from the rest of the world. And if you're in New York, you’re looking at a less-than-2 hour drive to get there -- complete with an ocean-view journey across the Thomas A. Mathis bridge. 

“People are unaware that it even exists,” says Kathryn Perry, President of Friends of Island Beach State Park, a volunteer organization that aims to further public appreciation and stewardship of the park. 

Most paths lead to seclusion | Shinya Suzuki / flickr

Even those who are in the know might not fully be aware of how far IBSP extends. The park is a barrier island that stretches for 10 miles between the Atlantic Ocean and Barnegat Bay, and it’s sectioned off by numbered parking lots. It’s important to arrive early, as the park closes once the parking lots reach their capacity -- a measure that guarantees a comfortable environment and has been in effect even before the outbreak of COVID-19. 

Most visitors don't venture beyond the first two designated. And that's cool: they're family friendly, lifeguard-safe, and have a food court and (somewhat controversial) tiki bar called Red Fox -- because sometimes, when Jersey leans into its stereotypes, we all win. If you're here to get a little rowdy, Island Beach can provide. But the more crowded section serves as a barrier in and of itself, distracting the rowdier crowd from the more serene stretches that come after.

"It’s the greatest beach in the world (IMO) and I don’t want word to get out.”

Drive a bit further down the tree-draped, secluded road and you’ll start to see a more barren, picturesque landscape where, with minimal effort, you can find a patch of beach that feels like it’s been reserved entirely for you. Trek across dunes of soft white sand to arrive at clear, open water. 

“There are no games of chance, no people on a boardwalk” says Perry, “You can completely spread out, and all you’ll see is the ocean.”

This is about as crowded as it gets | Andrew F. Kazmierski / Shutterstock

Island Beach is one of the last few places on the north Atlantic coast with such an undeveloped shoreline. Legend has it that the land has remained pretty much untouched since Henry Hudson first waved to it in 1609. Freshwater wetlands, maritime forests, and tidal marshes all offer habitat to more than 400 species of plants, as well as wildlife like foxes, owls, piping plovers, and New Jersey’s largest osprey colony. Chances are, you’ll see at least one of these animals roaming around during your visit. 

While most Jersey beaches are notorious for imposing crazy restrictions, like no picnics, you can pretty much do it all here. Pay the $10 per-car fee ($20 for non-NJ-residents on weekends) and you're free to surf, run your dog, ride bikes, fish, grill, and even ride horses. The unique structure of the island calls for a variety of activity: “You have the bayside, so you can go and take kayaks out there,” Perry says, “Or you can bird watch from nearby Sedge Island.”

The ideal way to end a day at Island Beach | Mihai_Andritoiu / Shutterstock

An ideal day will end with a walk toward the southern tip for a view of Barnegat Lighthouse. Do it during golden hour, when the sun is still shining but the breeze turns refreshingly cool. You’ll run into a local fisherman or two, a ranger waving by, or a group of surfers hanging out around a campfire -- enough people to feel a sense of comradery without having to forego personal space.

The people who frequent this half of the island are so dedicated to keeping it a secret that they’re willing to give the beach one star ratings on Yelp. One such user commented, “Five stars, but am trying to dissuade people from going, because it’s the greatest beach in the world (IMO) and I don’t want word to get out.”

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Jessica Sulima is an editorial assistant at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @jessicasulima