Why NJ’s Island Beach State Park is going to be ridiculous this summer
In case you missed Thursday's big announcement by Governor Phil Murphy and NJ DEP Commissioner Shawn LaTourette, all 50+ New Jersey state parks, forests, and recreation areas will feature free entry all summer. (Don't worry - if you've already purchased a season pass, you'll be offered a full refund.)
In my opinion, this is a phenomenal use of tax dollars. Open access to open public space, allowing all individuals and families unlimited access to recreation, relaxation, and fun. Thumbs up.
In the past, the state has played around with free state park access, including for active military and veterans. And, of course, who could forget the infamous Vax Pass of 2021, where residents of NJ with at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine could earn the incentive of free full-season access to state parks.
In 2022, however, free access is being implemented on a much larger scale. No strings attached. No residency requirements. No limits. Just plain free.
However, I fear this free access is going to turn into a major headache for one facility in particular: Island Beach State Park.
IBSP is a very popular Jersey Shore destination sharing a barrier island with Mantaloking, Lavallette, Seaside Heights, Seaside Park, and the South Seaside Park section of Berkeley Township. It features quiet and clean beaches, attentive lifeguards, natural landscapes, and beautiful views. Plus, the swimming beaches have easy parking access and — bonus! — full bathroom facilities.
According to the NJ DEP web site, New Jersey residents usually pay $10 per vehicle to enter on summer weekends, $6 per car on summer weekdays, and $5 during the off-season. Non state residents are charged $20, $12, and $10, respectively.
In the summertime, when the park opens at 8 a.m., there is almost always a huge line of cars waiting to enter and hit the beach. Especially on beautiful, warm, sunny summer days. Especially on weekends. Especially on holiday weekends.
Traffic can get pretty nightmare-ish throughout South Seaside Park during peak season.
And then, when the Island Beach swimming beach limited parking lots fill to capacity, the park closes. Only Mobile Sport Fishing Vehicles are allowed in at that point.
Usually the park will reopen as people start to leave in the early afternoon. But for those still sitting in traffic when the gates shuts, what do you do? Wait it out? Divert to another (paid) beach? Give up and go home?
A free beach is a very rare thing in New Jersey. But "free" is going to make Island Beach State Park an even more popular destination this summer. Which unfortunately means we'll have a lot more "closure" days throughout the summer.
If you have to arrive at the crack of dawn to ensure a parking spot and a place on the sand for the day, is it really worth it in the end?
Dan Zarrow is Chief Meteorologist for Townsquare Media New Jersey. He loves the Jersey Shore, but dislikes heat, green flies, and seagulls. Follow Dan on Facebook or Twitter for your latest weather forecast updates.