By Michele S. Byers
For most folks, globe-trotting vacations and cross-country road trips are out this year due to travel restrictions and quarantines. Instead, “staycations” within the Garden State seem to be the new fad.
If you haven’t explored New Jersey from top to bottom, now’s the time to discover the treasures of this small, but diverse state.
Have you really seen the Jersey shore? Of course, every self-respecting New Jerseyan knows about the state’s 130 miles of ocean beaches stretching from Sandy Hook to Cape May, and probably has a favorite spot for swimming and catching rays.
But most haven’t ventured into the shore’s quiet places – maritime forests, marshes, wetlands and bays – where nature reigns. Natural land at the highly developed Jersey shore is rare, which makes those locations all the more important for birds, wildlife and native plants, and all the more special for human visitors.
Starting in the north, check out these special spots. I bet you will be surprised. Some bayside locations are notorious for biting flies in summer, so it’s best to pick a cooler day with a northwest breeze for those visits.
• Mount Mitchill – Did you know New Jersey is home to the highest point on the Atlantic coast south of Maine? At 266 feet, this rocky overlook in Atlantic Highlands is the highest natural elevation along the coast between Maine and Rio de Janeiro.
Enjoy the stunning views of Sandy Hook, Sandy Hook Bay, Raritan Bay and the New York skyline. Named for Samuel Mitchill, an 18th and 19th century physician and naturalist, Mount Mitchill was preserved in 1973 due the efforts of a local citizens group to protect the site from development.
• Sandy Hook – Some of the country’s oldest American holly trees can be found in Sandy Hook’s nearly 300-acre holly forest. Head for the Sandy Hook unit of Gateway National Recreation Area and hop on the multi-use trail.
Check with the rangers to see if you can join a guided walk on the restricted trail through the holly forest. While you are at Sandy Hook, see the lighthouse, the keeper’s cottage and the historic buildings at Fort Hancock.
• Navesink River – Not far from Sandy Hook and Mount Mitchill are Hartshorne Woods Park and Huber Woods Park, two Monmouth County parks located along the Navesink River, near the ocean. Popular with hikers, bikers and outdoor enthusiasts, these hilly parks offer scenic views and challenging trails and great birdwatching. Who says the Jersey shore is flat?
• William deCamp Wildlife Trail – Named for the late conservationist who fought to save land along Barnegat Bay, this 2.5-mile lightly trafficked out-and-back trail is in Brick Township near the Mantoloking Bridge.
This northernmost section of the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge offers a scenic walk through a marsh to the western side of Barnegat Bay, and is best on a breezy day.
• Island Beach State Park – This narrow barrier island stretches for 10 miles between the Atlantic Ocean and Barnegat Bay and is the state’s last significant remnant of the barrier island ecosystem that once existed along much of the coast.
Most people know the park for its sandy beaches, but there’s plenty more on the other side to interest nature lovers. The park’s 3,000 acres include outstanding examples of primary dunes, thickets, freshwater wetlands, maritime forest and tidal marshes.
The park is home to the state’s largest osprey colony and visiting birds include peregrine falcons, wading birds, shorebirds, waterfowl and migrating songbirds. More than 400 plants have been identified, including New Jersey’s largest patches of beach heather.
The best way to experience the area where the salt marsh meets the bay is by kayak. Paddle through the “no wake” zone where motorized crafts are not allowed to see breeding birds, diamondback terrapins, sandpipers, herons and more.
• Barnegat Lighthouse State Park – This park is directly across the Barnegat Inlet from Island Beach State Park and is home to the famous “Old Barney” lighthouse and a rock jetty jutting into the ocean. It is also worth checking out the state’s recent dune habitat restoration and new trails.
• The “Road to Nowhere” – This is the local name for Stafford Avenue in Manahawkin, which crosses through the state’s Manahawkin Wildlife Management Area, a large expanse of forests, salt marshes, and transitional coastal habitats.
Appropriately, the “Road to Nowhere” ends at the “Bridge to Nowhere,” an abandoned and partly demolished wooden structure that once crossed a Cedar Creek tributary. From the end of the road, you have an incredible view of marshes stretching as far as the eye can see.
• Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge – This enormous refuge is known as a birders’ paradise for good reason: its location in one of the Atlantic Flyway’s most active flight paths makes it an important stopover in seasonal bird migration.
But you don’t have to be an expert birder to appreciate the beauty of the landscape. The 8-mile auto loop through the main section of this 47,000-acre refuge in Oceanville, Atlantic County, is one of the prettiest drives in New Jersey, with views of maritime forests and seemingly endless marshland. There are many places to pull off the road for a closer view, so bring binoculars.
• Wetlands Institute – To learn why it’s important to preserve brackish marshes – those with a mix of salt and fresh water – drop by the Wetlands Institute in Stone Harbor. There are plenty of observation opportunities from the boardwalk over the marsh; treat yourself to an eco-tour of the marshes and back bays aboard The Skimmer, the Institute’s pontoon boat.
• Cape May – A visit to the Cape May peninsula is a must for birders and nature lovers. The peninsula has extensive preserved lands, including Cape May Point State Park and the adjacent South Cape May Meadows, a Nature Conservancy preserve.
There is an impressive trail system with great wildlife viewing, natural beaches and the Cape May lighthouse. Around the corner is Sunset Beach, where you can watch the sun drop over the waters of the Delaware Bay.
Michele S. Byers is the executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, Far Hills.