Since March, my travel plans, like those of so many others, changed dramatically. One cancelled vacation followed another as we embraced being safer at home. But rather than spending too much time mourning the loss of a babymoon, a family vacation, and a friend’s birthday bash, my husband and I decided to focus on what we could do – explore our local parks and outdoor attractions as much as (safely) possible. While we’d always been fans of our local parks, they were often an afterthought if we had nothing else going on. Now, they became the primary focus of our weekends and “trip” planning.
We are very lucky to live in New Jersey, a state committed to preserving open space, and with it, a plethora of county and state parks. We also have access to the broader tristate area and Pennsylvania. We hope to be able to get out and explore a bit more this fall. I plan to keep this post as a “master sheet” with quick summaries of the places we’ve been and maybe write more detailed posts on some of the parks. To cover as much ground as possible (pun intended), I’ll include parks we visited in the pre-COVID world as well. I’m also organizing these by region because I find that easier to navigate.
In general, we’ve found parks in southern Jersey to be less crowded than northern and central. We’ve also felt that more difficult trails tend to have fewer people. We’ve had days where we’ve hiked miles without seeing anyone else, and times where trails are uncomfortably crowded. Mask wearing varies. We always bring our masks and put them on in facilities, in areas with lots of people, and when passing on narrow trails. We also make an effort to stop at a wider spot of the trail if we see people coming towards us to enable safe passing. Not everyone out there does though, so hike at your own risk. We are now hiking with a newborn and so far, find that wearing her versus pushing a stroller is the better option to both avoid people and explore more.
Do you have suggestions or ways to make this list better? Want a post with more information on one of these parks? Know of a park we should check out? Drop me a line in the comments! And yes, Central Jersey is a thing.
Northern New Jersey
Northern Jersey parks contain the “mountains” of New Jersey, and feature most of the state’s challenging hikes. While we don’t have any 14k footers, the scenery is still stunning. We don’t get to spend enough time up in this region, but I have high hopes for this fall and spring. Stay tuned for more updates!
Delaware Water Gap / Worthington State Forest
A combination of federal and state parks I absolutely love this area on the New Jersey Pennsylvania border. it contains one of the highest mountains in New Jersey – Mount Tammany – as well as ample opportunities for some of the state’s best hiking, floating down the Delaware River, or paddling. Personally I think it’s one of the most underrated attractions in the state. That said I haven’t been since COVID and I’m not sure how crowded it has been. There are several waterfalls to explore including Bushkill Falls, which has the second largest volume of water east of the Mississippi. There’s also a scenic drive through the park, just make sure to bring cash for the toll on the bridge if you want to cross over to the Pennsylvania side of the drive since EZ-Pass is not accepted.
An urban oasis, this park has stunning city views, plenty of open space, and boardwalk paths for strolling and biking. You can also catch the ferry to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty from here. Personally, I think it’s the smarter move than going from lower Manhattan. Given the urban location, it’s generally a very busy park.
With half the park in New Jersey and half the park in New York the states jointly administer the park. The views of the Hudson are spectacular here and it contains one of the state’s most challenging hikes – the shore trail – which involves about a mile of rock scrambling across the “Giant’s Stairs.” Experienced hikers rejoice! For less ambitious hikers, there’s a beautiful waterfall and some lovely hikes here.
Central jersey marks the transition from the rocky mountains and cliffs of northern Jersey into the pine barrens of South Jersey. Therefore, the parks here are a mix of terrain, with a few surprisingly challenging hikes thrown in. This is also where I live, and given the goal of staying local, it’s the area of the state that we’ve explored the most.
This is actually my local state park and it’s split into two sections. The first section contains a historic village that has reopened to the public. There are also several trails in the area going through wooded areas. The second section of the park is actually more strenuous and very popular with mountain bikers who share the trails with hikers. This section is located on hospital road, southwest of the main park area. The Capital to Coast bike path also runs past the park and is a fun way to visit.
What I love about Cheesequake is the variety of trails offered catering to all kinds of hikers.They’re boardwalks for easy hikes as well as more challenging hikes through a very diverse area. The park identifies the various ecosystems as open fields, saltwater and freshwater marshes, a white cedar swamp, Pine Barrens, and a northeastern hardwood forest. It’s also very easy to access from the Parkway.
This is probably my favorite Monmouth county Park. There’s actual hiking that’s not just walking in the woods. The views of the city from here are spectacular especially if you drop by Twin Lights which is right near the main park entrance. There are also World War II battlements and other cool historic things to check out within the park.
Holmdel Park is known for its cross country running trails, which are lovely to hike at a more reasonable pace. A lot of the terrain is challenging, but there are also plenty of meadows and playgrounds for younger kids. This park really surprised me and might tie with Huber Woods for my second favorite county park. There’s a lot to do here!
I never thought I’d use the word bucolic to describe a New Jersey park, but Huber Woods fits the bill. It has pleasant fields to walk through as well as beautiful wooded areas and ponds. Definitely worth checking out and not at all crowded. Don’t get too excited about the “views of the Navesink” the park bills. It’s more like “a glimpse of the Navesink.”
Monmouth Battlefield State Park
I was pleasantly surprised by this park thinking it would be quite small and just have one battlefield but actually the grounds are sprawling and you can retrace the Battle of Monmouth which took place across several fields. Visitors can walk in the steps of George Washington and British soldiers or simply do some gentle hiking. it’s an amazing amount of open space right in the middle of a very densely populated area and absolutely worth checking out. It wasn’t at all crowded when we went at the peak of the pandemic. However the only bathrooms are in the park’s facilities so make sure to check if those are open before you go.
Manasquan Reservoir County Park
A very popular spot for many many residents of the county, this one is always crowded when we go. They have made attempts to make it one directional but I will say people obey the signs iffy at best. That’s a nice four mile loop around the reservoir and I think most people only do the first mile and then out and back it so it does get less crowded as you go around. It’s also level and flat so it’s very popular for strollers. Port-a-potties are conveniently located the whole way around the reservoir so you are never far from a bathroom (which I loved while pregnant!).
Sandy Hook (Gateway National Recreation Area)
Most people know Sandy Hook for its beaches (and indeed you can even catch a ferry from the city to the beach during the summer). The park used to be a military base and still has lots of related sites to check out. Additionally, it has extensive bike paths, my favorite way to explore the park. There is a charge for parking in the summer, but it’s free for America the Beautiful pass holders.
Our other local park packs a punch for its size, offering a mix of easy and strenuous hiking. The one black trail is quite an adventure as it’s often quite muddy and flooded and you have to kind mud hop or get wet. If attempting it, make sure to wear proper shoes, we’ve encountered people in flip flops that had to turn back! On the bright side the trail is very rarely crowded so it’s nice to get away from people.
A lot of the “hikes” through this park are rambling walks through fields and meadows. There are also some historic sites. It feels more like the draw of this park is all the playing fields and activities. Honestly, I’d recommend skipping this one and going to nearby Holmdel Park instead.
A nice alternative to the reservoir if you want to avoid crowds and fancy a walk through the woods. Personally, I prefer the parks further south for similar terrain.
What I love about the parks in the pinelands is the wild beauty of them all. Since the soil doesn’t support intensive development (or so I’ve been told), this part of the state remains sparsely populated and undeveloped. That means parks in this region are HUGE. Great for social distancing. My husband on the other hand, thinks they all look the same. He’s not wrong.
In addition to the standard walks through endless pine groves, Bass River features a lake for swimming, boating, and canoeing.
I was pleasantly surprised by this park! Given its coastal location, there are beautiful bay views and lots of bird watching opportunities. The park has several Osprey nests, so the odds are good you will spot some.
Did you know New Jersey is the third largest producer of cranberries? Nor did I before visiting the bogs of Double Trouble. The park also features a historic village where you can learn more about the history of cranberry production in the state. This is in addition to the pine tree laden trails.
Another park mostly known for its beaches, Island Beach also has some light hiking in the marshes and my favorite thing- a paddling trail on the bay side encompassing about three miles or so. They have a boat launch if you have canoes, kayaks, or stand up paddle boards to access the trail. That’s my favorite thing to do in the park.
The advantage of Wharton is it’s huge so you can definitely spread out and get away from people. We hiked on some of the mountain bike trails and literally went miles without seeing another soul. There’s also a historic village and some other attractions in the main area of the park. The easy, stroller friendly, hiking trail is well traveled and quite popular.
Very well said and so very true. Nature does allow us to get out sand remain safe. Wonderful information.