You’re psyched for a hike, but the Weather Channel reports temperatures over 90 degrees. What to do? You’re in luck! The Princeton region abounds in sites offering cool walks despite blistering days.
It helps to get out on trails at first light or last. Birders and photographers know to choose times of low sun for best results. As the “Dog Days” of August approach, early and late become your best friends.
Named for Sirius, the Dog Star — which rises in that month — August was the month when I would watch the Provencals, gesturing furiously, castigate the entire season that they call “La Canicule” (from Latin word for dog). In the south of France, this is a time of increased madness, of wildfires in pine and oak woods. For the entire interval of “La Canicule” in 1988, firefighters camped out on our L’Observatoire Hill above Cannes — good chance to practice my French. No shade anywhere, then! Least of all in the charred (even the roots!) Esterel Forest, where I had become seriously sunburned that January. As global warming creeps on its far-from-petty pace, this searing time could tempt you to bark.
In Princeton’s Dog Days the rule of thumb becomes, “Be out there when sun’s below treeline.” This is easy along the D&R Canal Towpath, the once vital commercial artery that is now a state park. However, at all hours, in our mercifully wooded region, there are nearby hiking havens. Here you can literally escape heat, enhance fitness, and experience wild beauty without absolutely wilting.
My benchmark for temperature relief is New Jersey Audubon’s Plainsboro Preserve. If I were giving Cool Stars, its beechwood haven earns the full five. Four, I award to Community Park North — especially John Witherspoon Woods, thanks to the vigilance and preservation successes of Friends of Princeton Open Space and the Princeton Garden Club.
Three stars go to Shipetaukin Woods, just over the line in Lawrence Township, with its shy and melodious Shipetaukin Brook. Two Cool Stars are earned by our Towpath — with the exception of areas along Carnegie Lake. (Its dredging removed venerable tree cover, so lakeside walks this time of year can feel like forced marches on a griddle.) Of course, the all-time best way to be cool near the towpath is to kayak along the canal, especially south from Princeton Canoe and Kayak on Alexander Road.
Plainsboro Preserve: Your first steps, alongside McCormack Lake (former gravel pit, now waterbird heaven) are along its sandy entrance road, admittedly exposed to the sun. A trail beckons to the left almost immediately. Take it to enter the beechwood. In any season, there is a significant “change in the weather.” Its moderation is a welcome 12 to 15 degrees — cooler in summer; warmer in winter. In this enchanted forest gleam frail white Indian pipes. These saprophytes are haunting in the dappled dimness, plants that thrive without chlorophyll. Their dark ruddy relative, beech drops, erupt here and there, nourished by submerged long-dead beech trunks.
Plainsboro Preserve in summer is a place for atmosphere and escape, more than adding to your life lists of birds and plants. Winter is the time for the rarest of their 150 species of birds to take center stage. Threatened and endangered plants are proudly listed at Plainsboro, although seldom encountered on ordinary excursions. Maps and announcements at entry reveal a broad spectrum of guided family activities, including owl prowls and backcountry wildflower quests.
Trail blazes on trees are plentiful and clear. The white trail segues into the red which curves into the yellow, looping back to the white. Take them all in the Dog Days, with shade as your companion. Blue takes you out onto the peninsula in 50-acre McCormack Lake, the former quarry. There you will hike among fragrant bayberry shrubs, above reindeer lichen and other green growing things you would have to drive all the way to Island Beach State Park to discover. However, the peninsula is sun-exposed. (No swimming, fishing, dogs or bikes in this preserve.)
Directions: Take Scudders Mill Road off Route 1; go left on Dey Road; left at the light at Scott’s Corner Road, and then left into park at small sign on right. Open sunup to sundown, locked otherwise.
Community Park North, John Witherspoon Woods: Woods truly “lovely, dark and deep” face your car in the parking lot. Trails lead north and south. North (near what used to be our Shakespeare Theater) is more exposed. Blazes are sparse, but trails well utilized, so that you can follow your feet. This preserve can be very wet after continuous rain. South trail lifts you onto a paved road, toward Mountain Lakes House. In no time, you not only do not hear Route 206 any longer — you forget there is any such thing as traffic. You might even forget sun.
For the darkest woods, turn right at pathways into John Witherspoon Woods. After crossing a stream or two, you may be blessed by the great horned owl (early or late), or the privilege of a wood thrush chorus. Henry David Thoreau’s favorite bird, the thrush is becoming increasingly scarce in our region, as deer browse and destroy its essential understory.
Evocative rocks outline well maintained, but somewhat rough, trails. Occasional water crossings are abetted by convenient logs and rocks. Trekking poles are useful, but not required. Inescapable sun does erupt on the road and in the gas line clearing. The large body of (dammed) water lures (too many) geese. Obvious trails wheel in all directions, granting profound escape from “civilization,” as well as from rays.
Directions: Take Route 206 north from Nassau Street; turn right for the jughandle to Mountain Avenue; right at large sign, into generous parking area.
Shipetaukin Woods, Lawrence Township: Three trails diverge in a greenwood. Take center or left, both clearly blazed. Even at entry, edge-habitat birds abound. They are near and unbothered enough by your presence in this secret enclave that you can study them without optics. Inside the forest, the sun is blessedly swallowed. You are knee-deep in ferns, among jack-in-the-pulpits to your hips. Tracking, you read fawn tenuousness, stag certainty; you step between raccoon prints.
Look for turtles and waterstriders along the winking creek. This is a small walk, but dense. Tree blazes tend to be few and far between. It’s near enough to Terhune Orchards that you can mosey on over there afterwards for cool and natural refreshment. Shipetaukin reminds me of Spencer Tracy’s praise of Hepburn: “Not much to her; but what there is, is cherce.”
Directions: Take 206 south from downtown Princeton; right onto Province Line Road alongside Squibb; left on Carson; right on Carter — only one car-length! Immediate left into Shipetaukin. From Princeton, the small sign cannot be read. Entry road is rudimentary.
D&R Canal/Towpath: The working canal and towpath ran from New Brunswick to Bordentown. The shadiest towpath stroll is from Alexander Road South, in late afternoon and evening. One can park under trees at Turning Basin Park, across from Princeton Canoe and Kayak.
Parking at the Quaker Bridge Road/Province Line Road South (alongside Nassau Park/Wegman’s Shopping Center) provides a mercifully silent walk. Evening is best, although always less shady than the Alexander South stretch.
As you come out from under Province Line Road Bridge, a scene right out of French Impressionists unfolds. Our canal could have inspired Sisley, Pissarro, Monet, and the gang, especially near Auvers-sur-Oise. Rare birds abound here, although busy Route 1 is so near. Rose-breasted grosbeak, green heron, yellow-shafted flicker, evening grosbeak, great-crested flycatcher, hawks often aloft.
Be warned: The most sun-exposed stretch of the D&R Canal and Towpath is the one we know best, Harrison Street and north.
Other shady opportunities include the Institute Woods (park and enter near the adolescent Mercer Oak, on Mercer Street south of town; or on Alexander near the Canal). Celebrated in birding guides, this nature mecca shelters wood thrushes, occasional pileated woodpeckers. However, severe deer browse has had its way with this understory, seriously reducing bird and wildflower populations.
North of town, Herrontown Woods and Autumn Hill Reservation beckon shade-seekers. Herrontown Road leads direct to Autumn Hill; take Herrontown Road to Snowden Lane to reach Herrontown Woods. Both preserves can be exceedingly wet after lengthy rain. Each offers cool density, intriguing rocks, towering trees, and bird richness.
In John Masefield’s words, you may be “tired of brick and stone, and rumbling wagon wheels.” If so, seek out Princeton area woods, “full of the laugh of the leaves and the song the wind sings.” Even on blistering days.