So today marks FOUR YEARS of this ridiculous blog. I’ll type that again for dramatic effect- FOUR YEARS.
Four is an important number for this blog, because, when I started, I figured that was about top end estimate for how many people would ever look that this
big, dumb prestigious project of mine (and that was counting on my mother being able to find it on the Internet to see cute pictures of her grandson). But my, oh, my, how we’ve grown up. In the past four years, nearly EIGHT PEOPLE have read this blog.
Okay, it’s a few more than that, and sometimes I worry about you folks because of that. But thanks just the same for coming along for the ride.
In celebration, I highlight an area I’ve been blessed enough to spend the last 24 years exploring – the Pine Barrens. Sure, the pine barrens aren’t as sexy as some natural areas in North Jersey. You won’t find many clear flowing rivers (just iced tea colored), mama bears followed by lines of cubs, or breathtaking vistas.
Instead, it’s hundreds of square miles of pine trees, the more subtle beauty of a pitch pine, the reclaimed cranberry bog, the carnivorous plant, the nearly forgotten ruins of a once prosperous town. It’s the wild flowers at Friendship, the collapsing packing house at Whitesbog, the abandoned tracks of the Central Railroad of New Jersey, and the sweeping views from Apple Pie Hill. It’s the cedar water of the Wading River, the iron slag along the trail at Martha, the cedar swamps at Wells Mills (oh, how I love cedar swamps), and the pine snakes by Bricksbrae. It’s hearing coyotes howling while camping at Bodine, a dip in the river while backpacking through Lower Forge, watching the American Legion Post carry Emilio Carranza’s body from the woods yet another July day, the beautiful stars in winter above Goshen Pond, looking at the raccoon prints in the fireplace bricks at Buzbys General Store, or the peeping of the frogs in the Spring.
If you haven’t spent time here, or haven’t spent enough time here, or simply are looking for some places you haven’t explored, I’m offering a series of three posts on the pines, starting with
ten fourteen trails to get you started (it was really hard to narrow them down)…
I have, of course, ranked them (for fighting with each other on the Internet’s sake), cutting down a list of 46 hikes I’ve done out in Jersey Devil country, but these are all winners!
Egg Harbor Township Nature Reserve – Egg Harbor Township, NJ – 6 miles of trails (web)
A nice hike through an old sand mining operation, featuring beautiful pines, great birding, and a massive lake that teems with birds at all times of the year.
Lots of options here from a short nature walk on the nature trail to a 3 1/2 or 4 mile loop of the whole park.
Mullica River Trail (Wharton State Forest) – Shamong, NJ – 9.5 miles (one way)
This trail from Atsion to Batsto (or Batsto to Atsion) starts with a stroll past the old Richards Mansion, an old church and graveyard, and an old schoolhouse. You then pass into a recently burned over area that gives you a glimpse into how the pine barrens bounce back after a fire. It’s then a few miles of pitch pines until you reach the Mullica River, which you will follow all the way down to the Mullica River Camp, five miles into the hike. Here (with the right gear and a permit) you can camp for the night right along the river, which makes this a great first backpacking trip (it was The Pres’s first!). In the morning, it’s 4 more miles until Batsto, with more pretty views along the way of the river and Batsto Lake. This is either a backpacking trip or a long-ish one day hike. Offers one of the most isolated stretches of trails on this list, you’re likely to really get away from civilization for a bit (summer weekend excluded)!
Tom’s Pond Trail (Wharton State Forest) – Washington Township, NJ – 1.1 miles (loop)
This great little hike (my favorite at Batsto, and probably the least used there) features swamps, carnivorous plants, and a bit of pine forest. Who doesn’t want to see a plant that eats insects? Add in a walk across Batsto Village (totally good idea) and this is a really nice 3 mile day)
Swamp Trail (Estell Manor County Park) – Estell Manor, NJ – 2 mile (loop)
This is a great trail that starts at the ruins of a World War I munitions plant, snakes past an old graveyard, and then ends up on boardwalks through the swamps along South River (thanks Barry!). Abandoned structures + swamps = always a good idea. With 18 more miles of trails in this park and tons more ruins out in the woods (mostly the munitions plant, but also an old glass factory), this can be a spot to spend a whole day or a whole weekend! Don’t worry, there’s a campground here.
Mt. Misery Trail (Brendan Bryne State Forest) – New Lisbon, NJ – 9.75 miles (loop)
This list is the kind of a list where, by the time I hit the tenth best trail, I’m already sharing one of my favorite hikes I’ve ever been on.
Anyway, it’s a tall task to get people excited about a trail featuring both a “Mount” and “Misery”, but there is no climbing on this trail, and you’ll experience the opposite of misery! It starts at Pakim Pond, then quickly loses the crowds at you wander miles through pitch pines and swamplands. Just past halfway, you’ll skirt the edge of the Methodist camp at Mount Misery, then wanders back through more forest and meadow until it reaches its height of awesome at the old Lebanon bogs. Bring your camera, it’s pretty. From there, its a short hike to the Cranberry Trail, which will carry you back to Pakim Pond.
Jakes Branch Park- Beachwood, NJ – 8.6 miles of trails (various connected loops).
A lot of people swear by how nice this park is, and a lot of people aren’t wrong at all. We managed to do the longest trail at 4 miles, and loved it. The highlight for me was the various pitch pine forests that are in various states of growth, as fires and controlled burns have swept over different parts of these trails at different times. Don’t miss the visitor’s center, especially the roof! You get a great view from up there, along with a glimpse of the old airship hanger at Lakehurst Naval Air Station.
Blue Trail – Rancocas State Park (South) – Hainsport, NJ – 3.5 miles (8.2 miles of trails in park)
One of our favorite hikes of ever, this one follows the edges of the southern portion of Rancocas State Park (the part south of the North Branch Rancocas Creek). It winds its way through the woods, then follows the South Branch of Rancocas Creek to “the forks”, then heads down the North Branch of that body of water. Along the way you’ll have plenty of places to spot birds, enjoy nature, or look for signs of the civilization that once flourished here in the 1700s and 1800s.
Historic Smithville Park – Eastampton, NJ – 4.1 miles of trails
Smithville has it all – forest, swamp, a lake, ruins of an old bicycle factory, a trail that floats on pontoons on the lake, a former home to a guy who has moose trained to pull his carriage… wait what!? Seriously, all of this is true. Smithville is an amazing place to go enjoy nature AND history while meditating on how Hezekiah Smith used his fortune to train moose and to employ his own, personal brass band. Didn’t think you’d get moose on this list, did you?
Wells Mills County Park – Ocean Township, NJ – 14.5 miles of trails (we did a 3 mile hike)
This one wins for the cedar swamps along the pond alone. But it also has miles of beautiful pinelands, a great visitors center, and plenty of room to lengthen your hike if you want to! From what I’ve heard, I haven’t even done the best trail here yet (the 8.4 mile Macri Trail). Ocean County does such a great job with their parks.
Black Run Preserve – Evesham Township, NJ – 9 miles of trails (and growing)
I’ve done these trails more than any other on this list, and I absolutely adore it here. The Friends of Black Run Preserve have done an awesome job of making this preserve available to public, and are improving the trail system almost continually (they added a 2 1/2 mile biking trail just two weeks ago!). Also a great spot to bird along the old cranberry bogs, to do the orienteering/map course, to go for a run on the 5K Trail, or to go for a ride on your mountain bike. This preserve is new enough that it still feels like exploring when you come here, even if you’ve been here twenty times (which I can speak to from experience).
Cloverdale Farm County Park – Barnegat Township, NJ – 1.5 miles of trail (loop)
The Ocean County Park System managed to get 3 parks onto this list, and this is my favorite of the lot. Sure, it’s short, but it snakes through the well-preserved remains of a cranberry bog operation, complete with a reconstructed nature center (stupid arson) and most of the outbuildings. Trails go around the edges of the bogs, offering beautiful views of the water and of the birds who now hang out there. Great place to get some stunning pictures.
This BEAUTIFUL six mile loop is in the middle of the pines, a million miles from anywhere. It snakes through pinelands, open meadows, and along old cranberry bogs. It’s flat through some areas, but hilly in others to offer variety. It also features the best trail bridge in the pine barrens (a suspension bridge) and two oversized chairs to relax in.
It’s hard to imagine any trail could beat this one, but…
Batona Trail – Carranza to Apple Pie Hill (Wharton State Forest) – Tabernacle, NJ – 8.2 miles out-and-back.
The Batona Trail is, hands down, the king of the Pine Barrens trails. It’s the only trail in South Jersey that offers multi-day backpacking trips, and one of the few trails in the state that can be considered a long-distance trail (at just under 53 miles). This is a fantastic stretch. Starting at the Carranza Memorial, you can visit the memorial to that fallen aviation hero of Mexico Emilio Carranza. You’ll then pass through camp, follow along a swamp, and cross Skit Branch. From here, its swamps, Mount Korbar (or Tea Time Hill, fights to the death over what is the actual name can be done in the comments section, preferably in the West Side Story style knife fight), and finally up Apple Pie Hill after 4.1 miles. This is a great spot to eat lunch, then make sure to climb the fire tower here. From the top, you can see Philadelphia and Atlantic City, as well a massive chunk of the pine barrens. One of the best spots in South Jersey. Then its back down the tower, and back the way that you came.
NOTE – As of Labor Day weekend 2016, the fire tower is only open when manned. Call ahead to the NJ Forest Fire Service Division B Headquarters at (609) 726-9010 to ask if the tower is open, and thus avoid disappointment.
Batona Trail (Reroute) – Franklin Parker Preserve – Woodland Township (Chatsworth), NJ – 8.3 miles (one way)
What? Batona Trail takes the top two spots? It sure does.
This one requires a bit of planning, as you’ll need to stash cars or each side or arrange a pickup at the end (or do 16 miles in a day), but its totally worth it, and has been my absolute favorite hike in South Jersey since I hiked it the week after it officially opened (sadly, I missed the official opening. I heard there were cupcakes). You start with the Apple Pie Hill fire tower, then cross almost immediately into the Parker Preserve. The Batona is separate from the other four trails in the Parker Preserve, so its often less populated than the other Parker Preserve trails. The bogs here aren’t ringed with old roads, which makes you think you are in the middle of nowhere. There are tons of great little bridges over streams and old ditches, plenty of stretches of pine forest, and the end is a hop from island to island (helped by some connecting boards) through a little swamp before exiting onto Route 72. It’s totally awesome.
REPEAT NOTE – As of Labor Day weekend 2016, the fire tower is only open when manned. Call ahead to the NJ Forest Fire Service Division B Headquarters at (609) 726-9010 to ask if the tower is open, and thus avoid disappointment.
So those are 14 of my favorite hikes in the pine barrens! What are your favorite hikes out there?