New Jersey has so much to offer – from scenic rivers, mountain peaks, shimmering reservoirs and swamplands, to maritime forests, sandy beaches and wondrous wildlife. The “Garden State” never holds back on providing memorable vacations for ecotourists or anyone else.
In northwestern New Jersey, Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area contains a 40-mile stretch of the Wild and Scenic Delaware River on the state’s common border with Pennsylvania. Sandwiched between Sussex County, New Jersey and Pike County, Pennsylvania, the preserve covers nearly 70,000 acres of Delaware River shoreline, making it one of the largest recreation areas in the eastern United States. The park’s name was derived from a point at its southern end where the river carved a two-mile-long gap, or gorge, through the Appalachian Mountains, leaving 1,200-foot high cliffs at the edges of its path. In addition to viewing incredible scenery and learning about the region’s unique geology, visitors can swim, fish or paddle a canoe. Land-based activities include automobile tours, horseback riding, biking and hiking. While walking trails wind past mountaintops and the renowned gap, the park’s backcountry roads are made-to-order for cycling and cross-country skiing.
Nearby Allamuchy State Park (which, by the way, is composed mostly of quartz granite), offers a number of tiers and cliffs for amazing hiking experiences.
The town of Lebanon in New Jersey’s central region is the site of Round Valley Recreation Area. Round Valley’s chilly, blue reservoir encompasses 4,000 acres and measures more than 180 feet in depth, which adds up to a grand total capacity of 55 billion gallons of water. These dimensions qualify Round Valley as New Jersey’s largest lake, meaning plenty of room for swimmers, scuba divers, boaters and canoeists. Better yet, this reservoir is stocked with trout, so there’s a ready supply of fish for anyone who wants to plunk a line into the water. Fortunately, land-based prospects are good for hikers, equestrians, mountain bikers and waterfowl hunters, too. And there’s never a lull in the action; the onset of winter weather beckons sledders and cross-country skiers to the frosty snowscape at Round Valley.
The Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge is in Basking Ridge in northern New Jersey, just 26 miles west of New York City’s Time Square. Is it possible to maintain a wilderness in such close proximity to the Big Apple? Absolutely. The Great Swamp preserve was established more than 40 years ago when a group of conscientious citizens joined forces to prevent it from becoming yet another jetport on the urban scene. And several years later, the swamp earned two other significant titles: “Registered National Natural Landmark” and “Wilderness Area,” the first such designation by the U.S. Department of the Interior. This 7,400-acre refuge contains swampy woodlands, marshes full of cattails and lazy-day streams. There are grass-fringed ponds plus sturdy stands of beech trees, oaks and mountain laurels. In the midst of an eye-appealing bounty of native flowers, watchable wildlife thrives at the Great Swamp. The skies are graced with bluebirds and wood ducks, and on the lower level there are curious critters like endangered bog turtles and slinking salamanders with blue spots.
On the “Garden State’s” central Atlantic Coast, Island Beach State Park is located in the town of Seaside Park. This sandy sanctuary occupies a 3,000-acre, 10-mile-long barrier beach island that’s bordered on the east by the churning Atlantic Ocean and on the west by the calm waters of Barnegat Bay. The Atlantic side of Island Beach is characterized by an expanse of dazzling white sand and coastal dunes with an oceanside forest of gnarly trees reshaped by salty winds. It’s the perfect playground for swimmers, anglers and surfers. The park’s Barnegat Bay side of the island is a separate world of dynamic tidal saltmarshes and freshwater wetlands. There are nature trails for hiking, horseback riding and biking. Rangers present guided canoe and kayak tours of Barnegat Bay during the summer. Bird-watching on the bay doesn’t get better than from a perch inside the park’s special observation blind. And as might be expected on a pristine barrier island, this preserve’s tally of flora and fauna is notable, as well, with Island Beach boasting New Jersey’s largest gathering of ospreys and the state’s greatest expanse of beach heather.
Just inland is the impressive Pinelands National Preserve, the largest wilderness area east of the Mississippi River, boasts more than 1 million acres (mind you, that’s approximately 22% of the state’s total land area!) of pristine forest land. Lures of the Pinelands include unbroken forests of pine, oak and cedar – and the unique “pygmy” pine forests; unusual stands of dwarf, but mature trees less than 11 feet tall. Water enthusiasts will delight in the area’s multitude of streams ideal for canoeing, and anglers will revel in the fishing opportunities of interior waters, the Atlantic Ocean and the bays. Hunting, horseback riding and photography are popular pastimes in the Pinelands. In addition, the area also offers close to 850 species of plants and more than 350 species of birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians. One interesting tidbit regarding this area: the Pinelands sits atop the Cohansey Aquifer, a vast reservoir estimated to contain over 17 trillion (yes, trillion) gallons of some of the country’s purest water. And here’s a tip: there’s no better place in New Jersey to witness the glorious fall colors than the Pinelands, which offers several, short, fall foliage driving tours.
Looking for a short respite, complete with soft, ocean breezes and picturesque scenery? Then continue heading south to the Southern Shore region and take your pick from a variety of quaint towns. There’s Ocean City with its 2.5-mile-long boardwalk; Cape May, the entire town is on the National Historic Landmark; plus Ocean View and Sea Isle City.