By Michele S. Byers
In spite of another snowstorm on the first day of spring, it is 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:
• 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.
• Middlesex – Located on the banks of the Raritan River in Piscataway and Highland Park – across from New Brunswick – Johnson Park is filled with activity all year. In addition to trails and picnic groves, the park has an animal haven and a restored 18th century village, East Jersey Olde Towne.
• Ocean – “The Gateway to the Pines,” Jakes Branch County Park in Beachwood offers 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 more than 8 miles of nature trails for hiking and biking, a picnic area, playground and playing fields.
• 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.
• Mercer – The Ted Stiles Preserve at Baldpate Mountain in Hopewell Township has more than 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 Trenton.
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!
Michele S. Byers is the executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, Far Hills.