The Camp Rockaway Fort Tilden pilot project site. Photo: Ryan Brower

For 8.5 million New Yorkers, quick access to viable camping is a bit of an issue. Despite plenty of coastline and beaches, New York City doesn't offer much in the way of campsites. Floyd Bennett Field is the lone opportunity to pitch a tent in the five boroughs, but who wants to camp at an airport?

A new pilot project on National Park Service grounds at Fort Tilden within the National Gateway Recreation Area boasts something New Yorkers have not had for quite some time: beach camping. Camp Rockaway is operating until Nov. 6 with a temporary Commercial Use Agreement from the National Park Service and is looking to cement the idea for the future as a permanent camping option for city dwellers.

Looking inside one of the wall tents we stayed in, fitted with a queen-sized bed. Photo: Ryan Brower

The historic Fort Tilden Wise Clock along the boardwalk. Photo: Ryan Brower

"Rockaway was New York City's first seaside escape," founder Kent Johnson tells GrindTV as we are huddled around the campfire at Camp Rockaway one evening.

As the closest surfing to New York City, Rockaway Beach has always offered up a respite for city surfers and beachgoers alike. Kent's initial idea for Camp Rockaway was spurred from a desire to catch the early-morning and evening surf sessions while not missing any work in the city.

The Camp Rockaway flag flying high at sundown. Photo: Ryan Brower

The view from the ocean a top Battery Harris East, an easy gravel trail hike nearby Camp Rockaway within Fort Tilden. Photo: Ryan Brower

"If you can get out here in the evening, how can you stay over and get that morning session," Johnson tells me was the desire that fueled the idea. "I was looking for that combination, there were no cheap motels like when you're on a ski trip and find a crappy motel for a place to rest up and then get back out there. But there's nothing like that out here."

Upon doing some research about Rockaway, Johnson discovered that tent colonies dominated the sand in Rockaway back in the early 1900s. While looking through history books on Rockaway, he discovered the inspiration for Camp Rockaway's walled tent style:

"There were steam ships coming in here and big ports on the bayside. The biggest hotel in the world was here for a little while, but it burned down. The bungalow colonies were built and there were a couple photos of the tent colonies, like 8,000 tents on the beach at one time. I got in touch with the author and asked more about them. The people who couldn't afford a bungalow or fancy hotel would just do this. Some people would rent them all summer long. They'd move their stuff in, but this was right on the sand. They looked so cool. When I saw that I realized that's what I wanted."

So Johnson launched a Kickstarter for the idea in 2014, and it ended up raising over $50,000. Armed with funds and the affirmation that this was something people wanted, he plugged away for years trying to find land, lobbying city officials and community board members, cold-calling the Parks and Recreation Department and many other avenues that all led to discovering the National Park Service's desire for a camping option in the Gateway National Recreation Area while reading their General Management Plan written in 2012.

From there, Johnson kept trying to get in with the NPS but kept getting stonewalled. Until he got a tip earlier this year that they were going to put out a solicitation for a Commercial User Agreement for a short-term camping project. Johnson submitted his proposal on June 15 and by the end of July was awarded the six-week pilot project in Fort Tilden.

The Isle of Manhattan in the wake of the ferry on the way to Rockaway. Photo: Ryan Brower

Taking a hike. Photo: Ryan Brower

Fort Tilden has undergone a bit of an access boom in the past few years, with establishments like the Riis Park Beach Bazaar and shuttle services with added amenities from Brooklyn. A former U.S. Army installation, it has always been a quiet beach destination for the hip Brooklyn bicycle community.

But there are many ways to get to Fort Tilden, and specifically Camp Rockaway, so we did as New Yorkers do and took the ferry out to Rockaway from Pier 11 at Wall Street. But one could also drive, bike or take a combination of subway and bus. Taking around an hour, NYC Ferry also operates a shuttle from the 116th street landing all the way out to Fort Tilden.

Camp Rockaway at sunrise. Photo: Ryan Brower

We biked from Camp Rockaway into the bustling 90th Street zone of Rockaway along the boardwalk. Photo: Ryan Brower

Kent’s pop-up Camp Rockaway is nestled on the edge of a maritime forest some 350 yards down a gravel road from the ocean, which can be heard at night in the three types of sites Camp Rockaway offers. There are five wall tents (two of which have next-door pup tents), two herder tents and three bring-your-own-tent sites.

The safari-style canvas tents, aka wall tents, offer a queen-sized bed and give more of a glamping experience. The herder tents are more rustic and offer cots, while the BYOT sites provide for the traditional camping experience. In its essence, Camp Rockaway is a basecamp and launching point for those wishing to explore the Rockaway peninsula.

You can immerse yourself in the Gateway National Recreation Area with hikes, bird watching, swimming, surfing, boating and more, or you can jaunt into proper Rockaway Beach via bike and boardwalk to enjoy food, drinks, and everything the bustling seaside town has to offer. It is truly the best of both worlds, offering a chance to be within nature without being intrusive — the anti-development way to stay at the beach.

With the Atlantic Ocean currently in a slumber, we opted for a sunrise swim. Photo: Ryan Brower

The New York City skyline, as seen from Battery Harris East. Photo: Ryan Brower

Considering this short six-week project is New York City’s most accessible campground, the hope is it can become a permanent fixture after this. Johnson is taking things as they come and focusing on wrapping up the pilot project with a bang. There are a few potential possibilities he’s been working on to continue the operation of something like this in the future, and hopefully that can be a reality.

“The hope is obviously to make a good impression on NPS and form a relationship with them,” Johnson tells GrindTV. “From there, I just see Fort Tilden as such an asset for New York City. People are appreciating it, but we can get more people out here. Honestly, the thing I always come back to is those evening and morning sessions because it made me realize how special this environment is.”

Those early morning times, like the sunrise seen here, are certainly worth sticking around for. Photo: Ryan Brower

Kent Johnson with his creation. Photo: Ryan Brower

Camp Rockaway’s 2017 pilot project operates until Nov. 6. It can be accessed by bike, driving or MTA public transportation. Reservations must be made ahead of time. You can do so online at CampRockaway.com or by emailing [email protected]

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