In spite of another snowstorm on the first day of spring, it’s impossible to ignore that spring is here. And lots of snow-weary New Jerseyans will be heading outdoors to explore new places.
Where to go? You could visit state and national parks. But how about following a different path? Check out the county parks in this state we’re in!
County parks are the Garden State’s hidden treasures: uncrowded places known mostly to locals. Some are compact neighborhood gems, some are large and rustic, while others are packed with recreational amenities. Here are some great places in each county:
Atlantic – If you’re looking for a scenic spot for fishing, kayaking or watching bald eagles, try Lake Lenape Park in Hamilton Township. The county owns 2,000 acres, including the lake and land along its east and west shorelines. You can mountain bike, hike nature trails, camp, picnic and even do in-line skating!
Bergen – Located in the rugged Ramapo Mountains near the New York state border are two great county parks in the town of Mahwah. The Ramapo Valley County Reservation has over 4,000 acres with hiking trails and canoe/kayak access to the Ramapo River, and the Campgaw Mountain Reservation offers downhill skiing in winter and trails and a disc golf course in warm weather.
Burlington – If you like to mix history with outdoor recreation, Historic Smithville Park and Smith’s Woods in Eastampton is a great park. Tour Smithville village, a restored mill town listed on the state and national Registers of Historic Places, and enjoy hiking, biking and picnicking, as well as fishing and paddling in Smithville Lake.
Camden – The centerpiece of Camden County’s park system is the 346-acre Cooper River Park, which runs through Pennsauken, Cherry Hill, Collingswood and Haddon Township. This gorgeous park hosts many prestigious rowing events, thanks to a narrow and sheltered straightaway on the Cooper River. Rent a kayak or paddle boat, enjoy a stroll or bike ride on the park’s paths, or enjoy the playgrounds and miniature golf course.
Cape May – At over 1,700 acres, the Fishing Creek Wildlife Preserve in Del Haven is the largest of the county’s parks. Most of the park is wetlands, providing habitat for diverse plant and animal life in the Delaware Bay estuary. There’s a small beach on the Delaware Bay, where you can soak in the scenery or take a leisurely stroll. Active recreation includes basketball courts, barbeque grills, a picnic pavilion and a playground.
Cumberland – Cumberland County is one of only two counties without a park system, but there are plenty of beautiful places to visit. Try the 5,000-acre Union Lake Wildlife Management Area in Millville, where you can walk along the lake edge and spot bald eagles and ospreys.
Essex – The first county park in the nation was Branch Brook Park in Newark, which has become famous for its spring cherry blossoms. There are more cherry trees in Newark than in Washington, D.C.! And a gorgeous landscape designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, ballfields, public art, an urban farm, a great new playground and a children’s garden.
Gloucester – At over 1,000 acres, Scotland Run Park in Clayton is the largest in Gloucester County’s park system. You can fish and boat on Wilson Lake, explore the trails behind the nature center, and sign up for guided bird walks and nature hikes.
Hudson – For incredible views of the Newark Bay waterfront and New York City skyline, try Stephen R. Gregg Park in Bayonne. This century-old park has a half-mile waterfront promenade with spectacular views, plus 100 acres of recreation facilities including athletic fields, running track, cross country course, horseshoe pit and tennis and bocce courts.
Hunterdon – Point Mountain County Park in Glen Gardner has a real “Highlands” feel to it, with an Appalachian rocky precipice overlooking the pastoral Musconetcong Valley. A trail winds northeast along the forested ridge, then dips down the other side, across wetlands and a tiny stream, and descends via dirt road to fields of corn or sunflowers before reaching the Musconetcong River.
Mercer – The Ted Stiles Preserve at Baldpate Mountain in Hopewell Township has over 12 miles of marked trails for hiking, horseback riding and mountain biking. A walk to the grassy summit of Baldpate, the highest point in Mercer County, offers a spectacular view of the Delaware River and the City of Trenton.
Middlesex – Located on the banks of the Raritan River in Piscataway and Highland Park – across from the city of New Brunswick – Johnson Park is filled with activity all year long. In addition to trails and picnic groves, the park has an animal haven and a restored 18th century village, East Jersey Olde Towne.
Monmouth – You may think of the shore area as flat, but Hartshorne Woods Park in Atlantic Highlands is anything but. A hilly, forested 794-acre site overlooking the Navesink River, this park is among the highest elevations along the Atlantic Coast and features prominently in area history as a former coastal defense site. Hartshorne Woods is a popular spot for area hikers, bicyclists and outdoor enthusiasts.
Morris – Tucked in the woods at the southern end of the county, the adjoining Willowwood Arboretum and Bamboo Brook Outdoor Education Center in Chester Township are two parks in one – over 200 acres connected by trails, including part of the county’s vast Patriots’ Path network. The Arboretum is especially beautiful in the spring when trees are in bloom.
Ocean –”The Gateway to the Pines,” Jakes Branch County Park in Beachwood offers both active and passive recreation. Breathtaking views of the Pine Barrens can be enjoyed from an observation deck perched five stories atop the park’s nature center. The park also has over eight miles of nature trails for hiking and biking, a picnic area, playground, and playing fields.
Passaic –For a rugged hiking experience amid gorgeous scenery, try the Apshawa Preserve in West Milford. This 576-acre park includes the Butler Reservoir at its center and miles of hiking trails winding past a waterfall, an old dam and historic remains of an old water treatment plant.
Salem – For wildlife viewing in the Salem River area, try Camp Crockett County Park in Pilesgrove Township. Walking paths lead to the Avis Millpond, a favorite of local paddlers and bird watchers. The park also includes a playground and a covered pavilion for picnics.
Somerset – Many county parks are compact, but Somerset County’s Sourland Mountain Preserve in Hillsborough and Montgomery townships covers more than 6,000 rocky acres in the heart of central New Jersey. Enjoy scrambling over boulder fields in the Devil’s Half Acre and Roaring Rocks sections.
Sussex – Sussex County doesn’t have a park system, but that may be because the area – home to the fabulous Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area – is already so rich in recreation.
Union – The gem of Union County is the Watchung Reservation, which covers parts of four towns. Lake Surprise offers canoeing, kayaking and fishing; there’s a network of nature trails is connected to the Trailside Nature and Science Center; and Watchung Stables has miles of bridle trails.
Warren – For history and outdoor buffs, Port Warren Park is located along the historic Morris Canal greenway and is home to “Inclined Plane 9 West,” the longest on the canal. In use from the 1820s to the 1920s, the Morris Canal stretched 102 miles from the Delaware River in Phillipsburg to the Hudson River in Jersey City. Overcoming a height elevation of 914 feet, it became known as the “Mountain Climbing Canal” and was a major engineering feat of its day.
There are so many more county parks to choose from, you’ll never get tired of exploring. Enjoy spring and check out our county parks!
And to learn about preserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources, visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Michele S. Byers is executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation in Morristown.