Enjoy fall’s colors on foliage hikes close to home

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by Alison Mitchell, Co-Executive Director, New Jersey Conservation Foundation

Every fall, hordes of people head to New England or upstate New York to view the annual spectacle of trees changing color.

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New Jerseyans know you don’t need to drive hours for great leaf viewing. Thanks to our varied geography – everything from rugged mountains to rolling piedmont to coastal plains – and over 60 successful years of open space preservation, there are numerous fantastic spots for enjoying fall’s brilliant foliage.

Leaf peeping season is just getting started in this state we’re in, with trees beginning to turn near the northern borders in Sussex and Passaic counties. Leaves generally start changing color at higher elevations first, and along the edges of water.

Peak color is expected to arrive in the northern counties in mid to late October, gradually spreading southward. As the colors fade in the north, they’ll be just beginning in southern New Jersey – about a two-week difference!

Why do deciduous trees put on such a show in autumn? It all has to do with photosynthesis. As leaves soak up sunlight from spring through early fall, they produce chlorophyll that creates their beautiful green hues. As days grow shorter in the fall, chlorophyll production slows to a stop and leaves display their underlying oranges, reds and golds.

One of the best ways to enjoy fall’s changing colors is with a hike through a forest or along a ridge. Northern New Jersey’s mountains offer the most dramatic vistas, but there are excellent leaf viewing spots to be found throughout the state.

Here are some great destinations, from north to south:

High Point – What could be better than standing atop New Jersey’s highest elevation, at 1,803 feet? High Point State Park in Sussex County is rugged, rocky and spectacular.

Sunrise Mountain – Located in Stokes State Forest in Sussex County, Sunrise Mountain offers panoramic views and a pavilion at the summit. You can hike there along the New Jersey portion of the Appalachian Trail, or drive to a parking lot near the overlook.

Palisades Interstate Park – Located along the Hudson River in New Jersey and New York, this park features dramatic cliffs rising from the river. There are amazing views from both the upper and lower sections of the park, and trails ranging from easy to strenuous.

Jenny Jump – Located in western Warren County, the ridge at Jenny Jump State Forest offers beautiful vistas of the Delaware Water Gap to the west and rural farm landscapes to the east.

Apshawa Preserve – This Passaic County gem offers rugged terrain and rocky outcrops, with trails leading down to the scenic Butler Reservoir in the center of the preserve. 

Wildcat Ridge – If you want to see migrating hawks as well as fall colors, it’s hard to top the Wildcat Ridge Wildlife Management Area in Morris County. Hike a mile up to the Hawk Watch area and enjoy a bird’s eye view southeast toward Manhattan.

Eagle Rock Reservation – Owned by Essex County, this park along the ridge of the Watchung Mountains offers clear views of the New York skyline and lots of hiking trails.

Washington Rock State Park – This park in Somerset County offers history as well as a sweeping view of Central Jersey.  The strategic location of the natural rock outcropping made it a valuable lookout during the American Revolution, allowing General George Washington to spy on British troop movements.

Delaware & Raritan Canal – For a fun hike on level terrain, the path at D&R Canal State Park in Hunterdon County is a great destination. Start in historic Stockton and head either north or south to see the bright foliage along the Delaware River.

Baldpate Mountain – The highest peak in Mercer County can be found at the Ted Stiles Preserve at Baldpate Mountain, named for the late conservationist who played a pivotal role in preserving it. The preserve includes trails and a historic mansion with a stone patio overlooking the Delaware River.

Cheesequake State Park – At the gateway to the Jersey Shore in Middlesex County, you can enjoy a pleasant hike over rolling hills and along boardwalks crossing marshlands.

Wharton State Forest – The Mullica River trail in Wharton State Forest in Burlington County has great views of wetland habitats along the Mullica River that put on a colorful show.

Belleplain State Forest – Covering 21,254 acres in Cape May and Cumberland counties, Belleplain is at the edge of the Pine Barrens, with a diversity of trees and shrubs. For pretty colors and water views, try the trails around Lake Nummy. 

Cape May Point – With its shrub- and vine-covered dunes, Cape May Point State Park in the fall has a subtle beauty. The park offers a .5-mile wheelchair-accessible trail great for viewing fall colors and wildlife. For a more strenuous challenge, climb the 199 steps to the top of the lighthouse for a panorama of ocean, bay and dunes.

This is by no means a complete list! In every county, you can find other fantastic spots for taking a hike close to home and enjoying New Jersey’s changing colors. The beautiful scenery, fresh air and exercise will make you feel fantastic … and save you a long road trip!

Not sure when to see peak color in your area? Check out a cool U.S. foliage prediction map at https://smokymountains.com/fall-foliage-map/.

To learn about preserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources – including great places to enjoy nature and scenery – visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at info@njconservation.org

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