History and hiking in New Jersey are perfect together


By Michele S. Byers

It’s hard to go more than a few miles in New Jersey without bumping into an historic site. The state isn’t called the “Crossroads of the American Revolution” for nothing. George Washington spent more time here than in any other state. And New Jersey has many historic sites connected to early industry and agriculture.

Know what else New Jersey has plenty of? Open space and trails. In every region from High Point to Cape May, there are lots of great places to walk and hike.

If you enjoy history and hiking, read on. Many of New Jersey’s most interesting historic sites are part of larger parks with trail networks.

Here are some great places to pair an invigorating walk with a lesson in local history this winter and spring. You may not be able to get in the buildings during the pandemic, but there is still plenty to see:

• Morristown National Historic Park – You won’t find a park more steeped in Revolutionary War history than the site of Washington’s encampment during the extraordinarily frigid winter of 1779-80. The park consists of four important places: Jockey Hollow, the Ford Mansion, Fort Nonsense and the New Jersey Brigade Encampment site. Miles of trails wind through the park’s hilly terrain.

• Delaware & Raritan Canal State Park – One of the nicest places in the state to walk or bicycle is along the D&R Canal, which stretches 77 miles from New Brunswick to Trenton to Frenchtown. For a taste of local history, check out the Prallsville Mills historic site in Stockton, a mill village along the Delaware River dating back to the 1700s. As a bonus, the area surrounding Stockton has miles of trails through the scenic countryside in the Wickecheoke Creek Preserve.

• Batsto Village – Located within Wharton State Forest in the Pine Barrens, Batsto Village was established in 1766 as an iron making community. After iron production dwindled, the village turned to glass. Glassmaking also died out, but the village remains today a wonderful historic site with a mansion, iron furnace, general store, gristmill, sawmill and cottages. Several hiking trails are directly accessible from Batsto Village and more are located in other sections of the state forest.

• Washington’s Crossing State Park – This state park in Mercer County commemorates Washington’s famous crossing of the Delaware River on Dec. 25, 1776 to surprise and overwhelm Hessian mercenary troops quartered in Trenton. The victory at the Battle of Trenton is credited with turning the tide of the struggling American Revolution. Enjoy hikes on the park’s trails as you soak up history and river views.

• Paterson Great Falls National Historic Park – New Jersey’s most impressive falls, which once powered Paterson’s famous silk mills, are not to be missed. Although there are no trails directly connected to the historic park, Passaic County’s Garrett Mountain Reservation is just a short distance away. In addition to its trails, some on steep and challenging terrain, the reservation includes Lambert Castle and other historic buildings.

• Monmouth Battlefield State Park – The park in Manalapan is located at the site of the Battle of Monmouth, fought on June 28, 1778, the longest one-day battle of the Revolutionary War. Though the battle ended in a draw, it was considered a moral victory for Washington. The park includes a historical museum, visitors center and a colonial rural landscape of orchards, fields, woods and wetlands with miles of trails.

• Allaire State Park – This Monmouth County park in Wall Township includes the Historic Village at Allaire, once an iron producing factory town. The village was self-sufficient, with homes for workers, a carpentry and pattern-making shop, blacksmith shop, bakery, boarding house, school, church, blast furnace, mills and a general store with a post office. Today the Historic Village at Allaire is an interactive museum where visitors can experience history directly through hands-on activities. Several hiking trails are located in the park.

• Fort Mott State Park – Fort Mott, in Salem County, was part of the Harbor Defenses of the Delaware, a three-fort defense system designed for the Delaware River during the period following the American Civil War through the 1890s. The trails at the park are not long, but they offer splendid views of the river from the fortifications.

• Whitesbog Village – Part of Brendan Byrne State Forest, Whitesbog Village is a historic farm and town with old buildings, blueberry farm fields, cranberry bogs, hiking trails, reservoirs, streams, a picnic grove and the Elizabeth White Gardens. In the early 1900s, Whitesbog was the largest cranberry farm in New Jersey and its founder, Joseph J. White, was a nationally recognized leader in the cranberry industry. His daughter, Elizabeth C. White, went on to help develop the first cultivated blueberry bushes.

• Millbrook Village – Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area is best known for its spectacular trails, but it also includes Millbrook Village, a collection of historic buildings. The village got its start in 1832, when a local farmer built a grist mill along Van Campens Mill Brook. Millbrook Village is not an exact re-creation of the community that sprang up around the mill, but it evokes the feeling of New Jersey’s countryside hamlets.

• Deserted Village of Feltsville – For a somewhat spooky experience, check out the Feltville Historic District, located in the Watchung Reservation in Union County. At various times, Feltsville was a mill town, a farming area and a summer resort. It is known locally as “Deserted Village,” as most buildings dating from the 18th century are abandoned and in need of repair. After seeing the village, enjoy the Watchung Reservation’s miles of spectacular trails.

• East Jersey Old Towne Village – The village is a collection of local historic structures that were disassembled and relocated to Johnson Park in Piscataway. These reconstructed and replica buildings – including a tavern, blacksmith shop, homes and a church – represent architecture typical of farm and merchant communities once found in the Raritan Valley. Johnson Park is a linear park running along the Raritan River, with walking paths, ballfields and a zoo.

• Liberty State Park – Located on the Hudson River waterfront in Jersey City, Liberty State Park is New Jersey’s most popular state park, with spectacular views of the Manhattan skyline, Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. Liberty State Park is also home to the historic Central Railroad of New Jersey terminal, and has numerous walking paths along the water and in the park’s interior.

Enjoy hiking and history. It’s fun to get exercise and fresh air while learning about the events, people and lifestyles that shaped New Jersey. If there has been a fresh snowfall, be sure to check trail conditions … you might want to switch to cross-country skiing or snowshoeing instead.

Michele S. Byers is the executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, Far Hills. She may be reached at [email protected]