There are very few activities that you can do anywhere in the world that will take you to beautiful, natural destinations for free — and luckily, one of them flourishes right here in Central Jersey.
Hiking, a bare-bones activity that requires only a love of the earth and a pair of sneakers, may not offer the same excitement that comes with visiting a new city, but it does give families the chance to get outside and explore the scenery outside of their homes.
“New Jersey hiking is beautiful and very accessible with lots of friendly people to interact with along the way,” said Paul Mandala, REI outdoor equipment store employee and avid hiker from Fort Lee. “It doesn’t have the remoteness or solidarity of other areas I have hiked through, but it’s a great place to get out for the day or weekend trips.”
Although out-of-staters don’t particularly know New Jersey for its hiking prowess, the state offers a diverse range of hiking trails and parks that are fitting for those looking for a rocky mountain hike, a beachy shore run or a stroll through flat meadows, which Dawn L. McClennen, co-founder of njHiking.com, is well aware of.
“We don’t have the elevation of something out West but it’s actually quite diverse,” said McClennen, who is from Middlesex County and has been hiking the state for about 20 years. “North Jersey is rugged and then Central is more mild and a little more farmlands. The Pine Barrens are flat and sandy with a lot of diverse trails that butt up against the beach. When you hike up a mountain here, you might see a city skyline.”
Some of the more popular hiking destinations in New Jersey include Northern Green State Forest in Ringwood, Sourland Mountain Preserve in Hillsborough, Cheesequake State Park in Matawan, Wharton State Forest of Hammonton and Belleplain State Forest of Woodbine. You can also check out njHiking.com’s picks for best hikes in Central Jersey by clicking here.
David Dendler, park ranger manager at the Somerset County Park Commission (SCPC), said that the Sourland Mountain Preserve maintains its popularity because of its rugged terrain and accompanying uniqueness as well as its size, with 14 miles of trails over 4,000 acres.
Since the SCPC has diverse parks throughout the county and over 1 million people visit them annually, Dendler said that there is something for everyone right in their backyards.
“It’s free recreation for people to use, plus it’s very close to their homes,” he said. “Also, there are tons of health benefits, plus, of course, with physical health comes mental health.”
Mandala, who has hiked the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine and has spent a lot of time leading group hikes and hiking alone as the founder of the Monmouth University Outdoors Club, said that hiking makes him feel more alive and connected to nature.
“I love to hike because it gets me away from our busy everyday economy-driven world we live in and connects me to the truth and beauty of the natural world,” he said. “Hiking brings me places that feel far away.”
Although hiking in itself can be relaxing and rejuvenating, preparation is involved, which is where sites such as njHiking.com, which launched in 2009, come in. The site features photos and over 100 videos so that prospective hikers can check out a trail before they head out.
McClennen said that she organizes the site in this visual manner, alongside her own opinions on trails, so that hikers don’t end up wasting their time.
“With our site, you can figure out if a trail is something you’re interested in or if you can even do it,” she said. “I wanted to build a site that we wished existed when we were researching hikes.”
To find further resources on prospective hikes, Dendler said that hikers should check out county park websites, where they can print out maps, look at biking and hiking trails and see the elevation of trails to give them an idea of a trail’s difficulty or if they can bring along a four-legged friend.
In order to stay safe during a hike, Dendler recommended that people be prepared for all weather, bring insect repellant, epi-pens, snacks, sunscreen, hats, water, a cellphone, a small first-aid kit and a map from a park kiosk or website.
Within the past two months, Dendler said that the SCPC has received a half-dozen phone calls from lost or injured hikers, a number that usually increases in the fall.
McClennen said that people tend to rely on their phones for trail mapping, but it’s also advantageous to have a paper map in case of loss of phone service.
In New Jersey, Mandala stressed that hikers should be cautious about running into bears, coyotes and snakes.
“Run-ins with wildlife are rare and your chances of having trouble with vehicles is higher, but use caution around animals,” he said. “The key is to stay calm and give wild animals space.”
Obviously, though, hiking has a lot less risk than other outdoor sports, plus it’s easier and cheaper. For the travel-hungry yet homebound, the Garden State offers a wealth of parks and trails that make it so those headed for the outdoors never run out of new backyard destinations to visit.
Hiking Central Jersey