Free Outdoor Adventures: Nature Centers, State Parks and Wildlife Refuges
New Jersey is a diverse 8,700-plus square miles, featuring coastal plains, pine barrens, mountains, rivers and rolling hills, farm land and more – and the best way to enjoy the true beauty of our state is take a hike at a local nature center, state park or wildlife refuge center. Often, sights have visitor centers explaining the geographical features of the region, wildlife viewing stations and rangers to answer questions. Best of all, many are free! So put on your walking shoes, grab a water, and pack a picnic for a fun-filled (and free) day exploring the beauty and nature of New Jersey.
Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge - The center covers 7,768 acres of varied habitats and is an important resting and feeding area for more than 244 species of birds; Fox, deer, muskrat, turtles, fish, frogs and a wide variety of wildflowers and plants can be found on the refuge. BONUS: Visitor Center and miles of trails and boardwalks to explore.
Trailside Nature and Science Center – It may seem small, but it is chock full of displays, including live animals, dioramas, exhibits on Native Americans, the night sky and more. BONUS: Located in Watchung Reservation, there are miles of trails, a deserted village, and a fabulous playground in the “Loop”.
Liberty State Park – Enjoy miles of nature with the NYC skyline as the backdrop. BONUS: Central Railroad Terminal of New Jersey AND Richard Sullivan Nature Area are adjacent and there are ample spots to play and picnic. Morris Pesin Dr., Jersey City. (201) 915-3402
The Highline – Walk above the NYC streets on the transformed subway line. BONUS: The landscaping along the elevated route is beautiful PLUS make sure the kids bring along a ‘good eye’ to spot some of the paintings on the walls of the nearby apartment. Don’t forget to bring a snack for the kids and lounge on bench.
Freylinghausen Arboretum – Spend the day exploring the blooming landscaped gardens, including wetlands, native woodlands and the meadow. BONUS: There is a Braille Garden for our sight-impaired friends.
Hawk Rise Sanctuary – A short, but beautiful hike along a converted landfill, marshlands and wooded boardwalk. BONUS: Interpretative signs explain the history of Hawk Rise and provide a good lesson on landfills and how they can be returned to nature PLUS lots of birds. Range Road, Linden.
Wharton State Forest - The Wharton State Forest is the single largest tract of land in the NJ State Park system. Enjoy unspoiled nature as unpaved paths lead visitors past rivers and streams, lakes, ponds and fields ideal for spotting wildlife. Alert visitors (and quiet children!) can spot Bald eagles, red-tailed hawks, marsh hawks, ospreys, great blue herons, swans, screech owls, great-horned owls, bluebirds, hummingbirds, purple martins, goldfinch, turkeys, beavers, river otters, fox and deer. 31 Batsto Road, Hammonton. (609) 561-0024.
Cape May State Park - Cape May State Park highlights the varied ecological systems of the area. Three different trails – red (.5 miles long AND wheel chair accessible), yellow (1.5 miles long) and blue (2.0 Miles Long) lead visitors past ponds, coastal dune, marsh and forest habitats. Sharp eyes can catch a glimpse of wildlife from observation platforms, especially resident and migrating birds. The park was once a military base, and the gun turrets of a bunker are still visible at low tide. It stands as an important testimony to a time in the Jersey shore history and the soldiers who protected our country from enemy attack. The Cape May Lighthouse is also in the park – at 157-foot-high, the lighthouse is still in use. Visitors who climb the 199 steps to the top of the lighthouse are rewarded with a spectacular panoramic view of the scenic Cape May peninsula. Admission to the lighthouse is $7 for adults, $3 for children ages 3 to 12. Children under 3 are free. (609) 884-2159
Delaware and Raritan Canal State Park - 70 miles long, the Delaware and Raritan Canal State Park is one of the states most popular recreational corridors. Starting in Milford and ending in New Brunswick, the park winds through small towns, past wooden covered bridges and offers a glimpse into the history of NJ along the waterway. Distances between towns vary – but remember it is not a loop, so however far you walk, you’ll have to walk back to your car (and not all entrance areas have parking). Another great idea: Bring Your Bikes!
Double Trouble State Park - Who wouldn’t love to visit a park with that name! Double Trouble is a great example of the pines barren ecosystem, as well as a chance to learn about the Pine Barrens watershed and the states cranberry agriculture. There are a several different looped trails to choose front, running past Cranberry bogs and a reservoir. In the fall, the bogs have been harvested, although check the website for updated information. Historic homes can also be viewed, although they aren’t restored and are not open to the public. Bayville. 732-341-6662
Brendan Byrne State Forest - The Brendan Byrne State Forest is the second largest in NJ at over 34,000 acres. There are 25 miles of trails that wind through the Pine Barrens along sandy trails and roads. Also, catch a glimpse of the remains of Whitesbog Village, a town that was once a bustling center of the cranberry and blueberry industry, and now illustrates the evolution of New Jersey's agricultural industry. Whitesbog Preservation Trust holds special events throughout the year. New Lisbon. (609) 726-1191
Tenafly Nature Center and Lost Brook Preserve - Located on approximately 380 wooded acres of hardwood oak forest, this nature center has 7 miles of trails, looping through the woods, past Pfister’s Pond and a buttonwood swamp. Wildlife and wild flowers abound year round. Visit The Nature Center’s interpretive building for maps of the trails and natural history exhibits. Special programs are offered. Tenafly. (201) 568-6093
Warren Fox Nature Center - Located in Estell Manor Park, the Warren Fox Nature Center is a great place to learn about the nature of the area – staff members are available to answer questions. Then head off for a hike – The Swamp Trail Boardwalk starts from behind the nature center and winds through mixed woods, maple swamps, and eventually to an outlook of the Great Egg Harbor River. Along the boardwalk you pass through a cedar swamp and a small streambed with a variety of plants and animals. If you look toward the South River you might see a Bald Eagle or an otter. Birds abound throughout the year! Estell Manor Park. 109 Boulevard Route 50, Mays Landing. (609) 625-1897
Cooper Environmental Center - Located in Cattus Island State Park, the Cooper Environmental Center houses a large exhibit space, including live lizards and fish as well as a number of hands-on displays relating to the local environment. After getting an overview of the area, head out for a hike - the area includes fields, salt marsh, upland forest, and beautiful beaches on Silver and Barnegat Bays. Cattus Island State Park also contains a beautiful Butterfly Garden. In addition, visitors can pick up Nature Discovery backpacks at the center. Special Programs are often held on the weekends. Cattus Island County Park. 1170 Cattus Island Blvd. Toms River. (732) 270-6960
James A. McFaul Environmental Center - Founded in 1967, the land was originally home to a pig farm. Now, the 81-acre wildlife sanctuary includes a waterfowl pond, bird shelters, a boardwalk, nature trail, memorial gazebo and natural science exhibits and gardens. 150 Crescent Ave., Wyckoff. (201) 891-5571
Meadowlands Environmental Center - The Environmental Center in Richard W. DeKorte Park has six different trails – several are wheel chair accessible – that loop through the park, offering a glimpse of a varied landscape, including shoreline, meadows, forests, salt marsh, and mud flats. The area is a major route for migratory birds and wildlife abounds. A series of interpretive signs help explain the park's ecology and help visitors appreciate the diversity of life found in the Meadowlands as well as understand the transformation it has undergone. Two DeKorte Park Plaza. Lyndhurst. 201-460-8300