New Jersey’s National Parks: No More Reason Not To Go

Liberty State Park

By Wendy Plump

On a recent train ride home from Boston, surrounded by people tapping at computers and staring into cell phones, as well as my own pile of devices, the meaning of serenity asserted itself. It wasn’t gained by answering emails or texts or squinting through news feeds, but by looking out the window at miles and miles of wild coastline and coves, a great gray ocean, and a marbled sky. Every seabird scratching in the sand or stand of evergreens leaning out of the wind served to remind me that this is what saves.

New Jersey is a populous state: people, cities, turnpikes, superfund sites. Mercifully, there is remedy in the form of stunning natural beauty to restore equanimity. To be specific, 12 remedies. Parks, trails, or sites overseen by or considered part of the National Park Service grace the Garden State from stem to stern. You own these places by virtue of your tax dollars and those forward-thinking souls who packaged the parks up neatly for us after the Organic Act—which created the National Park Service—passed in 1916. Given the political climate, it seems as good a time as any to remind us what that Act sought to do:  “… to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

Here is the list of New Jersey’s 12 National Park Service gems. It’s summer. Get out there. Check them all off your list. And while I’m not suggesting you actually do this, imagine how emancipating it would be to throw your cell phones out the car window on the way to the Pine Barrens. They would be covered with sand in under a week.

Appalachian Trail National Scenic Trail

The 2,180-mile Appalachian Trail, also known as the Footpath of the People, passes through New Jersey for 72 miles from the Delaware Water Gap to High Point State Park, and on into New York. Elevation ranges from 350 feet to 1,685 feet in a series of short, steep, rocky pitches alternating with bogs and wetlands. Rated easy to moderate within the Garden State, the AT enters New Jersey at the Delaware Water Gap, heads north along the Kittatinny Ridge to High Point, then east through Pochuck Valley. It would take an estimated five to six days to walk the New Jersey section. Wildlife is abundant with hawks and eagles, bears, rattlesnakes, and passerines galore.

Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area

This National Park Service distinction is shared with Pennsylvania, which borders the other side of the Delaware River. It seems silly to list the outdoor activities you can undertake in the Water Gap: what can’t you do with 70,000 acres of breathtaking scenery, 40 miles of river, and 100 miles of scenic roadway? One of the most popular hikes in New Jersey is the divine slog up Mt. Tammany, 1,527 feet high, about a mile to the top on one of two trails. And when you get up there, you have views of Arrowhead Island and Mt. Minsi on the Pennsylvania side and a reminder that, as primates, we were born to climb.

Ellis Island, Part of the Statute of Liberty National Monument

More than 12 million steerage and third-class steamship passengers who came to the United States through the New York port were legally and medically inspected here between 1892 and 1954. The National Park Service estimates that some 40 percent of America’s population can trace their ancestry through Ellis Island. Walk around the park and imagine what it was like to land here, the welcoming portal to a (hopefully) kinder nation. The Ellis Island Museum of Immigration has three floors of history, and photographs that will make you yearn for your forebears.

Sandy Hook/Gateway National Recreation Area

With 27,000 acres along the ocean, including bays in New Jersey, Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island, the Gateway allows New Jersey to lay claim to just a small piece of this national recreation area: Sandy Hook in Monmouth County. A 2,044-acre barrier beach peninsula at the northern tip of the Jersey Shore, Sandy Hook offers seven miles of beaches, salt marshes, hiking trails, a maritime holly forest, and Sandy Hook Lighthouse. In comparison with the rest of the Gateway, it’s vest-pocket small. But we’ll take it.

Great Egg Harbor River

This 129-mile river system in the Pinelands starts from a trickle in Berlin and blossoms and blooms all the way down to the Atlantic Ocean. The system pulls water from 17 tributaries along its length, and nearly all of it lies within the Pinelands National Reserve. Local jurisdictions continue to administer the lands, a unique feature of this wet and wild place. With an abundance of waterfowl nesting groups, the river system is one of the great birdwatching sites on the East Coast. Backpacking and hiking, boating, camping, and kayaking are also rewarding. The NPS website points out that there are two components to the river system: sand and water. The sand was deposited by an ancient river 20 million years ago. The water seeps through the sand to form one of North America’s largest underground reservoirs.

Lower Delaware National Wild and Scenic River

The Lower “D” became part of the park service in 2000. From the headwaters in Hancock, N.Y. down to Delaware Bay, the Delaware is the largest free-flowing river in the eastern United States, although just the Water Gap to Washington Crossing has been designated New Jersey’s portion of the wild and scenic river. After the hiking and the boating and the walks along the Delaware and Raritan Canal, the river towns along its banks prove that river residents in Milford, Frenchtown, Stockton, and Lambertville are a thriving breed apart, and just may deserve a wild and scenic designation of their own.

Morristown National Historical Park

This is the nation’s first National Historic Park and commemorates the encampment of General George Washington and the Continental Army from December 1779 to June of 1780, one of the coldest, most brutal winters on record. Four historical sites comprise the park: Jockey Hollow, the Ford Mansion, Fort Nonsense, and the New Jersey Brigade Encampment site. The park hosts an annual encampment weekend each spring. A museum and library collection round out the offerings.

New Jersey Coastal Heritage Trail

This is a part-and-parcel trail stretching 300 miles through the shore with historic villages, boardwalks, and lighthouses scattered along the way. From Raritan Bay in Perth Amboy to Deepwater near the Delaware Memorial Bridge, the heritage trail runs through five regions and includes one of the nation’s oldest operating lighthouses, the state’s official tall ship, and the town where revolutionaries burned British tea.

Pinelands National Reserve

More than a million acres of forests, wetlands, and farms span seven southern counties to form the Pinelands. The area has been classified as a biosphere reserve (there are under 50 in the United States) and, in 1978, was named the country’s first National Reserve. While it contains 56 communities, from hamlets to suburbs, with 700,000 permanent residents, the Pinelands also enclose some of southern New Jersey’s wildest environs.

Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park

The newest national park for New Jersey—and slightly at-odds with the others’ emphasis on natural beauty—this park commemorates an industrial historic district, once called the Cradle of American Industry. Everything from cotton and silk, to locomotives, to paper, airplanes, and all manner of widgets were produced here. Paterson was America’s first planned industrial city, centered around and in part fueled by the Great Falls of the Passaic River, standing at 77 feet high. A lovely footbridge spans the Passaic. Walk over it for a good misting.

Thomas Edison National Historic Park

This is the West Orange home of America’s greatest inventor, where the machines and pulleys of his laboratory, once active for 40 years, are still on view. Edison earned 1,093 patents, but his three most famous inventions were the electric light system, the phonograph, and motion pictures. While it is not quite true that he invented the lightbulb, it is true that he perfected the first practical incandescent lightbulb; his applied invention enabled it to burn for hours and hours. His home, Glenmont, which he purchased in 1886 with his wife Mina for their family, is huge and every bit as whimsical-looking as we could wish.

Washington-Rochambeau National Historic Trail

General George Washington and General Rochambeau joined the fighting men of the Continental Army and the French expeditionary force in 1781 to defeat the British, marching from New York to Virginia where they trapped the British Army under the command of General Cornwallis. Their famous collaboration resulted in the victory at Yorktown in the largest troop movement of the Revolutionary War. In 2009, their route was designated a National Historic Trail. As it runs through New Jersey, the route takes in the Thomas Clarke House in Princeton Battlefield State Park.