Best Places to Visit in Gateway National Recreation Area

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If you’re looking for places to explore in New York that offer beautiful scenery and even a history lesson, consider visiting some sites in the Gateway National Recreation Area. Occupying over 26,000 acres of land, the area is located primarily along the outer coasts of Queens, Brooklyn, Staten Island and northern New Jersey. It was established by the federal government in 1972 to provide city residents with the opportunity to participate in recreational activities that they wouldn’t do it otherwise can do in town. In 2020, over 8.4 million people visited the Gateway National Recreation Area. Although beachgoers made up a large percentage of that number, others found exploring former military sites and nature reserves to be just as exciting as a day in the sun.

Much of the coastline opening out from the mouth of New York Harbor was used by the United States Navy and Army as batteries or bunkers to protect New York from naval attack. Although many facilities saw little or no action during their time, the structures were preserved by the federal government for historical and educational purposes after 1974. These military sites, now overgrown, were built on coastal dunes and maritime forests that now serve as important nesting grounds for migratory birds. A wide range of secluded beaches and thick vegetation make for a great escape from the sometimes gray and congested urban environment.

1. Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge

East Pond of the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge in the Gateway National Recreation Area
East Pond at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge with A train background.

It can be said that this location is the most important nature reserve in the Gateway National Recreation Area. Resting on some of the swampy islands between mainland Queens and the Rockaway Peninsula, the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge is an ideal destination for nature lovers. The refuge is divided into two sections by crossing Cross Bay Boulevard, with both sides featuring freshwater ponds, hiking trails and information signs. The west side is the more “friendly” of the two with more vantage points, an information center, picnic tables and parking.

Since its opening in 1972, the wildlife refuge has been home to many species of protected flora and fauna, including migratory birds. The area is also an important mating and nesting site for diamondback terrapins and horseshoe crabs due to the refuge’s natural protection. The land was used in the early 1940s as hydraulic fill for nearby JFK Airport until it became clear how harmful it was to the Jamaica Bay ecosystem.

Recognizing the abundance of wildlife present and the impact of pollutants on the environment, the federal government took steps to ensure that the land would be kept clean and well maintained to protect the natural beauty of the salt marshes. Of all the lands managed by the National Park Service (NPS), the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge is considered the only territory specifically labeled as a “wildlife refuge”.

Many photographers, scientists and bird watchers come here to admire the landscape and admire the species that live there. There are many places along the trails where you can see the city skyline in the distance, a reminder of just how vast New York is.

Next: #2 Shirley Chisholm State Park
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