The leaves gave us warning. Several sharp cold snaps stilled the sap, turning the foliage into some of the brightest colors we have seen in years. Even before we set out the Jack-O-Lanterns, fluffy white flakes blanketed our autos. Yes, we are indeed going to have a good old fashioned winter, the kind where the soft chair near the fire beckons. But, no! There are huge benefits — mental as well as physical — in keeping moving.
The gym is an option, and it’s a fine way to keep in shape year ‘round. But don’t give up entirely on venturing into the frosty air. The Garden State is full of outdoor fun well after all of its gardens have given up and gone into hibernation.
Many, as I write, are gearing up to follow their sole sport, say, downhill skiing, devoting weekends to some new venue. Great fun, naturally. But this season I urge all of us to explore some new nooks in the Garden State and enjoy her winter in a variety of ways. Back in the heyday of my childhood, when phone calls were a dime and all airline stewardesses were beautiful, snow regularly covered our entire state with chest-high drifts. Snowmen towered above my highest reach. We scarcely saw the ground all winter. Or anyway, that’s how I remember it.
It may be global warming that has melted these remembrances into today’s reality, but whatever the cause, it is now difficult to find a reliably frozen skating pond. But, no matter, for the past several years there has been great winter fun to be found right near our home.
No matter what the weather, it’s almost always a good time to take a hike. Lone trotting foxes, flocks of lumbering wild turkeys, and herds of white-tailed deer fill many of our pocket forests close by. Your best odds for spying these on the D & R Towpath is to start from the Blackwells Mills crossing and head north. Find the trail head above the Kingston, Rocky Hill, and Griggstown bridges. There the road veers away as you walk towards Millstone and the flood plain broadens. Towpath maps and information are available at the state park center just across River Road to the right.
Add numerous beaver, raptors, waterfowl thick enough to walk on, and even a bear, and you’ve got the Plainsboro Preserve. (From Route 1 North, take Scudders Mill Road up four lights to Dey Road, turn left, and go two miles, turning left onto Scotts Corner Road. The Preserve is a half mile on your left.) Short trails take you either around the woods-hemmed lake, or into a secluded beech forest, similar to the Institute Woods, located just south of Princeton on Princeton Pike. While at the Preserve, take advantage of the Audubon Center with is myriad nature programs and hiking trail information.
The Sourland Mountain Preserve, just outside of Princeton on Mountain Road, affords less wildlife, but more topography in its five-mile ridge trail.
Of the county park walks, my favorite is Mercer’s trail, starting at Old Trenton Road parking lot. Immediately after the foot bridge, see the right-hand path.
For three short strolls that combine both woods and grown over meadow, drive down Bunker Hill Road, left off Route 27 North in South Brunswick, and watch for the brown, wooden “Trail” signs.
Looming over the Delaware just north of Washington Crossing Park, the short, mid-steep walk up Bald Pate Mountain provides spectacular views of the forested river valley. (Take Route 29 North, past Washington Crossing Park. Turn right onto Fiddlers Creek Road. Drive a short way uphill to the parking lot.)
Many will seek high, overhanging views at the Delaware Water Gap by parking in the lot just off westbound Route 80, this side of the bridge. Certainly the climbs up to Mount Tammany or Sunfish Pond are rewarding, if popular. However, much less traveled and equally well-vistaed trails may be found by passing this lot, taking the next turnoff, and proceeding about six miles upriver to either well-marked Raccoon Ridge trail, or even better to Coppermine Trail. Both of these lead to the Appalachian Trail ridge walks, which you can follow and return via any of several loop trails.
Or why not try the beach? Except for the occasional surf-casting fisherman, Long Beach Island is yours alone, to stroll the shore as chilly waves hiss against the sand, and a marvelous collection of shells rattle in the surf. (Take Route 571 South to Route 547 South to Route 37 East. Pedaling this route from Princeton makes an exact, and looney, century bike ride.)
And speaking of bike rides, Sandy Hook’s bike path at the end of Route 35 East takes walkers or bikers through haunting salt marshes and up to historic Fort Hancock, once home to some of America’s largest artillery and their testing grounds. Foxes, old fortifications, and marsh raptors may be seen as well as a fine view of the Manhattan skyline from the observation tower.
Winter also empties the Pine Barrens of fair weather hikers, leaving the 50 miles of Batona Trail to those who savor quiet beauty. Trails run from Ongs Hat Village through Lebanon and Batsto state parks and up to the Bass River Park fire tower. My favorite section is the 5.2-mile segment from the Carranza Memorial north, through the cedar forests and along the Batsto River, up to Route 532. It includes the Apple Pie Hill Fire Tower, from which, on a clear day, you can view the Atlantic, the Delaware, and all the pinelands in between. (From either 206 or Tabernacle Village, take Carranza Road to the memorial parking lot. Look for Batona’s pink blazes.)
Winter hiking can be a delight — but only if you’re dressed for it. A good sturdy pair of loose fitting corduroy pants, a long wool (or polypropylene) scarf, and a nice wool shirt worked for lumberjacks and will do wonders for you. For fighting the wind, add a winter shell. The new ones boast advanced breeze-blocking technology. If it’s really cold, layer in a mid-weight pile jacket, instead of a big, sweat-inducing down coat. Or don the undershirt, shirt, and shell, then put a heavy wool hat and mittens and scarf in the day pack.
Today’s mid-price hiking boots are warmer than those used by Everest climbers of three decades ago. This technology means that if you wear a thin pair of liner socks and a heavy pair of wool socks you’ll remain toasty in deep snows. (The two pair of socks rub against each other, not against you, thus fending off blisters.) If there is snow on the ground a small pair of gaiters keeps it from funneling into the boots.
If you plan to get out and hike often this winter put a light and a heavy weight hat on your Christmas list. Since up to 25 percent of body heat is lost through the head, a good hat and scarf allow you to dress light while hiking, then keep toasty with just these extras while you stop for lunch. One other carrying tip: hikers in winter don’t burn off the same amount of water that they do in summer — they burn more. Make sure to bring enough water to stay hydrated. Finally, sticking a thin slab of waterproof, bottom-insulating foam in your day pack, makes every rock or tree stump a warm winter seat.
Forget that fragile, undependable, nerdy GPS. Trust to your own wits and compass to guide you through life and the woods. For those marathoners who like to add a mental challenge to their race, or those who might merely seek to add purpose to their sylvan rambles, orienteering is a marvelously inclusive sport.
The folks who take part is this increasingly popular sport are markedly friendly, welcoming all levels, including children (most every event boasts a young people’s course). And best of all, events run all through the leafless winter in parks throughout the tri-state area. The two nearest clubs with the largest events are Hudson Valley Orienteering (www.hvo.us.orienteering.org; 973-625-0499) and the Delaware Orienteering Association (www.dvoa.org; 610-792-0502).
A good compass is essential equipment, and can usually be rented or bought on the event site. Best to try before you buy. Also, bushwhacking your way through the Garden State’s brush and briar will shred to frazzles your lovely Woolrich twill pants. Once you get involved, you might seek out a pair of tight weave, synthetic orienteering chaps or pants which breathe, but don’t snag.
Snowshoes offer that once-a-year chance to ascend trailless peaks or get into the back woods that are other times brushed over.
Up in Stokes, Worthington, and some of New Jersey’s more northerly parks, the snow occasionally is ample. Check the Mohican Outdoor Center for conditions. If the bushy squirrels are right, this might be the winter with enough snow to make these outings possible. If not, head for the Catskills — or much, much better to the Adirondacks. Check www.adirondacks.com/snowshoeing for advice.
As with skis, everyone will try to push you into a smaller-than-useful pair of snowshoes. Most metal snowshoes are too small for an average size adult male. I suggest the wood models with a modified bear paw style. If you weigh 145 pounds, buy or rent snowshoes the chart deems ideal for an “Over 200” pound person. You’ll ride higher, go quicker, and expend so much less effort.
As the flakes deepen into a fine pack, many of the hiking trails listed above transform into dazzling cross country ski courses. When snow coats the tall beeches of the Plainsboro Preserve, you can glide along and chase the deer through the five miles of forest. It is also great fun to ski along the canal towpaths. For the best topography in the area, try Thompson Park in Jamesburg. To add another dimension to your cross country jaunt head to Mercer County Park, where you can ski across the lake when it freezes solid.
Farther afield the Highpoint X-C Ski Center, in Sussex, the state’s northernmost county, boasts 15 km of groomed trails plus another 8 for snowshoeing. This popular area is a full Nordic center for day or overnight cross country skiers. The Appalachian Mountain Club’s Mohican Outdoor Center in Blairstown is another good option. It offers skis, cabins, shuttle service, and lessons. (Call 908-362-5670.)
But my personal favorite is a trail that follows the Lehigh River from Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania. Two hours from Princeton on 95 South to Route 1, to the PA Turnpike, to the Northeast Extension, to Route 219 South will land you in the riverside town of Jim Thorpe. At the diner, or on the sidewalk, ask directions for the nearby whitewater rafting takeout. From the parking lot you will light out along the rails-to-trails route that peers over the black Lehigh waters as they rage against shoreside snow and ice.
Nature’s dynamic power surges before you as you glide the 8.6 miles up to Rockport and the next 10 miles up to White Haven. Just west, outside of Jim Thorpe, is a wonderfully slopping park providing a few miles of grand X-country thrills.
Best Club: New Jersey Nordic Ski Club (www.njnordic.cjb.net; 973-743-4833). It offers trips near and far, tips, lessons, and friends.
Be careful in selecting cross country skiing equipment. Most salespeople — and even fellow skiers — will nudge you toward skis the width of ice skate blades. They’ll spin great tales of speed — of racers with Scandinavian names — who use this width and fly over groomed trails. And yes, if you are an Olympic hopeful, do get a pair.
But for those seeking to find the winter beauty along our area’s many natural trails, may I suggest the wider, more stable touring ski. You’ll ride higher, cutting a swifter path across the snow pack. Get the maximum length your weight suggests, and the best edges. There are several choices of bindings. Make sure to get one that can be cleaned easily of ice and snow. I prefer the broader, three-pin method, because it offers my foot more turning control.
As to poles, those with easily adjustable wrist straps, and larger, sculpted baskets make for greater push and maneuverability. Also, even for “waxless skis” make sure you purchase some lubricating oil or spray glide wax, which you apply religiously at the start of each outing. It doesn’t hurt to carry a little rag dipped in this lubricant, and a scraper tool, perhaps a screwdriver, to clean off caked ice mid-trip.
For those wedded to shushing in the Garden State, a series of popular, comparatively low cost, if not overly extreme ski resorts, serve the need. Campgaw Mountain in Mahwah offers everything from inner tube coasting to race training on its five slopes. Despite the fact that it is located just 18 miles from the George Washington Bridge, lift lines are short. www.skicampgaw.com or call 201-327-7800.
Hidden Valley’s Great Gorge (973-764-4200) offers a 620-foot vertical drop from its 1,435-foot height. Trails are short, but an awful lot of fun can be found here. Mountain Creek (formerly Vernon Valley) boasts 45 trails and 8 tubing lanes, and one expert trail in its 16 miles of trails. There is also night skiing. (www.mountaincreek.com)
On a sad note, many are the older Jersey skiers who learned to ski on Belle Mountain, Galloping Hill, Great Gorge, Jugtown Mountain, Mount Bethel, Peapack Ski Areas, or Snow Bowl. Alas, these smaller, gentle old favorites are no more.
Best ski club in area: Princeton Ski Club. A lot more than just skiing. Visit www.princetonski.org; or call 609-497-1767.
Whether your thrill is slashing the puck or gliding gracefully into alternating two-foot swizzles, there are plenty of places to skate throughout central Jersey.
The first pond to freeze over? Brainerd Lake on Main Street, Cranbury. Just look for half the town alternately chatting and gliding over this remarkably smooth ice.
Close behind is Etra Lake (from Main Street in Hightstown, turn right on Etra Road, and travel 2.5 miles). Etra Lake is also known as one of the state’s premier ice fishing lakes.
Another skating spot that freezes early is Assunpink Lake (take Route 571 through Roosevelt, turn left out of town, and watch for signs). Slower to freeze, but worth waiting for, are the long stretches of blissfully smooth ice on Princeton’s Carnegie Lake and Jamesburg’s Manalapan Lake.
Providing a less sylvan atmosphere, but more man-made dependability, are Mercer and Middlesex counties’ open air rinks. Located on 151 Parsonage Road in Edison, the Roosevelt Park Family Ice Skating Rink has open skating on Wednesday through Sunday through March. Adults: $5; Children and seniors: $4; rental and sharpening available (732-494-3785).
The roofed, open air ice rinks at Mercer County Park, on Old Trenton Road, West Windsor, are open for pubic skating seven days a week, $6 for adults; $4 children and seniors. Rental and sharpening available. And best of all, the rink boasts a huge, ever-roaring fireplace to melt off winter’s chill.
For those who insist that’s just not skating unless it’s performed in an indoor rink, visit www.arenamaps.com for a relatively broad (not complete) list of commercial rinks.
The best nearby indoor rink: Princeton Sports Center (formerly the Pro Skate USA.) Located on Cornwall, off Route 1 northbound, just past the New Road junction in South Brunswick, this center has public hours 10 a.m. to noon; $9 adults; $7 children & seniors. Skates can be rented, sharpened, and purchased.
To find other rinks that suit your proximity and hours, try:
Ice Land Skating Center — 6 Tennis Court, Trenton. 609-588-6672.
Baker Rink, off Faculty Road in Princeton. Public skating Tuesday to Thursday 9:00 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. $100 permit for the season. 609-258-1892.
McGraw Rink, Located off Elm Road in Princeton Day School. Public hours available. 609-924-6700 x1820.
You don’t have to venture far to find biking adventures. The best nearby offroad biking is at Mercer County Park’s six-mile course, which is tended by volunteers. This track is filled with jumps, swamps, and a few steeps.
For the state’s full range of off-road paths and courses, check www.singletracks.com.
To enjoy the sight of crashing surf, and mostly flat trails, head to Sandy Hook, where bicyclists can use many of the same trails that hikers enjoy.
For more hills, try the route that starts in Main Street in Rocky Hill or even back in Kingston. Pedal to Route 518, then take that road into Hillsborough, and on down into Lambertville. Collapse, view the Delaware, eat lunch, and then muscle up all those 17 miles of steep hills to return — you animal you.
For a more level route to dinner, start in the Hightstown Diner, follow Route 539 into Allentown, and eat lunch at any of several restaurants. Taking the less trafficked 526 East will lead to Imlaystown’s Happy Apple Inn.
Like competition? The Central Jersey Cycling Club, at www.cjbc.org, offers a full schedule of rides and races.
Equipment Tip: Windproof shells are all the rage, but my personal favorite is a bike jacket with a windbreaker in front and breathable pile in back.
Check out road and off road trips with Jersey Off Road Bicycle Association (www.jorba.com) and a full array of detailed, well done maps on www.state.nj.us/transportation/commuter/bike/bikemaps.
Yes, the brave-hearted and hot-blooded among us will find that the popular rivers, like the state’s beaches, are now deserted. The power boaters and swimmers, with the exception of a few New Year’s Day Polar Bears, are gone. Canoers and kayakers will find that the Millstone River still flows steadily most winter days, with available put-in points at Kingston, Rocky Hill, Griggstown, Blackwells Mills, Millstone, and on up to Zeraphath. Each of these spans a 3 to 5 mile run, and if you don’t have a shuttle car, you can always hop over into the currentless D & R canal and paddle back.
In the pinelands, the Wading and Batsto Rivers run year round and carry boaters through a cedar cover of mysterious silence. Those unfamiliar with the runs may find an excellent map and trip times by visiting www.pinebarrenscanoe.com.
To combine birding with paddling, try the Trenton Marsh by putting in at the tidal mouth of Crosswicks Creek at Anchor Thread in Bordentown. (For map visit www.marsh-friends.org.) To ply the ocean marshes, head south to the Great Egg Harbor (Take Route 539 South to where it meets Route 9 in Tuckerton. A little road will lead you to a sandy put-in.)
If you haven’t spent a winter’s night under the stars, you are missing one of nature’s greatest exhilarations. The Appalachian Mountain Club’s Mohican Outdoor Center is probably the best place for novices to learn this fine art.
Equipment is key here. Check the weather rating on everything from parkas to tents. If you pack carefully, winter camping is even more fun that its warm weather counterpart.
Both the Appalachian and the Batona trails allow camping within 100 feet of the pathway. Jenny Jump State Forest has shelters comprised of four walls and a roof. (908-459-4366.) Within easy distance of High Point and Stokes Forest, commercial campground Harmony Ridge (973-948-4941) has a regular winter camping clientele.
So to those who look wanly out their windows, wishing for warmth to come, I urge Carpe Frigidarium Diem. Pay less attention to the temperature of the air, and delight more in the spirit filling it. After all, this beautiful cold weather is with us only a short while, before passing into the mud months of spring.
Clubs & Tour Groups
Delaware Orienteering Association, www.dvoa.org. Call 610-792-0502.
Princeton Ski Club, more than justskiing.www.princetonski.org; or call 609-497-1767.
SkiTours, Distance ski trips, helicopter skiing, and extreme sports. Call 609-951-0007.
New Jersey Nordic Ski Club, www.njnordic.cjb.net; or call 973-743-4833.
New Jersey Off Road Bicycle Association, www.njorba.org. A rough and ready group that runs trips all winter.
Century Road Club of America. Visit www.centuryroadclub.com or go to Kopp’s Cycle Shop in Princeton. All levels of road biking trips available, all seasons.
New Jersey Audubon Society, Visit www.njaudubon.org or call the Plainsboro preserve at 609-897-9400. A great way to trek the outdoors with a naturalist by your side.