Spring Escapes – Close to Home

Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve. (Photo by Jeffrey Tryon)

By Laurie Pellichero

After the cold, snowy winter and so much time spent indoors due to the pandemic, now’s the time to get outside and enjoy nature, hiking, biking, and the wealth of outdoor activities the area has to offer. Here is a sampling of some local favorites that could provide a welcome escape (check websites for safety protocols).

Baldpate Mountain. (Photo by Jeffery Tryon)

Baldpate Mountain

Owned by Mercer County since 1998, Baldpate Mountain off Route 29 in Titusville is the highest point in the county. It is part of the 17-mile Sourland Mountain Ridge, a rich source of outdoor adventures. Baldpate, once known as Kuser Mountain, is home to the Ted Stiles Preserve, which features one of the largest and least disturbed tracts of woodlands in the region with a variety of rare birds and wildlife.

Also on the property is Strawberry Hill Mansion, originally owned by the Kuser family, which overlooks the Delaware River. The Strawberry Hill Native Plant Garden is filled with native wildflowers, shrubs, and trees.

Popular visitor activities at Baldpate Mountain include hiking, mountain biking, jogging, horseback riding on designated trails, and birdwatching. Spring Nature Programs offered by the Mercer County Park Commission include free “Just a Hike” programs at Baldpate on Tuesday, April 13 and Wednesday, April 14 from 1 to 3:30pm. Participants meet at the Flddler’s Creek Road parking lot. Registration is required, visit register.communitypass.net/mercer or call 609.888.3218. Masks and social distancing are mandatory at all in-person programs.

Located directly across Fiddler’s Creek Road from Baldpate Mountain is the 108-acre Hollystone Preserve, which was acquired by Mercer County in 2010. The preserve was recently the site of a 40-acre reforestation project. A new trail passes through this area, and links to trails at Baldpate Mountain and Washington Crossing State Park.

For more, visit mercercountyparks.org.

Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve. (Photo by Jeffrey Tryon)

Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve

Just over the bridge in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, you can find the 134-acre Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve. More than 700 of the state’s native plant species thrive in the preserve’s diverse habitats — mature hardwood forests, a meadow, steep hillsides, a creek, two ponds, and other wetlands. The preserve also features three distinct geological zones that influence their overlying soils.

According to its website, the Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve is the nation’s only living museum specifically devoted to native plants, and visitors are encouraged to explore its 4.5 miles of trails as they reconnect to the natural world.

In spring, flowering shrubs, trees, and vines include wood poppy, twin leaf, toadshade, squirrel corn, spring beauty, redbud, red trillium, marsh marigold, dwarf crested iris, and bloodroot. The preserve also features a Native Plant Nursery, which will have plants available for purchase throughout the growing season. A wide variety of guided walks, programs, and lectures are also offered.

Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve is open daily from 9am to 5pm, with the last entry at 4pm. The Visitor Center is located at 1635 River Road in New Hope, Pa. Visit bhwp.org.

A monarch butterfly at Mercer Meadows. (Photos by Jeffrey Tryon)

Mercer Meadows Pole Farm

The 22 miles of the Lawrence Hopewell Trail provide a multitude of opportunities for walking, biking, wildlife observation, and more. The Mercer Meadows Pole Farm, located off Cold Soil Road near Terhune Orchards, also offers a fascinating history.

The 820-acre preserved area that is filled with wildflowers in the springtime, along with trails, grasslands, wetlands, and plenty of birdwatching opportunities, was once home to a major transatlantic communications hub for the United States. According to the Lawrence Historical Society, this tract of land was selected for use as an American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T) International Radio Transmission Station from 1929 through 1975.

It became an important telecommunications hub to Europe, especially as World War II broke out, and was once filled with giant rhombic antennae – supported by several thousand poles that gave the site its nickname. By 1957 it was the largest radiotelephone station in the world. At its highest point, in 1963, six million calls went through the station. But with the installation of transatlantic telephone cables and the launch of communications satellites, the poles started to come down and AT&T made the decision to close and demolish the station in 1975. All that remains now is a single 80-foot pole that stands off Federal City Road.

Mercer County purchased the land in 1995 and has installed signage that tells the story of its role in telecommunications history, as well as interpretive signs, bird blinds, and observation towers.

According to the New Jersey Audubon Society, species regularly breeding in the forested habitats at Pole Farm include the wood thrush, eastern wood pewee, chimney swift, gray catbird, sharp-skinned hawk, and wild turkey. Grasshopper sparrows, bobolinks, American woodcocks, and American kestrels nest in the area’s grassland habitats.

St. Michaels Farm Preserve. (Courtesy of D&R Greenway Land Trust)

St. Michaels Farm Preserve

Since 1989, D&R Greenway Land Trust of Princeton has permanently protected more than 21,000 acres of land. Through creating trails on the lands, the nonprofit organization gives everyone the opportunity to enjoy the great outdoors. One such preservation, which just celebrated its 10th anniversary, is the 400-acre St. Michaels Farm Preserve — an expanse of farm fields and forests on the edge of Hopewell Borough.

The property, which provides visitors with expansive views in many sections, was the home of St. Michaels Orphanage and Industrial School, which was operated by the Catholic Diocese of Trenton from 1896 until 1973. After the orphanage closed, the land was leased to a local farmer. In 2010, D&R Greenway purchased the property from the diocese for $11 million through a public/private partnership, saving it from development. Six miles of farm roads now provide walking trails throughout the preserve.

There are four types of plant communities on the preserve: agricultural fields, shrub/scrub, hedgerows, and forest. As noted on the D&R Greenway website, more than 100 species of birds have been identified on the preserve, including 11 species of warbler, indigo bunting, rose-breasted grosbeak, and scarlet tanager. Hawks cruise the fields looking for voles and mice, kestrels live by the barn, herons have been seen along the creek, and sparrows and finches frequent the fields. A forest of about 35 acres has several widely-spaced white oaks. The Charles Evans Overlook off Aunt Molly Road provides amazing views.

For a trail map and more, visit drgreenway.org.

Aerial view of Grounds For Sculpture. (Photo by David W. Steele)

Grounds For Sculpture

Art lovers are sure to enjoy Grounds For Sculpture, which features nearly 300 contemporary sculptures sited across 42 beautifully landscaped acres in Hamilton. While the indoor exhibits have been closed during the pandemic, the public can explore the grounds via timed tickets Thursday through Monday from 10am to 6pm.

Founded by the late artist and philanthropist J. Seward Johnson, the nonprofit Grounds For Sculpture opened in 1992 at the site of the former New Jersey Fairgrounds. The current collection includes sculpture by 150 artists, including Clement Meadmore, Anthony Caro, Beverly Pepper, Kiki Smith, George Segal, Magdalena Abakanowicz, Isaac Witkin, Joyce J. Scott, Willie Cole, and Johnson.

Outdoor exhibits include “Rebirth: Kang Muxiang” through August 19 and “Bruce Beasley: Sixty Year Retrospective, 1960-2020” through January 9, 2022.

For tickets and additional information, visit groundsforsculpture.org.

Boardwalk trail at The Watershed Reserve. (Courtesy of The Watershed Institute)

The Watershed Institute

Keeping water clean, safe, and healthy is the mission at The Watershed Institute in Hopewell Township. The Watershed works to protect and restore water and the natural environment in central New Jersey through conservation, advocacy, science, and education.

The Watershed Center is located at the Watershed Reserve off Titus Mill Road. As noted on thewatershed.org, the Reserve was created with an initial gift of 400 acres from Dr. Muriel Gardiner Buttinger in 1969. It now spans nearly 1,000 acres of forest, wetlands, streams, meadows, and farmland. The public is invited to explore more than 10 miles of trails that wind through these habitats and pass by two historic farmhouses that date back to the 18th and 19th centuries.

Visitors can also enjoy watching the waterbirds at the four-acre Wargo Pond, which supports the Reserve’s diverse community of animals and plants. Birders can also be on the lookout for osprey, bobolink, Cooper’s hawk, red-shouldered hawk, and numerous species of owl. Some of the oldest trees in central New Jersey can be found in the Reserve, as well as foxes coyotes, weasels, and flying squirrels.

Later in the season, starting in mid-June, visitors can explore the Kate Gorrie Butterfly House. This outdoor structure showcases native butterflies and the native plants that support them. As noted on the website, the gardens inside simulate typical habitats of the area, and the wildflowers and shrubs inside provide nectar and shelter for butterflies and food for caterpillars.

The Watershed Reserve is free and open daily from dawn until dusk. The trails are accessible from the main entrance at 31 Titus Mill Road, with a parking lot on Moore’s Mill-Mount Rose Road and West Broad Street. Masks and social distancing required. For more information, visit thewatershed.org/trails.

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An aerial of Unionville Vineyards. (Courtesy of Unionville Vineyards)

Wineries

For an adult beverage with your escape, local wineries – including Hopewell Valley Vineyards, Terhune Orchards Vineyard and Winery, and Unionville Vineyards — offer wine tastings and special events while practicing COVID-19 protocols and social distancing guidelines.

Hopewell Valley Vineyards, located at 46 Yard Road in Pennington, is now open Monday through Thursday from 11am to 3pm, Friday and Saturday from noon to 7:30pm, and Sunday from noon to 5pm. There is limited seating indoors and unlimited seating outdoors. Check hopewellvalleyvineyards.com for the live music schedule.

Terhune Orchards Vineyard and Winery at 330 Cold Soil Road in Princeton is open Saturday and Sunday from noon to 5pm, with outdoor seating under the apple trees. Visitors can enjoy wine by the glass and tasting flights. Bottles are available in the Farm Store seven days a week. Visit terhunerorchards.com for upcoming events.

Located at 9 Rocktown Road in Ringoes, Unionville Vineyards offers wine tastings Friday through Monday by appointment in the tasting room. The picnic grounds are open from noon to 5pm daily for guests to enjoy wine by the glass or bottle. No reservations are needed for the dozen picnic tables. For more information and the latest special events, including Chardonnay Release Weekend on April 17 and 18, visit unionvillevineyards.com.