The old song is right: “I love Paris, when it sizzles.” But I do not love the central New Jersey area when it does. As summer expands, friends are calling to discover shady hiking sites. Thanks to nonprofits dedicated to New Jersey land preservation, we have choices.
My four favorite tree-blessed treks are Sourland Mountain Preserve trail in Hopewell; Goat Hill Overlook, high above the Delaware River, south of Lambertville; Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve, south of New Hope, Pennsylvania; and Bull’s Island, right in the middle of the Delaware River, south of Frenchtown.
The nearest shady hike is the Sourland Mountains Nature Preserve, just four minutes north of Route 518 on Hopewell’s Greenwood Avenue. Pass Featherbed Lane and Mountain Church Road; turn right at the (almost hidden) Sourland Mountain Preserve sign on right. Ignore the black mailbox that misleads to someone’s home. Parking for five or six cars serves a former access road-turned-trail. Long ago trucks used it to remove imposing rocks to become gravel and Belgian blocks for New Jersey roadways.
You are instantly in rock-studded, dense woods. Overhead ovenbirds shriek “Teacher, Teacher, Teacher!” The (usually first-light and last-light) wood thrush surrounds you with its orotund tones, even at midday. Rare ferns and leafy remnants of endangered twinleaf and anemone fringe the dappled trail. Summer means absence, where most flowers are concerned. But leaf study proves enjoyable — like birding-by-ear —take what you get.
“These woods are lovely, dark and deep,” studded with endless arrays of lichen-frosted, moss-forested rocks. Lava-formed and weather-and-water-abraded, diabase remnants stretch to the non-visible horizon. A 360 on the trail reveals nothing human — save the path itself. You may be blessed by the rare terrestrial wood turtle out on the trail with you. Silence is audible, yet you might experience the soughing of trees. This lost phenomenon — the tree-whisperers — evokes being near but not at the ocean. Many a tree has re-sprouted from long-ago felling. Others seem to burgeon right from the rocks themselves. Lessons in persistence, in triumph over adversity, abound here.
The road is not glaring but easily followable. A yellow blaze on a tree to your right leads to a distant brook. This loop trail returns you to the road, but you do have to cross that brook — not recommended after rain. Whether you take the yellow trail or not, as the road begins to rise, be very alert for a triangular blue blaze on a slim trunk to your left. This path is, as a Michelin Guide terms it, “worthy of the journey.” Some of these rocks are taller than Volkswagens. Make your easy way around these rocks, then right out onto the largest.
Dangling legs from the top of the largest, time itself disappears. One senses vanished Lenape councils. There is no Philadelphia, no Manhattan, no Princeton, not even Hopewell. Matters political become remote, impossible; though their outcome can severely impact preserves such as this. An elegantly dark catbird may arrow past; the golden-shafted flicker laughs, as he flares eponymous wings.
Winding back down to the road trail, a left turn leads up a rise through bucolic densities to a surprise: someone has hewn a massive teeter-totter from a downed tree and stump. Riding up and down provides time travel to childhood. To return to your car, you would have turned right at the road trail by the blue blaze. This hike may be the longest you’ve been anywhere without a human sound.
The shortest shady hike is Bull’s Island, a jewel set in the middle of the Delaware River. Near Raven Rock, the island reminds us of that key watery link, the D&R Canal aqueduct of long ago. Edenic in all seasons and all lights, birders flock here in May, Bull’s Island being Warbler Central.
You are in yet another retreat from the present, as in “what automobiles?” In wind, even birds are stilled. Wildflowers abound in spring, before the forest canopy leafs out. Complex leaves provide identification ops in high summer. Various species of verdant ferns bask in dappled light. Groves of tallest ferns are positively Jurassic. Bull’s Island’s leitmotif remains the ever-present whisper of the Delaware.
Managed by the Department of Environmental Protection, you may learn more at www.state.nj.us/dep/parksandforests/parks/bull.html. It’s at Raven Rock, off Route 29, on left, two miles north of Stockton, below Frenchtown. Phone: 609-397-2949. There is a visitor center, restrooms, and grills and picnic tables near the center.
Boaters put into the river easily at Bull’s Island. An idyllic picnic table beckons by the river side, beneath a venerable tree. The view across-river is compelling, especially in azalea time. The D&R Towpath heads both north and south from Bull’s Island’s front parking lot. The southern route brings you near an active eagle nest, quite visible to your right, between towpath and river, in a luminous “puzzle-trunked” sycamore tree.
Part of the joy of Bull’s Island is that there’s a footbridge so you can walk on water. Spider webs echo intricate cable patterns of this airy bridge, which actually hums as you cross. You will meet many merrily walking bicycles. On the Pennsylvania side are the exquisite, historic Black Bass Inn and the newly restored and creatively chefed Lumberville General Store.
Farthest, and most varied in terms of plant species, is Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve (left/south on Route 32 at the New Hope light, just past Windybush Road). As a long-time member, I’m rewarded in all seasons by beauty underfoot and overhead. Shade blesses all trails except the road itself (used only by official vehicles). Sign in at TwinLeaf Shop. For a nominal fee (free to members), you are given “keys to a kingdom” of rarities — excellent maps to blooming species. In late spring rare ladyslippers erupt like yellow fountains alongside the Fern Trails. Prickly pear cactus, believe it or not a New Jersey native, is already in fruit along the roadway.
My favorite pause site is on the arched bridge over Pidcock Creek, Medicinal Trail. From this span a friend and I found a super-rare Louisiana water thrush, in silhouette and in song. It bobbed efficiently, feeding exactly where it belonged, among glossy, creek-swirled rocks. Last summer those same rocks sheltered a feeding mink.
Bowman’s website — www.bhwp.org — justly exults in the “extraordinary diversity of plants native to Pennsylvania and the Delaware Valley.” Bowman’s offers nearly 800 species of Pennsylvania native plants, defined as having been here before European contact. More than 80 are rare, threatened, or endangered natives.
Delightful indoor and outdoor-programs are available year-round, in addition to daily 2 p.m. summer guided bird walks. Their interlocking well-named trails, impeccably maintained, remain naturally cool even in August.
The most stunning shady hike will be your shortest — Goat Hill, high above the Delaware River, south of Lambertville on Route 29. Even the journey to find it is memorable: Left onto Valley Road from 29, passing Howell Living History Farm. Left on Goat Hill Road; left on Washington Road, named because the general stood here to plan the Battles of Trenton. Legend has it he dined in later years upon “Promontory Rock” with his dear friend, the Marquis de Lafayette.
Park to the left off Washington, entering through gate. This slightly rising hike is never long enough. Trees and vines abound, and birds are more likely to be heard than seen.
The broad main trail holds several tributaries, each leading to spectacular views. Looking right from the crest, Lambertville shimmers. Its bridges resemble opened bracelets flung across the river to Bucks County. To the left is sheer limitlessness. Sun-glints off the river vie with dappled light on all trails.
Here, as in the Sourlands, impressive rocks command attention. Dramatically sited picnic tables await at the sunny trail-top meadow. I have often come upon seated couples, reading what looks like poetry, upon Promontory Rock. The best part of Goat Hill Overlook is the astonishment on friends’ faces as they see our signature river from this unlikely vantage point. It nearly became a quarry, then a housing development.
Full disclosure: I work for D&R Greenway Land Trust, without whose effective facilitations with other organizations, Goat Hill would not be available to the public. Our vice president, Jay Watson, looks forward to realizing the county’s long-planned extensions of Goat Hill trails.
Alan Hershey, our former board chair, heads weekly volunteer work groups on local preserves. His dynamic team is ready, willing, and able to expand the trail network, providing access to areas within and near this remarkable property. So much depends upon the DEP’s approval to allow them to begin to carve those trails. A concern is that its severely sloped properties have microclimates that support rare plants. A balance must be struck between such protection and public access.
Official websites recommend combining Goat Hill with treks at Washington Crossing State Park, but I cannot vouch for shadiness: www.nynjtc.org/hike/goat-hill-overlook.
Just one last thing before you venture out. On shady trails near Princeton, you won’t even need sunscreen, unless you picnic on Goat Hill’s alluringly broad crest. Yet on all hikes, anywhere in New Jersey, tuck long pants into tall socks in sturdy closed shoes. Don’t even think of wearing flip-flops on regional trails.
Deer and therefore deer ticks rule — a risk not worth taking. A hat is essential, as ticks tumble as well as climb. Strongly suggested are breathable shirts and camisoles with UV protection, such as REI amply provides, facilitating high summer hikes. Drink at least a pint of water out there: more is better. The hiker’s mantra to prevent (serious) dehydration, is “Better in you than on you.” Hopewell’s old-fashioned pharmacy offers Ambermin’s All Natural Tick and Insect Repellent. Its delightful fragrance proved most effective against mosquitoes and no-see-ums (and, evidently ticks) on a hot recent Sourland morning hike.
So what are you waiting for? Take a hike.