What to expect when visiting N.J.’s state and federal parks in the spring and summer of 2021

Last year, when the coronavirus pandemic drove an unprecedented number of people to parks across the state, it was exactly what state officials wanted to see — even if they weren’t prepared for it.

“No one I think imagined just how intense … the increase in visitation would be,” Shawn LaTourette, the acting commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, told NJ Advance Media. “Not because any agency or apparatus of government wasn’t ready to help its citizens, but because the spaces themselves don’t hold all the people that wanted to partake in them.”

According to LaTourette, the peak visitation numbers that the state parks typically see around the Fourth of July were reached by late April last year.

But if the same surge is seen at state parks again this year as the epidemic continues, the New Jersey State Park Service will be ready.

“I think this year, given that we’ve learned so much about the virus, so much about what it takes to keep ourselves and each other safe, that we’ll see a different experience in our parks — and that we expect another level of service in New Jersey to be commensurate with a pre-pandemic level of service,” LaTourette said.

N.J. state parks

People sit in view of Lower Manhattan at Liberty State Park in Jersey City on May 2, 2020.AP File Photo/Seth Wenig

LaTourette said state parks will open up “as much as we possibly can” as the weather continues to warm up, and will continue to follow the same phased reopening of services like swimming and camping that the agency adhered to pre-pandemic.

COVID-19 guidelines remain active at all parks in New Jersey, including state and national parks. Visitors are currently allowed to gather in groups of up to 200 people while outdoors, although social distancing must continue to be practiced.

Face masks are mandatory in all buildings and facilities in the parks, and must also be worn while outside where social distancing can’t be achieved.

On days of high visitation this spring and summer, it’s likely that some state and federal parks may close early. But, these parks may also reopen as visitors leave and space becomes available. To stay up to date on the status of a state or federal park you would like to visit, check the New Jersey State Park Services’ Facebook page for closing and reopening announcements before leaving your home as well as the federal parks’ websites and social media pages for alerts.

State and local police will regularly patrol state parks to ensure that proper social distancing protocols are followed. A limited number of restrooms at the state parks remain open, and the full list can be found online.

Every year, the state DEP hires between 700 and 900 new employees for the period between May and September. Last year, applications for new season hires were “way down” due to COVID — but that’s “not the case this year,” LaTourette confirmed.

“We’re going to be as fully open as possible, and we’re going to expect folks to do what we know they’ve been great at doing: maintaining social distance. Taking good care of each other. And taking as good care of each other as we expect them to take care of open spaces,” he said.

To learn about how a New Jersey federal park has changed in response to the pandemic, individuals can review its website before visiting to find specific updates for ongoing COVID-19 guidance.

For example, the Gateway National Recreation Area — which includes a Sandy Hook Unit located in New Jersey — has updated its mask-wearing guidance to clarify that they’re required in all buildings and workspaces in the area, as well as all outdoor areas adjacent to visitor centers; all parking lots and common areas in campgrounds; all crowded trails, viewpoints, and other areas of interest; and all covered structures that attract crowds such a memorials and open-air pavilions.

The Gateway National Recreation Area also eliminated in-person sales for its vehicle permits, establishing an online-only purchasing process in its place. Parking/After Hours Access permits for fishing are also on sale online only.

Sandy Hook

Sandy Hook Gateway National Recreation area in Sandy Hook on July, 30, 2020.Ed Murray | NJ Advance Media for

At the Paterson Great Falls, park grounds are open from sunset to sunrise but the museum still remains closed. Portable toilets are available to all guests from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

National parks, including Sandy Hook, also experienced overcrowding last year. Brenda Ling, public information officer for the National Parks Service, said that employees do expect to see big crowds again this year.

“What they did last year was they closed off the parking when it became too busy. And when people started leaving, they opened it up again,” Ling said. “So I think what we will do is continue that. Of course it depends on limits and number of vehicles.”

She added that the National Parks Service is “always looking” to hire more employees, and at present day are currently searching for more lifeguards and EMTs to work at Sandy Hook.

LaTourette said State Parks Service is also actively hiring.

“We’re still taking applications … We have an incredible number of opportunities,” LaTourette said.

Both Ling and LaTourette said they are excited to see people return to the parks in flocks this upcoming year — while emphasizing that they not forget that we remain in the midst of a pandemic.

“We’ve seen folks continuing to keep up that social distancing even though there is pandemic fatigue out there. Keep it up, and let’s get through this thing together,” LaTourette said. “Have your mask, make sure you’re wearing it — certainly when you’re entering a park and engaging with staff.”

“We encourage people to come visit,” Ling said. “There’s just some changes and rules that everyone needs to follow.”

Below are lists of all state and federal parks in New Jersey:

Atlantic County

  • Senator Frank S. Farley State Marina
  • Wharton State Forest

Bergen County

  • Ramapo Mountain State Forest

Burlington County

  • Atsion Recreation Area
  • Brendan T. Byrne State Forest
  • Rancocas State Park
  • Warren Grove Recreation Area

Cape May County

  • Belleplain State Forest
  • Cape May Point State Park
  • Corson’s Inlet State Park

Cumberland County

Gloucester County

  • Tall Pines State Preserve

Hudson County

  • Liberty Landing Marina
  • Liberty State Park

Hunterdon County

  • Bull’s Island Recreation Area
  • Delaware and Raritan Canal State Park
  • Round Valley Recreation Area
  • Spruce Run Recreation Area
  • Voorhees State Park

Mercer County

  • Delaware and Raritan Canal State Park
  • Princeton Battlefield State Park
  • Washington Crossing State Park

Middlesex County

Monmouth County

  • Allaire State Park
  • Leonardo State Marina
  • Monmouth Battlefield State Park

Morris County

  • Farny State Park
  • Hacklebarney State Park
  • Hopatcong State Park

Ocean County

  • Barnegat Lighthouse State Park
  • Bass River State Forest
  • Brendan T. Byrne State Forest
  • Double Trouble State Park
  • Forked River State Marina
  • Island Beach State Marina
  • Island Beach State Park
  • Penn State Forest
  • Warren Grove Recreation Area

Passaic County

  • Abram S. Hewitt State Forest
  • Long Pond Ironworks State Park
  • Norvin Green State Forest
  • Ramapo Mountain State Forest
  • Ringwood State Park
  • Wawayanda State Park

Salem County

  • Fort Mott State Park
  • Parvin State Park

Somerset County

  • Delaware and Raritan Canal State Park
  • Washington Rock State Park

Sussex County

  • Allamuchy Mountain State Park
  • High Point State Park
  • Kittatinny Valley State Park
  • Stokes State Forest
  • Swartswood State Park
  • Wawayanda State Park

Warren County

  • Jenny Jump State Forest
  • Stephens State Park
  • Worthington State Forest

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Caroline Fassett may be reached at [email protected].

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