I last visited the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island Immigration Museum more than a decade ago. But that was a comparatively carefree time, before the unthinkable happened on September 11, 2001, changing the way we perceive and protect our nation’s most visible symbols of freedom. A return trip to these icons of American independence and determination was long overdue, so a friend and I set out on a recent cloudy Friday morning.

I had previously taken the ferry only from Battery Park at the southern tip of Manhattan. But now that I live in New Jersey, it made sense to leave from Liberty State Park in Jersey City instead. This 1,122-acre park formally opened in 1976, as New Jersey’s bicentennial gift to the nation. Open 6 am to 10 pm daily, it is home to both the Liberty Science Center and the Liberty Walk, a 1.3-mile stroll along the Hudson River that affords beautiful views of downtown Manhattan, Ellis Island, and Lady Liberty.

The Interpretive Center at the park offers environmental programs, and nature trails run along a natural salt marsh. The restored Central Railroad of New Jersey Terminal (CRRNJ) reminds us of the park’s importance during the late 1800s and early 1900s. During that time, thousands of immigrants stepped ashore at Ellis Island every day to be processed for entry into the U.S., then they traveled to their new homes around the country via the Central Railroad.

Arriving at the Liberty State Park ferry terminal, we saw immediate indications of the changes wrought by 9/11. Signs warning of “airport-style” security greeted us, and while we didn’t have to wait long for our turn through the metal detector and baggage scanner, the National Park Service notes that during peak seasons, wait times can be as long as several hours.

Stopping At Ellis Island and Liberty Island

Our ferry ride aboard the Miss Freedom took just seven minutes from the terminal to Ellis Island. And, as we drew near, my friend Cecilia and I talked about how excited—and terrified—those making the same approach a century ago must have been. The museum itself remains a fitting tribute to the lives and struggles of the people who sought a better life in America. There is much to see, but we particularly enjoyed reading the ship manifests, which list each passenger and details about his/her life, and looking at the many compelling photographs and personal stories. Kids will enjoy learning about the lives and traditions of the immigrant children who made these dangerous voyages with their parents. And don’t forget to look for your family name on the American Immigrant Wall of Honor.

After our tour of Ellis Island, we boarded another ferry to Liberty Island and the Lady herself. The interior of the entire Statue of Liberty was closed to the public after 9/11, but the pedestal base was re-opened in 2004 following improvements to fire safety, security, and evacuation routes. On July 4 of this year, visitors again began climbing the narrow, winding, single-file staircase to Lady Liberty’s crown. Since no more than 10 people at a time are allowed access to the crown, book in advance by calling 877/523-9849, or by going to statuecruises.com.

Self-guided audio tours—which park officials say offer a “lively, interactive experience through the use of animal characters”—are available for both the Ellis Island museum and the Statue of Liberty for a fee. Park rangers offer walking tours of the Ellis Island museum on a first-come, first-served basis.

A note of caution: when leaving the island to return to Liberty State Park, make sure you’re in the right line for the right ferry. If you wind up taking the ferry to Manhattan by mistake, you could end up having to pay to re-board.

Mary Ann McGann is a freelance writer from New Jersey.