Ahh, New Jersey. Sometimes overlooked as just the distant cousin away from New York City, or maybe even the afterthought on the way to Philadelphia. If you drive through the turnpike, you may even mistake it for one of the ugliest states in the union. Certainly, the turnpike won’t win any beauty contests, probably wouldn’t even make sense to even participate, but locals know that the most brilliant thing the state did was place the turnpike exactly where it is. Bruce Springsteen, the state’s unofficial crown prince, even wrote a song about the stretch of mileage and the men who patrol it. So as soon as you can, turn off that monstrosity and discover the gems of natural beauty across the state that have been untouched and well-preserved by local staff, away from the heavy construction and industrial parks.
As the nation’s most densely populated state, the citizens of the great state of New Jersey know the importance of getting out into nature as a chance to decompress and reflect. The four seasons the region is known for allows for ample opportunities to roam among the many state parks and well-preserved trails we’ve known to visit. From winter cross-country skiing to summer campsites and lakeside beaches, as well as the swells of the southern shore and the infamous boardwalk, there’s plenty of chance to participate in the great outdoors of New Jersey. So without further adieu, please follow below, as we’ve compiled a list highlighting a few of our favorites.
Of course, it would be hard to mention hiking trails in New Jersey and try to list things strictly situated within the state’s confines. We believe sharing is caring, and nothing illustrates that better than the High Point State Park, which straddles the New Jersey New York state line, covering 15,413 acres between the two sister states.
Depending on what time of year you’re arriving, you’ll have to be prepared to pay an entrance fee. From Memorial Day to Labor Day it’s five dollars for a weekday visit that doubles to 10 on the weekends. But with that money comes swimming in Lake Marcia, as that’s when the lifeguards are on duty out there. Plus the beach complex has a bathhouse and a concession with snacks and refreshments, so you can pack a change of clothes and bring your appetite as well.
At the summit is High Point Monument, which sits 1,803 feet above sea level and shows spectacular panoramic views of farmland and forest, lush valley lows and rolling hills stretched across three states: New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. You can also see the thin blue line that is the Delaware river, seeking across the ridges of Jersey from Pennsylvania. If you look south from the peak, you can see the Appalachian Trail as it follows its rocky ridge showing the prominent views famous to the peak.We like this spot both for active hikers and cross-country skiers when the snow starts to fall, as well as campers and anglers. But that’s not all the park provides, as nearly all the outdoor recreational activities your family partake in can be practiced out here. That includes horseback riding, and mountain biking as well!
If you’re a bit of a history buff, it may intrigue you to know that the park where the monument sits was designed in the 19th century by the Olmstead brothers, the sons of prominent landscape design Frederick Law Olmstead, who designed Central Park in Manhattan and Prospect Park in Brooklyn. One of the most significant design families in American history, it’s neat to know your stepping path was carefully designed by this ingenious family of landscape architects.
If you hope to spend the night, there are 50 camping sites on Sawmill Lake with the classic staples of camping: fire rings and picnic tables. If you choose to come with a squad, know that there are two group campsites, one 25 and the other 35 people big. These two spaces come with furnished cabins that can accommodate as many people as you choose to bring.
Pyramid Mountain Natural Historic Area is another bountiful state park, comprising 1,67t acres of rugged New Jersey trails, wetlands, rock outcroppings, and a recreation area. From the highest peak of 934 feet, you get a great view of New York City without having to deal with the bridge toll and busy streets but instead encased in the highlands of trees and calming nature setting. Sign us up!
One of the highlights of this park is the unique rock formations, including the gravity-defying Tripod Rock. This 180-ton boulder balances atop three smaller boulders and has been sitting in that position for over 18,000 years since the Wisconsin glacier thawed. Nearby is one of the state’s largest glacial erratics, Bear Rock. A fun fact is these flat-topped ridges, thin valleys which reside in the park not only lend themselves to gorgeous shadows and climbing material but provide a vital role in the regional water cycle, supplying the downstream reservoirs, replenishing aquifers and supporting the local flora and fauna.
As is the tradition with most state trails, there is a variety of long paths available that you can choose to combine or reduce depending on your level of strength and preparedness. If you want to tack on a few more miles for the day, The Kincaid Access Area shows some less-visited, and thus better maintained, trails. Turkey Mountain is across the street from the parking lot and is another way to link up and provide yourself a more challenging day at the park.
If you’re looking to learn a thing or two as well while out there, feel free to check out the Pyramid Mountain Visitor Centre. This area is open throughout the year and offers exhibits highlighting the local history, including interactive educational highlights on the Lenape Native Americans and their relationship with the European settlers, and of course how the early Wisconsin Glacier shaped the land in which they inhabited. Really cool photographs adorn the walls, and the fun soundboard has recordings of all the local wildlife, so you can hear the sounds and mating calls once you’re out there on the trails.
Ramapo Mountain State Forest is a sprawling park, covering 4,200 acres around Ringwood and Passaic Counties. There are a few highlights of this park that we’ll delve into in the ensuing sections, including views of the New York City skyline, castle ruins, and the calming Ramapo lake. On the grounds is also the Ramapo Valley County Reservation, where a hike leading to Hawk Rock provides vistas connecting the region’s valleys.
There are a few fun routes we recommend in this state park. The first is the Ramapo Lake and Van Slyke Castle ruins, which is a pretty sweet 9.8-mile loop trail that works for any experienced hiker in decent shape. As a consistent availability when passing through parks in New Jersey, there’s an easier option and shorter loops available, but we know that hikers set out for the trails to work their bodies as much as their eyes, ears, and noses. However, if you are looking for something easier, maybe with your raging parents or restless little ones, know that there are both 1.1 and 1.6-mile loops that can efficiently take you to the Van Slyke castle and Ramapo Lake. We like the lake because it’s a great 120-acre size, providing a calming spot for a picnic, chit-chat or reflecting on the philosophy of life. Regardless there are miles of trails fit for any hiking need.
The castle ruins are a neat place for a cute family photo or Instagram click, but it’s not something so extravagant. But if you continue on to the Ramapo River or lake, you can set up your fishing poles and have a hangout with some freshly caught fish. So, pack carefully considering what kind of outing you’d like to take on.
Buttermilk Falls is a great all-day hike that offers an intermediate challenge on your feet and an unbelievably rewarding prize for your eyes. In total, the loop is around 7.5 miles and includes New Jersey’s highest waterfall at around 200 feet high. When circling around the grand loop you’ll see two other waterfalls, cascades and beautiful views as well.
If straining yourself to see some views isn’t really up your alley, know you don’t even need to move that much to see the waterfall. Because the hike routes are built on a series of larger and larger loops, the shortest requires little exertion at all. First, you climb up the giant stairs around the falls and then follow the blue trail up to the top. Initially, there is a steep climb through the views which reward you at the top are well worth it.
There are a few things worth seeing out on the trails, so we’d recommend swinging by the Tillman Ravine on the way to the falls. This adds a couple of miles to your total outing, and then you can stop at Buttermilk for a nice view on the way. However, you should know that these trailheads aren’t so well-marked. So you may want to bring a handheld GPS device to ensure you stay safe on the trails.
Mount Tammany is not for the faint of heart. You may think the 3.5-mile hike would mean it’s an easy hike you can hit at something of a leisurely pace, but be forewarned: this hike is not for the faint of heart. It’s a full-body hike all the way to the top, and the steep and rocky terrain demands total focus for your safety and balance. However, like any rule long-heralded in life, the payoff is worth the hard work. You’re situated atop the Delaware water gap and Mount Minsi in Pennsylvania, providing another tasteful panoramic the state is known for. The stone town circular hike swings through four different mountains, of the Appalachian Trail, and you feel the climb at each one of them.
I actually want to spend some time debriefing the Delaware water gap because it’s so beautiful and its remarkable position is such an incredible reminder of the power of nature. The Delaware water gap has been around for nearly 500 million years when the quartz pebbles from the region’s mountains were deposited in a shallow sea. 50 million years later, a small, narrow continent bashed into this proto-North America content, which melted the quartz which had been deposited, and over millions of years, this rock cracked open and now, we have a river running through a mountain ridge. It’s one of the most stunning natural wonders the state has to offer, and we’re so fortunate that it’s so well preserved and admired by the state’s citizens.
The Delaware Water Gap is about 300 meters across, and at the top stretches 1,400 meters. Even more remarkable is this flowing river runs 290 feet above sea level. There are two colored hikes that take you to the top, but neither of them are easy trails. The red trail is a more intense 1.2-mile trail to the top, and the blue dot trail is a bit more gradual at 1.4 miles.Because it’s one of the more popular hikes in the state, we recommend getting there early to avoid any hectic battles in the petite parking lot. This is the state of Tony Soprano, after all.
The Delaware Water Gap is one of the state’s most beloved and fun spots. Primarily for recreational purposes including rafting, canoeing, fishing, hiking, swimming, and even rock climbing, you can turn the day into a hike as well without a problem.
Hacklebarney State Park is a decent sized park at 978 acres with multiple trails running throughout. By the middle is the Black River, which is a well-known highlight of there. The town of Chester in Morris country from where the river runs even has named their town school after the river. We love this serene river and nature alongside it, as it’s flanked by massive boulders. These foundations create several waterfalls that can be seen from the trail, and at the end is a pooled pond where hikers can swim. While the park is open year-round, it’s especially vibrant in fall when the fall foliage starts to come alive. And then you can hop across the street to the Hacklebarney Farm Cider Mill, which serves homemade apple cider donuts and warm apple cider. To complete the Northeast trifecta, there’s also a cornfield and pumpkin patch in the season of football Sundays and World Series games.
It is also a great park for its accommodations. The park is free, open from dawn until dusk and has over 100 picnic tables for barbecues and summer hangouts. You can bring your four-legged friend as well, but just know that dogs are to be on a leash at all times. There’s nothing worse than being reprimanded for the activities your canine has caused, so be sure to stay alert and aware.
While this isn’t a hike known for a very challenging trail, it’s extremely popular for a reason. The family-friendly options and easy location mean that anyone is welcome and that call is answered with its round-year popularity. In total there are about 6 miles of overlapping trails, and most are paved or gravel, making it one of the best handicap-accessible options in the state. Of course, the downside of that could be that it’s naturally not such a gripping and demanding trail.
The Garden State has some of the best and most approachable trails in the country, especially considering the compact size within which they reside. When considering the top trails in this state, the metrics we used to compare including practicality, availability, and function. For these reasons, our favorite hike would have to be the Buttermilk Falls Loop. It’s a trail that’s not so arduous you won’t be able to enjoy yourself and instead laboriously count the steps until the summit.
Of course, it would be hard to forget the Delaware water gap when mentioning the state’s best offerings. While reaching the gorgeous waterway could require some serious stepping, it’s a remarkably worthwhile excursion that is mandatory for anyone hoping to spend more than a week within the state’s nature reserves. All in all, New Jersey’s plentiful possibilities mean that no matter which direction you choose to turn, you’ll come across some gorgeous scenery and an accessible park.
Bonus tip: Check out this video on exploring the wilderness of Hacklebarney State Park!