There’s something about the beach, maybe it’s the salt air, noise of the waves crashing to the shore or that lovely sand. Whatever it is, Queens has it.
At the end of the A train line in the Rockaways is Rockaway Beach Park, a place where you can trade the hustle and bustle of the city for a dip in the ocean and a tan. It’s even a great place to visit in the winter when there are no crowds.
Just down the road is Riis Park, part of the federally-administered Gateway National Park that hugs the shore of both the Atlantic Ocean and Jamaica Bay. Riis Park charges a nominal parking fee, but is a cheap escape for Queens residents.
Farther down the road is Breezy Point, a private, gated community that’s one of the friendliest places on earth and maybe the best place to have an up-close experience with a rare bird species.
Rockaway’s beaches stretch from Beach 1st Street in Far Rockaway to Beach 149th Street in Neponsit along the south shore, or all the way from Long Island to Riis Park. All city beaches open for the season Memorial Day weekend and close after Labor Day.
You can get to Rockaway’s beaches by taking the Cross Bay Veterans Memorial Bridge to the Rockaways. Head west for Rockaway Park, Neponsit and Belle Harbor beaches and east for Arverne, Edgemere and Far Rockaway beaches.
Alcohol consumption is not allowed at city beaches, and no one is allowed on the beach past 9 p.m. or in the water past 6 p.m., when lifeguards go off duty during the season. The city hires over 1,000 lifeguards for the summer. Rockaway Beach, particularly the East Rockaway Inlet, has unusually strong currents and sudden drop-offs. Surfing and fishing are also banned after 6 p.m.
Before you even get to the beach from South Queens, you’ll pass Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, a haven for rare plant and animal life. It is the best place in the city, and one of the best places in the northeast, to watch exotic birds, including herons, glossy ibis, broad-billed sandpipers, swallows, finches, wrens, songbirds, doves and owls. Many birds migrate to and through the area’s ponds during the year, making birdwatching here a year-round activity.
Down in Breezy Point, at the tip of the Rockaway Peninsula, it’s not just the humans who do the watching—the birds do too. After the endangered Piping Plover species was discovered in the dunes here in 1999, several nesting sites were roped off near the beach’s walkways.
When you’re enjoying your day at the beach, you might see the birds nesting or hopping around in the water. Sometimes, though, they can get a bit eager when you are near active nesting sites and they might swoop near you to defend their young. They may be loud, but they won’t attack and are fascinating to see up close.
Just down the road from Breezy Point is Fort Tilden, a former nuclear weapons storage site during the 1950s, which is home to many community groups including the Rockaway Artists Alliance. There is also a unique topography to the park, because the Army built large soil barriers to protect the fort against sea invasions decades ago.
Across from Fort Tilden is Riis Park, which is the best place in the Gateway National Park system to take a dip. The park is accessible by car by taking the Belt Parkway west from Kennedy Airport to the Gil Hodges/Marine Parkway Bridge, or by taking the Cross Bay Veterans Memorial Bridge to Beach Channel Drive west.
Riis Park features the Riis Park bathhouse along the beach, a hulking 1930s-style building that was constructed by city builder Robert Moses. The bathhouse recently underwent renovations to better serve its two million annual visitors. There is also a playground near the beach for children to play in and there is plenty of parking available.
There are other spots within Gateway National Park where one can relax on a beach, including two sites in South Queens. Both Frank Charles Memorial Park in Howard Beach and Hamilton Beach Park have beachfronts on Jamaica Bay that are popular during the summer.