Situated on the Rockaway Peninsula, 317 acre Fort Tilden is part of the Jamaica Bay Unit of the Gateway National Recreation Area. It's a hidden gem and one of New York City's best kept secrets. A pristine miles long beach, roaring surf, windswept dunes, and a maritime forest of gnarled black pine, holly and beach plum offer a quiet beach and bike getaway just a stone's throw from New York City.
Mysterious, abandoned structures from the Fort’s former life as a military base (see Historical Notes below) are hidden amongst the dunes and massive concrete bunkers that appear out of clusters of Goldenrod, Bayberry, and Staghorn Sumac along the "back fort trails". It makes your visit a surreal experience.
Hazy views of the distant Manhattan skyline (only 12 miles away) will remind you of where you are. Even on busy summer weekends at neighboring Riis Park and other beaches, Fort Tilden offers stretches of uncrowded, pristine sands and rejeuvenating ocean. On weekdays you can practically have the place to yourself! Well almost, if you consider the few other bicyclists sunbathing alonsgide their bikes, the lone fisherman or the amazing variety of shorebirds playing tag with the surf.
We call it the Biker's Beach. Biking and hiking are the best ways to explore Fort Tilden and the Back Fort Natural Area, or to just get to the beaches. That fact is made evident by the collection of bicycles locked up at each beach access point along Shore Road. A mountain bike or hybrid bike is recommended to handle some rough terrain and dirt trails.
There is a price to pay for this delicious solitude. First, it is not easily accessible by public transportation. Second, parking at Fort Tilden during the summer is by permit only and at other times parking is limited anywhere near the beach. Third, the beach has no lifeguards and strong currents, so swimming is discouraged. Finally, there are no amenities… no convenient restrooms and no food concessions. If that convenience is a priority for you, bicycle over to neighboring Jacob Riis Park just five minutes away.There, you'll find a life-guarded swimming area, food services, restrooms, baseball fields, basketball courts, a golf course and a landmark bathhouse and boardwalk.
The beach at Jacob Riis Park is beautiful and is usually not too crowded. When built in 1934, the Jacob Riis parking lot was the largest in the world. For the rest of us -- we like the beach at Fort Tilden just fine the way it is. More importantly, so do the birds!
Fort Tilden Trail Connections
Riis Park Bike Path
You can connect to the bike path along the boardwalk at Jacob Riis Park. Bike along the ocean, past the famous Art Deco bathhouse, landscaped walkways and courtyards.
Beach 169th St. Beach 169th St. runs north/south between Fort Tilden and Riis Park to the east. Inquire about hours when biking is permitted on the boardwalk during peak season.
For details about the other districts of the Gateway see our trail pages for rides on the Rockaway Gateway Greenway and at Floyd Bennett Field.
Fort Tilden Mountain Bike Trails and Bicycle Paths Description
We suggest parking at the Ryan Visitor Center at Floyd Bennett Field and cycling to Fort Tilden from there. From the Visitors Center, turn left on the Greenway and head south along Flatbush Avenue. Just before the Marine Parkway Gil Hodges Memorial Bridge you'll have to go across Flatbush Avenue at the light. It's a busy road so excercise caution. When it was built, the bridge's vertical lift span was the longest in the world. It crosses the Rockaway Inlet of Jamaica Bay, connecting the Rockaway Peninsula in Queens with Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn. The land at both ends of the bridge are part of the Gateway National Recreation Area.
There is a pedestrian walkway that travels across the bridge. The path is barely wide enough to accommodate two cyclists passing each other and there is plenty of foot traffic. Bicyclists are required to dismount and walk their bikes across. The views from the bridge's midpoint are especially pretty. Bear right after crossing the bridge. Look for the gated Beach 169th Street entrance to Fort Tilden on the left across the road.
Ride straight down the path to the Fort Tilden Visitor Center to get oriented, info and a program guide. It is usually open daily from 8:30 Am to 5:00 PM. Coordinate your ride with one of the many ranger-led programs listed in the Jamaica Bay Program Guide, available at the visitor center or online (see For More Information below). Ranger led bike trips are offered during the spring and summer.
Cycle along any of the paved roads to explore this former military installation or on the unpaved trails in the Back Fort natural area. Bring a bike lock so you can visit indoor facilities, try some of the hiking trails, or just do some beachcombing.
This paved route is closed to vehicles and parallels a mile long beach. There are several access points along the road where you can lock your bike, or just bring your bike out on the beach with you. There are no lifeguards here and swimming is not recommended, but it's a sweet spot for sunbathing, birdwatching, wading and just listening to the surf.
Back Fort Trails
Fort Tilden has several distinct habitats for nature study and birdwatching. East to west ocean currents have deposited sand over time, creating the beach and dunes. In time grasses take hold and anchor the dunes. This is the last natural dune system in the city. It is also home to nesting birds such as endangered and threatened plovers, terns and skimmers. The dunes also provide a natural barrier for the maritime forest in the Back Fort area.
A small network of dirt and cinder trails crisscross this coastal woodland comprised typically of white poplar, cherry, willows, holly and Japanese black pine. Food-bearing shrubs include the Russian, Autumn Olive, Bittersweet shrub and Bayberry. Birds feed on the abundant seeds, berries and insects. Pockets of open fields are home to cottontail rabbits and other ground species..
A stairway to an observation deck at the top of Battery Harris affords 360 degree panoramic views of the Atlantic Ocean, Jamaica Bay and even the Manhattan skyline in the distance. This is a good spot for raptor watching during the fall migration period. Look for hawks, kestrels and harriers.
Stay on the trails, there is poison ivy around. A dose of insect repellent on bare legs and arms would also be wise.
Fort Tilden was once part of the harbor defense system for New York City. It was built in 1917 to coincide with our into World War 1. Long range guns were installed to keep any enemy force out to sea and away from our shores.
The main armaments were two 16-inch cannon, collectively known as Battery Harris. The 70 ft. long guns could shoot 2,300 lb. shells 25 miles out to sea. Originally they could rotate 360 degrees but were later enclosed in concrete bunkers during World War 2.
Battery Harris East and West each have four 20 by 20 foot rooms with heavy steel doors once used for the "in house" storage of powder and projectiles. During the Cold War, this coastal artillery installation became a missile site for the Nike Hercules and Nike Ajax.
Fort Tilden remained an Army base until turned over to the National Park System in 1974. Barracks, bunkers, underground artillery shelters, fortified observation rooms and other remnants hidden by the dunes, brush and vines can still be discovered.
Trail Highlights & Nearby Points of Interest
As in other districts of the Park, Fort Tilden and Jacob Riis Park offer opportunities for both recreational and cultural activities.
The former Fort is now home to two local non-profit groups who have transformed abandoned military buildings into a haven for the arts.
The Rockaway Artists Alliance offers free lectures, presentations, exhibitions and special events in their gallery spaces located in buildings T-6 and T-7.
The Rockaway Theater Company presents a selection of musicals, comedies and dramas at the historic Fort Tilden Post Theater.
The Jamaica Bay History Series is a NPS program of lectures and presentations on historic topics related to Jamaica Bay. They are free and held at the Jacob Riis Park Bath House Entry Pavilion.
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By car: Belt Parkway (east or westbound) to Exit 11S. Travel about 1 mile south on Flatbush
By public transportation: IRT #2 (or #5 during rush hour) to Flatbush Ave. or IND “A” to Rockaway Park/Beach 116th St. Take Q35 bus from either stop to park. Bikes are not allowed on city buses. You will have to ride south from the IRT station on Flatbush Ave. or north over the Marine Parkway Bridge from the IND station.
Ferry: Take the NY Water Taxi ferry to Riis Landing. Bikes are permitted on the ferry. Cross the Marine Parkway Gil Hodges Memorial Bridge via the pedestrian/bike path and ride to Floyd Bennet Field. Also See Rockaway Gateway Greenway Bike Path for directions.
Phone: (718) 338-3338