September 05, 2019
New Jersey may be known as the diner capital of the world, but did you know the Garden State is also home to 50 different protected areas of nature?
From the Delaware to the shore, Jersey offers dozens of ways to hike, bike, swim and boat along scenic rivers and barrier islands, not to mention educational adventures into nature preserves and dense wooden forests that are, in some cases, a short drive from Center City. You can literally be communing with fresh air and wild turkeys in less time than it takes to get to the King of Prussia Mall.
Here are some of the best spots:
The Wharton State Forest is the largest single tract of land within the Garden State park system. Stretching between Atlantic, Burlington and Camden counties, it’s all about the canoeing, hiking, biking and horseback riding trails here. A major section of the Batona Trail in the Pine Barrens features miles of unpaved roads, lakes and ponds that are idea for exercising and wildlife spotting. Don’t be surprised if you run into some wild turkeys, beavers and river otters. The area is also a sanctuary for bald eagles.
A highlight is heading up Apple Pie Hill where you can climb a 60-foot tower that offers a panoramic view from this, the highest point in the Pine Barrens. The top reaches more than 200 feet above sea level (please note: it’s only accessible when a staff person is on site).
Also check out Batsto Village, the site of a former iron and glassmaking industrial center that started in the 1700s. You can tour several historic buildings, including the Batsto Mansion, using your cell phone as guide.
The Rancocas Nature Center is a must-see for wildlife enthusiasts. Not only does this 210-acres of Rancocas State Park combine three miles of hiking trails through meadows, forest and wetlands, it’s home to an incredible array of birds and plant life. The nonprofit organization is dedicated to educating students and the general public about the area (you can take on-site tours with experts). There are special events throughout the year that encourage people to visit with telescopes.
At Timber Creek in Lindenwold and Gloucester Township, 128 acres await between Chews Landing and Somerdale roads. While the nine-acre, fenced-in Timber Creek Dog Park (near Chews Landing and Taylor Avenue in Blackwood) has become a hot spot for pets and their owners, the area is actually bordered by the north branch of the Big Timber Creek where it’s not unusual to see folks hopping into the water in a canoe.
The walking track at the creek is ideal for beginners – it circles just under a half a mile – but there are definitely more adventurous cross-country and nature trails to explore.
Meanwhile, on the northern end of the Pine Barrens, Belleplain State Forest has become a great spot to put down camp. Located in Cape May and Cumberland counties, this protected area features more than 40 miles of natural trails, as well as Lake Nummy, a popular spot for swimming, boating and fishing.
Just across the Delaware is Newton Lake Park, a 104-acre site that runs through Collingswood, Oaklyn and Haddon Township. This populated area is ideal for anyone who may want a side of civilization with their hiking, biking and fishing. There are three picnic areas near the lake, as well as two playgrounds for the kids. There are also piers where fishermen like to stake their claims, namely at Matrimony Garden, Lees Lane and Bettlewood Avenue.
Smithville Park near Mt. Holly also combines nature with history. The wooded area on the opposite side of Smithville Road features pavilions and picnic areas with grills and playgrounds, as well as a popular hiking trail on 312 acres. The area, which was once a mill town along the Rancocas Creek, still offers remnants of its bustling life in the 1860s, including the Smithville Mansion and Floating Walkway. Over the years the waterways have become a hub for boaters.
Afraid of venturing too far into the sticks? The peregrine falcons nesting atop the Tacony Palmyra Bridge from March until June. And there’s also Beaver Pond, formerly a sand mine, where you might catch some beavers building lodges. Check out this guide to find out what wildlife you can see where each season.
If you’re into sun and sand, Island Beach State Park is a beautifully preserved barrier island that protects the natural shoreline along Barnegat Bay. With almost 10 miles of sand, maritime forest, dunes and tidal marshes, this untouched sanctuary is home to foxes and ospreys, and more than 400 species of plants just off Route 35. The destination offers stunning views of the famous Barnegat Lighthouse, as well as a spot to swim and surf-fish right from the shoreline.
Nearby, you’d never know Cattus Island County Park in Ocean County, N.J., is just a stone’s throw from some of the busiest highways and beaches in the region. That’s because this 530-acre park boasts seven miles of trails and gorgeous views of Barnegat Bay.
The area near North Brigantine also offers a stunning shore vista. The Edwin B. Forsythe Natural Wildlife Refuge currently protects 47,000 acres of coastal habitat. While it’s a year-round spot to watch wildlife, in warmer weather it’s become a popular destination to do some freshwater and saltwater fishing, as well as hiking along a protected network of water ways.
Situated on the southwest tip of Cape May, the South Cape May Meadows Preserve is made up of 200 acres of dunes, wetlands, meadows and a pristine mile of protected beach. (It's already closed for this season). If you really want to get the full experience, look for marked trails and guided walks by the N.J. Audubon Cape May Bird Observatory. This place is seriously the Hollywood of bird watching.
Also popular for bird watching is Great Bay Boulevard in Little Egg Harbor in the southernmost part of Ocean County. Here, shore meets the pines with a great sweep of salt marsh that can be accessed just off Route 9 in Tuckerton.
It’s all about the cranberries in Double Trouble State Park, a state park in Bayville. Located on more than 200 acres of bogs, the cranberries here have been a big export here since the 1860s. People have also been coming back for biking, hiking and horseback riding on nature trails that wind through this isolated former village.
A fun detour is the Double Trouble Historic Village, a park featuring 14 original historical structures dating to the late 19th century, including a sawmill and general store. Tours are available.
If you want to feel like you’re the last person on earth, head to Blue Hole, a hidden lake in the Pinelands of Monroe Township. Secreted within a dense forest, this shimmering blue body of water is about 70 feet across (at its deepest it’s less than 10 feet) and only ever gets to be about 60 degrees (yep, it’s chilly). While it used to be a well-traveled swimming spot, it’s less so now after a footbridge over Egg Harbor River was destroyed making Blue Hole only accessible by foot these days.
Sedge Island is right smack in the middle of Barnegat. This marine conservation zone has everything from marsh walks and kayak tours to first-class crabbing. What it doesn’t have is noise, too many people or traffic.
Strawberry Avenue in Commercial Township is one of the most serene boardwalks in the state. All told, it’s less than four miles out and back on the Delaware Bay side near the Maurice River. You won’t find any bells and whistles here, just a natural landscape punctuated by brush and sea grass that is truly picture postcard.