‘When I want to go hiking, I don’t like to go very far. I’d much rather spend my time on the trail than in my car,” says Jim Amon, director of stewardship for the Princeton-based Delaware and Raritan Greenway. “I do most of my hiking in central New Jersey.”
Believe it or not, the most populous state in America is criss-crossed with almost 2,000 miles of hiking trails that cut through hundreds of square miles of rugged mountains, rivers, and piney woods that are essentially untouched. While the Garden State is not as rugged as, say, the Rockies or as vast the deep North woods, it is quiet, scenic, cool and green, and, most important, close to home.
Without ever leaving the Princeton area you can wander a network of paths that take you into woods that feel remote and primal. A little over an hour in a car brings you to trails where you can explore deep woods, climb rock faces rugged enough to require ropes, and enjoy sweeping vistas of a scenic, often rustic New Jersey that, for many, comes as a surprise. Another hour and you can be perched on a rocky crag taking in panoramic views of the Delaware River, making your way along mountain crests on the Appalachian Trail, or following remote, sandy woodland paths in the Pine Barrens — a rich and varied landscape that includes waterfalls, rocky glens shrouded in hemlock, the highest point in the state, ancient villages, and scenic hidden woodland lakes.
“It’s hard to describe hiking in New Jersey without using cliches,” says Ed Goodell, executive director of New York-New Jersey Trail Conference. “It’s surprising, wild, and readily accessible. New Jersey parks, forests, and watersheds provide excellent places to day hike, and there are very good places for overnight backpacking on the Appalachian Trail and in the Pinelands.”
There are several places to hike nearby including some with interesting variety in elevation. In Princeton, for example, Herrontown Woods offers a web of trails that wind up and down through rock-strewn, densely wooded landscape. In Belle Mead, the Sourland Mountain Preserve, located not far from the Route 206 corridor, offers 3,025 acres of woodlands, unique wetlands, and steep hillsides. There are three trails of varying difficulty; the Ridge trail, set among great boulder fields, is the most challenging. The trail passes over 39 wooden walkways and offers a vigorous climb with a view that some say includes New York City on a clear day.
For those who prefer a more level amble, the historic 36-mile-long D&R canal offers scenic walks that feel remote from both place and time, with varied attractions along the way. Highlights include 19th-century bridges, locktender houses, past and present locks, cobblestone spillways, and hand-built, stone-arched culverts in a wooded setting stretching from New Brunswick to Trenton. There is also a scenic 22-mile feeder canal that extends from Trenton to Frenchtown along the Delaware River, passing through Lambertville and Stockton along the way.
The Hamilton Trenton Marsh in Bordentown offers a glimpse of a New Jersey that people seldom see, with deep woods, marsh, creeks, and river views. The most northerly fresh water marsh on the Delaware is also home to a resident waterfowl population that includes swan, heron, and various ducks.
The Black River Trail, a wooded, riverside wander in Morris County, offers another scenic amble not too far away, according to Ellen Blumenkrantz, outing director for the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club.
Further afield, truly remote, but still level, the trails in the Pine Barrens show visitors another face of the Garden State. Located in the network of state parks and forests that occupy a good deal of the southern half of the state, the best known is the Batona Trail. This easy walking trail runs for 50 miles through Bass River, Wharton, and Brendan T. Byrne state forests, crossing streams and passing through mossy pineland forests with hidden lakes and undergrowth of huckleberries, blueberries, and wild azalea; an often densely wooded, sandy area that was once the site of bustling towns with such unlikely names as Four Mile, Ong’s Hat, Martha and Washington.
Heading north from the Princeton area hikers can find a progressively varied and challenging terrain. There are several state parks and forests with hiking areas. One of the most interesting is Jenny Jump State Forest in Warren County. Here, the dramatic terrain was shaped by glaciers that receded about 21,000 years ago, gouging out valleys and rocks from mountain tops. The forest has nine miles of trails with some of the best views in the region; vistas that include the Highlands and the Kittatinny Mountains and the valley to the west, as well as scenic views of the Great Meadows.
Some of the most rugged terrain and splendid views of northern New Jersey are found in Worthington State Forest at the Delaware Water Gap, where 26 miles of trails include over seven miles of the Appalachian Trail. The most challenging climb in the park is Mt. Tammany, a rocky and sometimes steep trail to a 1,527-foot summit where the hiker is treated to stunning views of the Water Gap. The Appalachian Trail passes through Worthington on its way to Maine.
Even more scenic and challenging hiking can be found near the top of state where three enormous parks and forests protect thousands of rugged, mountainous acres. Bisected by Route 206, the 15,482-acre Stokes Forest is noted for its beauty — panoramic views from mountain tops and Tillman Ravine; a rock-strewn gorge with rushing stream and steep cliffs. Several trails wander through this spectacular setting, providing views of waterfalls and ferns clinging to rock crevices. The crest of Sunrise Mountain, near the Appalachian Trail, is another scenic attraction — a breathtaking vista of the surrounding country side from an elevation of 1,653 feet above sea level.
Contiguous with Stokes is the 14,000-acre High Point State Park, where the highest elevation in the state is marked with a 220-foot monument. The view from the monument, at 1,803 feet above sea level, offers a spectacular panorama of rich farmland and forest, soft hills, and lush valleys in three states. There are 11 trails in the park that range from easy walking to difficult rocky terrain for the experienced hiker, including another stretch of the Appalachian.
East of High Point, Wawayanda State Park, covering almost 10,000 acres of forest, mountain, and water, contains some 60 miles of mountain trails that offer sensational vistas and challenge the casual as well as serious hikers. A 20-mile stretch of the Appalachian Trail runs through the park before it leaves New Jersey.
Finding your way to one of the state’s many trails is no problem. An extensive network of resources include websites for state parks, trail organizations, and hiking clubs (see listings at end). Both the Sierra and Appalachian Mountain Clubs have active New Jersey chapters. The New York-New Jersey Trail Conference and New Jersey Trails Association offers maps and trail guides for nearly every major trail in the state, including nearby hiking areas.
New Jersey Trails Association, www.njtrails.org/index.php. NJTA has all the information you need to hike in this part of the world. There are over 52 trail walks in the central New Jersey listed on the website including several that are in or close to Princeton.
New York-New Jersey Trail Conference, www.nynjtc.org, 201-512-9348. This is one of the primary organizations leading hikes and maintaining and building trails in the bi-state area. Members receive the bi-monthly Trail Walker newspaper, which has both trail news and lists hiking schedules for many hiking clubs in New York and New Jersey. Usually there are several hikes to choose from every weekend.
New Jersey Sierra Club, www.newjersey.sierraclub.org, offers day hikes, backpacking, camping, canoeing, and kayaking.
Outdoor Club of South Jersey, www.ocsj.org, offers hikes of varying length and difficulty on Saturdays and Sundays, mostly in the Pine Barrens and at times on the Delaware or Delaware-Raritan Canals. There have been several hikes in Mercer County.
Somerset County Hikers, 908-722-1200, ext. 225, offers a moderately strenuous hike Saturdays during fall, winter, and spring. The group usually meets at the Bernardsville Plaza, Route 202, on Saturdays at 8 a.m. Call or write for a schedule, Somerset County Park Commission, P.O. Box 5327, North Branch 08876-1303.
The State Department of Environmental Protection, www.state.nj.us/dep/parksandforests, is an especially useful site that lists all the parks and state forests and breaks them down by outdoor activities, with trail descriptions, park settings, and driving directions.