Widely considered the most popular oceanfront summer destination on Long Island, Jones Beach is internationally famous for its sprawling white sand shoreline — but it is a lot more than just a park.
Besides the many attractions at Jones Beach State Park, which is full of hidden surprises, the other two-thirds of Jones Beach Island has a variety of waterfront bars and restaurants, a half-dozen smaller parks, three residential communities, and vast stretches of untouched nature.
“It’s an extraordinary public asset for all of us who live within reach of it,” says Malcolm MacKay, head of the Jones Beach Rescue Organization, a nonprofit group that fundraises to help preserve the park. “Jones Beach is just a wonderful resource. It’s wild and beautiful.”
At 17 miles long, Jones Beach Island is the second lengthiest of the four narrow barrier islands that protect the South Shore of Long Island from the Atlantic Ocean. With about 350 homes, it’s also the least populated of LI’s barrier beaches. Ocean Parkway runs nearly the full length of the island and connects to causeways at either end linking it to mainland LI.
The barrier beach straddles the Nassau-Suffolk county line and three town jurisdictions. On the Nassau side is its namesake state park in the Town of Hempstead. As the name suggests, neighboring Tobay Beach is in the Town of Oyster Bay. And the eastern half on the Suffolk side of the island is in the Town of Babylon.
The barrier island is named for Major Thomas Jones, an Irish privateer who settled on LI in 1688 and was appointed Ranger General of the area by the British, giving him control over much of the local resources. But it was Robert Moses, the late master builder, who transformed the island into one of the biggest public beaches of its kind in 1929.
With the return of beach season, what follows is an eight-point guide to Jones Beach Island.
JONES BEACH STATE PARK
With more than 8.5 million visitors in 2018, Jones Beach State Park is consistently in a horse race with Niagara Falls for the title of most-visited in the New York State parks system.
And for good reason. In addition to swimming, surfing, sunbathing, playgrounds, and picnic areas, this 2,413-acre oasis also has a 59-slip marina, two-mile boardwalk, swimming pool, nature center, bandshell, fishing pier, mini-golf, snack bars, and a 14,500-seat bayside amphitheater that hosts big-name acts throughout summer. Much of the park has had a $65 million recent facelift that includes the debut of a new adventure park coming this summer.
“Jones Beach visitors have a real romanticism with this park,” former State Parks Commissioner Rose Harvey said, noting that it “was built with the idea of bringing families together.”
The 6.5-mile-long park is the largest on Jones Beach Island and is considered the largest and most-visited public recreational swimming facility in the world, peaking at 13 million annual visitors in the 1970s. To build the park, Moses had sand dredged from the bay to raise Jones Beach Island up from 2 feet to 14 feet above sea level.
Moses designed the beach to give visitors the feeling of being on an oceanliner. That’s why there are anchors at the entrance, garbage cans shaped like ship air vents, and games like shuffleboard. Besides the sand, its best-known feature is the brick-encased water tower, dubbed by locals as “the pencil” or “the needle,” at the center of the traffic circle where Wantagh State Parkway meets Ocean Parkway.
By far the most popular section is field six, home of the East Bath House at the easternmost section of the park, where the parking lot fills up first because it has the shortest walk to ocean. Parking Field 5, which is used to access Zach’s Bay on the north side of the parkway, has pedestrian tunnels under Ocean Parkway to access the ocean, as do Parking Fields 4 and 3. Fields 4 and 5 abut the Central Mall, the hub of activity at the park and home to the new Boardwalk Cafe, while Field 3 has the recently renovated West Bath House, which has a pool and is home to Gatsby on the Ocean, a new restaurant and event space.
Parking Field 5A is for the Northwell Health at Jones Beach Theater, where the likes of Dave Matthews Band and Jimmy Buffet play each summer along with several music festivals. To the west are parking fields 1 and 2, which are both on the ocean side. Field 2 is home to the park’s softball fields.
On the bay side west of Wantagh State Parkway and north of Bay Parkway is Field 10, a fishing station with a network of piers for anglers.
The western tip of the island overlooks Jones Inlet. On the bay side is the boat basin, U.S. Coast Guard Station and state parks police station. On the ocean side is West End 1, aka Short Beach, and West End 2, which is home to the Theodore Roosevelt Nature Center, a hands-on educational facility. The West End area has a shorter boardwalk of its own and is where the Holiday Light Spectacular is held.
Drivers destined for Jones Beach can take Wantagh or Meadowbrook parkways south to the junction with Ocean Parkway and follow the signs to the field of their choice. Parking fees are $10 during peak times or $8 during non-peak times. Bicyclists, skaters, and pedestrians can also take the Ellen Farrant Memorial Bikeway from Cedar Creek County Park in Seaford 5 miles to Jones Beach, where a new 4.5-mile path running the full length of the park debuted this spring.
Or the N88 bus runs nonstop from the Freeport Long Island Rail Road station to Jones Beach for $2.75 per trip for Memorial Day weekend and beginning daily June 23. The schedule can be found at nicebus.com
One mile east of Jones Beach State Park is the popular Tobay Beach, a sliver of beach on Ocean Parkway named for the municipality that runs it: the Town of Oyster Bay.
Besides its oceanfront, Tobay’s amenities include a 150-slip transient boat basin on the bay side, spray park, playgrounds, nautical-themed miniature golf course, the John F. Kennedy Memorial Wildlife Sanctuary, plus three restaurants. It’s also home to the town’s 9/11 memorial.
“Everyone should be very excited to enjoy vacation days, weekends or building any memorable day at the latest and greatest we are creating at Tobay Beach,” says Oyster Bay Town Supervisor Joe Saladino.
Tobay is one of five town-run parks on Ocean Parkway, but the only one run by Oyster Bay.
Lifeguards are on duty 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekends only from Memorial Day through mid-June, when they’re also on duty 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays through Labor Day. Parking fees are $20 daily or $60 per season for town residents or $50 per day for non-town residents, who are only allowed access on weekdays, excluding holidays.
The way around that is the new 3.6-mile Ocean Parkway Coastal Greenway, which allows pedestrians, skaters and bikers to take the path to Tobay from Cedar Creek and Jones Beach — no parking fee required — or simply driving there after the fee-collection times.
Besides the oceanfront Main Concession that’s open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Tobay is also home to two bayside restaurants that host live music. On the bay side is The Surf Shack, a flip-flop coastal kitchen for casual dining with a tiki bar under real palm trees, and The Boat Yard waterfront bar and grill featuring a variety of dining options. They are open to 11 p.m. every night.
There is no public transportation to points east of Jones Beach State Park.
WEST GILGO AND GILGO BEACH
Immediately east of Tobay and just over the Suffolk line are two of three residential communities that dot Jones Beach Island. The first is the strictly residential West Gilgo Beach, a gated community where only residents and their guests are allowed.
Slightly east of that is Gilgo Beach, an area that encompasses a residential community of 72 homes and a Town of Babylon park offering visitors the oceanfront, Gilgo Beach Inn (GBI) surf bar, a town-resident-only boat basin, kayak launch, playground, picnic area, and surfer’s paradise that’s popular with kite boarders. Bunger Surf also runs a small shop and surf school there.
“We just have a series of sand bars … where, when you have a swell, it creates surfable waves,” says Paul McDuffie, a 42-year Gilgo resident who became the 86-year-old GBI’s fourth owner four summers ago. “We’re lucky to have them.”
Gilgo Beach is one of four Town of Babylon-run parks on the barrier island. Daily entrance fees for vehicles without a recreation permit are $40 Friday through Sunday and on holidays or $20 the rest of the week. Like Tobay, entrance is free after hours as well as before Memorial Day and after Labor Day. Non-resident entrance fees are $10 after 4 p.m. weekdays.
West Gilgo Beach has a notable history. It is partly made up of homes barged there from the community of High Hill Beach, which was condemned to make way for Jones Beach State Park.
“Although remote, High Hill Beach was hopping, especially during Prohibition,” author John Hanc wrote in Jones Beach: An Illustrated History. “Weekends were notorious for enthusiastic partying.”
Moses famously said the area was a “swampy sandbar…inhabited by fishermen and loners, surf-casters and assorted oddballs.”
Of 98 buildings in High Hill at its peak before World War II, 60 were shipped to West Gilgo Beach, making uprooted High Hills homes the majority of the about 80 houses there.
For residents and visitors alike, the draw is the same.
“It’s one of the oldest destinations out here,” McDuffie says of Gilgo Beach. “We’ve gotten more and more people who come here from Westchester. They’ve made the trip and they get to Jones Beach and … not everyone wants that Coney Island-scale feel and they go a little bit further and they stumble upon Gilgo.”
Six miles east of Gilgo is Cedar Beach, which is home to the extremely popular Salt Shack bar and restaurant.
It also features a marina, campground, Babylon town’s 9/11 memorial, and one of LI’s few oceanfront 18-hole golf courses.
“Cedar Beach is an incredible place,” says Tony Martinez, the deputy Babylon town supervisor who chairs the town’s parks. “The beach is really long so we have a trolley that takes people from the pavilion to the beach … This is just a really good place to have a good time by the water.”
He’s not mincing words. The 99-slip marina and 41-site campground make for a unique bayside hot spot surrounded by nature. A pedestrian tunnel under Ocean Parkway connects it the oceanfront portion of the park. Aside from the usual amenities such as beach mats, basketball, handball, and picnic areas, the dominant sport is volleyball, played on its 70 courts.
But what makes this park stand out from the rest is the lively scene at the Salt Shack. This new popular seaside grill with a rooftop deck boasts nightly live music, frozen drinks aplenty, and a menu featuring healthy eats as well as pub fare. Bonus for parents: this is one of the few, if only, outdoor bars around with a playground on site.
Like Gilgo, daily entrance fees for vehicles without a recreation permit are $40 Friday through Sunday and on holidays or $20 the rest of the week. Like Tobay, entrance is free after hours as well as before Memorial Day and after Labor Day. Nonresident entrance fees are $10 after 4 p.m. weekdays.
Cedar Beach is just east of Hemlock Cove, a popular bayside destination for boaters to drop anchor, swim to shore, walk across Ocean Parkway — which officials note is illegal, but has been done for generations — and go surfing on the oceanside.
A short walk down the beach east of Cedar Beach is Overlook Beach, which offers a quieter atmosphere.
The park has a playground, picnic area, and the Overlook Beach Club restaurant, and is within walking distance of Cedar Beach, with the golf course lying between the two.
Overlook is open to Babylon town residents only, but is free to enter after 5 p.m.
GILGO STATE PARK
A quarter mile east of Gilgo Beach is Gilgo State Park, a popular fishing and offroading destination. And a mile east of that, it has a separate entrance for the area known as Sore Thumb — named for its aerial resemblance — overlooking the Fire Island Inlet.
Access to Gilgo State Park is open to permitted 4-wheel-drive visitors only who must observe a carry in, carry out policy. The passive, undeveloped park is renowned for its tranquility and stellar views.
Anglers enjoy surf fishing in the Atlantic Ocean, catching striped bass, blue fish, and a variety of other species.
Remnants of an old U.S. Coast Guard station that used to be located there can still be found in the sand.
Because of its name, Gilgo State Park is sometimes confused with Gilgo Beach, the town park to the west.
East of Gilgo State Park is the mostly residential area of Oak Beach, which also features the free, publicly accessible Richard L. Brooks Memorial Park.
Visitors can stroll out onto a pier and take in the views or launch a kayak. Because of its location overlooking the Fire Island Inlet, the pier offers some of the best fishing on LI, according to the Town of Babylon, which runs the passive park that has become a weekend hotspot for car enthusiasts and motorcycle clubs.
The park area used to be home to the Oak Beach Inn, a famous nightclub that shuttered two decades ago. With about 200 houses, Oak Beach is the third residential community on Jones Beach Island. The area’s founder, Henry Livingston, built the first house there in 1879.
On the north side of Ocean Parkway across from the entrance to Oak Beach is a parking lot for residents of nearby Oak Island, a small resort community that is accessible only by boat.
CAPTREE STATE PARK
At the eastern tip of Jones Beach Island is the confusingly named Captree State Park, which is actually south of the residential Captree Island to the north, not on it.
It’s at the end of Ocean Parkway, just east of the Robert Moses Causeway, and offers picture-perfect views of the Fire Island Lighthouse.
It has a boat basin that is port of the famous Captree Fleet of charter fishing, sightseeing, scuba diving, and party boats that make up the largest public fishing fleet on LI. There are also a few transient slips available at the marina.
“The second people step on a fishing boat, their day is done,” Katherine Heinlein, president of the Captree Fleet, told the Press. “They calm down. It’s a wonderful environment and it’s not about catching fish, it’s about camaraderie.”
The park also offers two large fishing piers, a bait-and-tackle shop, the newly opened Tiki Joe’s Captain’s Table bar and restaurant, picnic areas, boat launches, and playgrounds. Parking fees are $8.
“To me, it’s paradise,” Babylon’s Martinez says of Jones Beach Island.