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At Jersey and Delaware state beaches, sunning with nature

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You know those special moments when you come across something really exciting and you want to share it with someone, even just a stranger happening by? You want to point it out, maybe nudge it with your bare foot or a stick as the two of you bend down to inspect it?

When I spotted a hubcap-size horseshoe crab drifting along the Atlantic floor, I looked to my left and right for somebody, anybody, to rejoice with me. (As a New Englander, I classify the critters as exotica.) But alas, I was alone on this stretch of Corson’s Inlet State Park. I snapped some photos for proof, then tucked my discovery away until my reentry into civilization.

Details: State park beaches in Delaware and New Jersey

The ocean-edge state parks in Delaware and New Jersey aren’t devoid of people. I could see a pointillist’s pattern of colorful bathing suits in the distance and hear the mosquito buzz of jet skis. But the human footprint is much fainter on these strands. Because of restrictions on construction, parking, concessions and other markings of homo sapiens, the beaches retain their natural landscape. Some days, the wildlife can outnumber the humans. Make way for the piping plovers, and please take out your own trash.

“It’s very clean. It’s natural,” said Steve Stallone, a New York native who has been visiting Delaware’s Fenwick Island State Park for nearly two decades. “They’ve done such a good job of preserving the environment.”

The three state beaches circled on my map are pristine sandboxes wedged between some of the most congested, scuffed-up strips along the East Coast. Ocean City in Maryland, for instance, is a beer can’s roll from Fenwick. Jersey’s Ocean City and Seaside Heights sit like party hats atop the long necks of Corson’s Inlet and Island Beach state parks, respectively.

But once I entered the state parks, the hubbub dropped away. Plovers and crabs don’t need funnel cakes or fake tattoos, and neither did I.

Trash-free zone

Something was missing at Fenwick Island State Park: There was no trash, and even more striking, no trash cans. The only detritus I saw came from the ocean, and the seaweed and shells complemented the maritime setting.

Since 1994, the park has required visitors to carry out everything they drag in. The rule helps shoo away pesky yellowjackets and beggarly seagulls. Beachgoers who forget to pack a receptacle can grab a plastic bag from a stack hanging at the entryway.

Fenwick Island State Park is group-hugged by Fenwick Island’s beach, which abuts the state line, and South Bethany Beach. The park also embraces a mile-long section of Little Assawoman Bay, across Route 1.

The three-mile stretch of sand is the color of toasted coconut and as soft as cat fur. It measures 1,000 feet at its narrowest point and twice that at its widest. No high-rise condos, hotels or other commercial structures — except for a beach pavilion with bathrooms, showers and a snack bar — mar the view. Nothing would come between me and my Atlantic.

The main activities on Fenwick are more passive than active: sunning, reading, dozing and floating. (One exception: An outfitter on the bay side rents sailboats, stand-up paddleboards and kayaks and leads eco-tours.) The park does allow fisherfolk, with the proper permit, to drive onto the beach and plant a pole outside the guarded swimming area. I didn’t note much output of energy, though. Most people were lazing in beach chairs, keeping a loose watch on their lines in case they started to quiver. I didn’t see a single tug or catch. I hope they had backup dinner plans.

In the fading light, I stood with Steve and his son, Mark, who hoped to recapture last year’s glory: a 28-inch striper. The 9-year-old watched his line intently, but the fish remained elusive. The pair left empty-handed, hustling off to catch a free concert in Bethany.

Looking up at the sky, I realized that I, too, needed to get ready for my evening entertainment. Time was running out.

Near the pavilion, I found an elevated spot on the wooden walkway. With no obstructions to the skyscape, I looked to the east and then the west, catching the rising moon and the setting sun in one easy swivel.

A world to explore

A long tail of cars started to form behind my bumper as I contemplated Corson’s Inlet State Park from the Strathmere bridge. Not the wisest location for puzzling out the geography, an intricate latticework of water and land bifurcated by two bridges. Fortunately, help arrived from inside a tollbooth.

The uniformed official collecting the buck-fifty fee decoded the 341-acre park for me. It covers both sides of the inlet, she told me. Bridges connect the two shores, but you can also travel back and forth by boat or personal watercraft.

I settled on the barrier island section near Ocean City, based on the simple criteria of a hiking trail, a boomerang-shaped beach and porta-potties in the parking lot. Another perk: No beach tag required, a rarity in Jersey.

Near the yellow trailhead, I scanned the list of no’s: no alcoholic beverages, no camping, clamming, destruction of plant or animal life, driving or walking on the dunes, hunting or trapping, or fires. The inverse would read: Do explore, take a dip and savor the nature.

The sandy trail, trekkable in flip-flops, ribboned through dense vegetation with keyhole peeks of the bay. The path rose slightly as I neared the dunes, then pancaked out into the great expanse of ocean beach.

I assessed my surroundings, with Ocean City up ahead and Atlantic City smudgy on the horizon, and followed the water’s edge in the opposite direction, crunching on a thick carpet of clamshells and expired crabs. Children sat in tidal pools, fiddling around with the micro-marine life. A man meditated on a sand bar that, come high tide, would transform into his own private island.

“It’s never the same here,” said a boater I ran into on the inlet side. “It always looks different when I come back the next year.”

He pointed to a negligible slope that had been a foot high the previous season and to a wide squiggle of sand in the inlet that was new for summer 2012. Some elements, however, never change, such as the horseshoe crabs that have been hanging around for 360 million years.

A nature stroll

The full moon cast hazy beams of light on Island Beach State Park, wrapping it in a muted glow. It was the calm before the storming of the holiday crowd.

The next day was Independence Day, and park officials were expecting a surge of visitors. An employee suggested that I arrive before 10 a.m. or after 2 p.m. — otherwise I would risk a shutout. Once the 1,900 parking spots are occupied, the “closed” sign comes out until more spaces free up. I’d have to either walk or bike into the park or wait a few hours, a nearly impossible act of patience in the scorching heat.

On the eve of the Fourth, it was hard to imagine the 10-mile barrier island filling to capacity. The lack of amenities, except for a beach pavilion, would stave off beachgoers who crave action. To them I say, go about three miles north to Seaside Heights, and give my regards to Snooki.

Island Beach offers the usual sun-splashed diversions, plus some. As part of a pilot program conceived by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, the park has organized a busy roster of new programs, including a sunset paddle, a lesson on moths and night birds, eco-treks and a full-moon hike. Lucky for me, the night sky’s lamp was cranked to high.

At 8 p.m., the park’s summer closing hour, our group of families and couples gathered in the nature center, nearly seven miles down a dark and quiet road trimmed with oaks and pines. I shared the lane with a red fox trotting along the shoulder.

On the half-mile trek, we traveled from the bay to the ocean, with a short layover in the nature center to learn about such local fauna as the ospreys (a video camera shoots live footage of the nest occupied by Truman) and the bioluminescent organisms that transform Barnegat Bay into a glittery disco floor.

Guides Kevin and Dayton were as perky as camp counselors and unflappable in every situation. Their enthusiasm didn’t even wane in the thicket, where greenheads and horseflies attacked with the vengeance of Hitchcock’s birds. (I ran through this portion of the hike as if I were in a horror film.)

“They’re worse at this time of day, because it’s their last feeding before they go to sleep,” said Dayton, whose shirt was bedazzled with bugs.

The pests thinned out on the bay and fully disappeared on the ocean side. As a backup defense, I nuzzled close to the bonfire flickering on the beach.

While guests jabbed marshmallows into the flames, the guides entertained the troops with ghost stories. Two thousand ships wrecked off the coast; no wonder so many spirits were annoyed. After Kevin told us about a woman who’d died after causing the death of her seafaring husband (long story, but trust me, it’s tragic), I saw two orbs of light flash in the distance.

“Does the Lady in White drive a pickup?” I asked. Probably not, since her death predated Henry Ford.

As the night grew late, we packed up the telescope, quenched the fire and picked up our trash. We left no trace behind, except for a small smattering of prints that the ocean and the wind would sweep away.

Details: State park beaches in Delaware and New Jersey

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