By Michele S. Byers
If you’re like me, you may have a case of “weather whiplash” from the wildly fluctuating temperatures.
New Jersey’s long stretch of mild weather ended abruptly when the polar vortex moved southward and caused the mercury to plunge. Brrrr … a blast of January in November. But by the time you read this, New Jersey could swing back to unseasonable warmth … or not.
Although our weather is highly variable, one thing remains constant: the tremendous benefits of spending time outside in nature. Studies show that being outdoors in any season makes people feel better, both physically and psychologically.
Getting outside is especially important this time of year, when shorter daylight hours can cause Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), also known as the winter blues. A regular dose of what author Richard Louv calls Vitamin N – nature – decreases depression, boosts feelings of well-being and even improves the ability to focus.
Combining nature with exercise is a no-brainer, since exercise provides a myriad of benefits, from stronger muscles to lower blood pressure to better sleep at night.
As fall turns into winter, do yourself a favor and walk and hike outside whenever you can. Visit parks and nature preserves where you can stretch your muscles while checking out the wildlife and scenic views. Destinations with trails along waterways – lakes, reservoirs, rivers, bays, marshes and the ocean – are especially beautiful and interesting.
Here are a few favorites:
In northern New Jersey, the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in Morris and Somerset counties is a prime spot for viewing waterfowl and hawks, and seeing creatures like foxes and deer. Try the refuge’s wildlife observation center, where you can walk on 1.2 miles of boardwalk trails and stop at three observation blinds. Somerset County’s Environmental Education Center also has a mile of boardwalk through the swamp, as well as a fabulous interpretive center.
Strolling along the Hudson River is always invigorating, with views of both wildlife and the New York City skyline. The riverside trail at Palisades Interstate Park in Bergen County is fantastic, as are the trails at Liberty State Park in Hudson County. You may even spot a snowy owl … they’ve been seen at Liberty State Park during previous winters.
Did you know that seals migrate from New England to New Jersey for the winter in search of a steady food supply? One great place to watch them is at the Sandy Hook section of Gateway National Recreation Area. It’s a pretty walk along the bay side at low tide to see where the seals “haul out” on tiny Skeleton Hill Island. Be sure to bring binoculars for the best views.
Boardwalks along the ocean are not just for people-watching in summer. Stroll along any Jersey Shore boardwalk in winter and keep an eye on the ocean. In addition to the soothing views of waves, you may see northern gannets plunging from the sky, loons diving and maybe even a passing humpback whale.
New Jersey’s water supply reservoirs also make great places to hike and look for birds, including waterfowl and raptors like bald eagles. Check out the waterside trails at the Merrill Creek Reservoir in Warren County, Round Valley Reservoir in Hunterdon County, and the Manasquan Reservoir in Monmouth County.
New Jersey’s Pine Barrens offer many fantastic places to hike in winter. The Franklin Parker Preserve in Burlington County has trails along the reservoirs, where you may spot tundra swans wintering here from the arctic. Rancocas State Park in Burlington County offers trails with beautiful views of the Rancocas Creek and great wildlife viewing.
Cape May is a pleasure in all seasons, and is a great place for winter walks and hikes. The trails at Cape May Point State Park offer scenic views of marshes and ponds, as do The Nature Conservancy’s South Cape May Meadows preserve.
These are only a few. New Jersey has so many wonderful parks, preserves and recreation areas, it would be impossible to list them all!
Wherever you go this winter, make sure you’re prepared – especially if you’re planning a longer hike through the woods. Here are some tips from the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference:
- Dress in layers. Wear moisture-wicking long underwear; a warm, insulating middle layer; and a windproof, waterproof outer layer, and a warm hat that covers your ears. Good hiking boots are a must, as well as “smart” wool socks to keep your feet warm and dry.
- Plan ahead, keeping in mind that you have fewer hours of daylight. If there’s snow or ice on the ground, the same trail that can be hiked quickly and easily in summer could take a lot longer. Allow plenty of time to get back before dark.
- Pack safety gear for hikes in remote places. Bring a printed trail map, basic first aid kit, compass, pocket knife or multi-tool, hand warming packets, matches or lighter, whistle, extra snacks, and a headlamp. If it’s really cold out, put hot water, tea, coffee or cocoa in a thermos, since water in an uninsulated bottle can freeze.
Find great places to hike this winter by visiting the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference website at www.nynjtc.org, the New Jersey Trails Association at www.njtrails.org, or New Jersey Conservation Foundation’s trail locator map at http://njconservation.org/recreation.htm.
Michele S. Byers is the executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation in Morristown.