Forget all the cliches you know about New Jersey, there’s far more to the state than what you’ve learned from pop culture. Once you clear the areas near New York and Philadelphia, you’ll find that the Garden State holds true to its moniker.
Despite being the fourth-smallest state in area (5,582,358 acres – water included), New Jersey has diverse geography, from the iconic shore to the mysterious Pine Barrens to mountain-like ridges. As such, it’s more of a hiking destination than you might expect.
Though the hikes in New Jersey might not have the dramatic views you’d find out West, there’s still plenty of variety. Whether you’re looking to listen to the rush of a waterfall, peep the fall foliage in autumn, or go birdwatching near the beach – or go on a multi-day backpacking adventure or a stroll with the whole family – there’s a New Jersey hiking trail to suit your desires.
Red Dot and Blue Blaze Trails at Mount Tammany
Best hike for views
3 miles (4.8km) round trip, 2 hours, hard
The Kittatinny Mountains of New Jersey might be more of rocky ridges than true mountains, but don’t let that detract from their beauty. The most famous peak of the range is Mount Tammany on the east side of the iconic Delaware Water Gap, and the view from its 1500ft summit is pretty spectacular, especially during the fall with the autumn colors.
You can hike to the top via two trails: the Red Dot and the Blue Blaze. The former is a steep climb (plus a little scrambling) with a vertical gain of 1200ft over 1.2 miles, while the latter is a little more meandering, covering the same elevation change over 1.7 miles.
Combine them to get the best of both worlds – a challenging ascent, a break at the top while you absorb the view, and a more leisurely return back to the parking lot at the base of the mountain.
Best for a multi-day hike
50 miles (80.5km) one way, from two days, moderate
New Jersey doesn’t allow backpack camping in its parks – you must camp at designated sites – so true multi-day hikes are rather rare. An exception, however, is the 50-mile Batona Trail, which passes by numerous campgrounds in Brendan T. Byrne State Forest, Wharton State Forest and Bass River State Forest.
Short for “BAck TO NAture,” the Batona Trail weaves through New Jersey’s infamous Pine Barrens, the desolate area reputed to be the home of the mythical Jersey Devil. That said, you’re far more likely to see herons, deer or possibly even black bears than any creatures from folklore.
Though the trail is relatively flat, making for not-so-strenuous hiking, up to 20% of the trail is sand, which does give your legs a bit of a workout. High-speed hikers could cover the trail in two days, but it’s more commonly covered in three to four, or explored in segments via single-day hikes.
South Mountain Fairy Trail
Best hike for kids
1-mile round trip, 30 minutes, easy
Indulge in a little whimsy as you hike along this little trail, a half-mile out-and-back path along the longer Rahway Trail in New Jersey’s South Mountain Reservation. For the past 10 years, local artist Therese Ojibway has been building little fairy houses from natural materials in the woods.
Originally, she was working unofficially, to the dismay of the park authorities, but seeing how many visitors delighted in the miniature installations along the trail, the fairy houses are now formally welcomed by the park.
Hikers are welcome to add to the houses, but they’re asked to use all-natural materials only to keep with the park’s “leave no trace” policy.
The Giant Stairs
Best workout hike
4 miles (2km) round trip, 3 hours, hard
If rock scrambles are your thing, the Giant Stairs hike is for you. Located in Palisades Interstate Park, this trail includes a mile-long scramble from the top of the cliffs down to the Hudson River below. It’s absolutely a blast, but it’s certainly a workout.
Along the way, stop at the Women’s Federation Monument, a watchtower-like structure that honors the women’s clubs who contributed to the preservation of the parkland.
Should you want to explore more of the Palisades, there are more than 30 miles of trails throughout the park, though after the Giant Stairs, your legs might need a bit of a break before tackling anything else!
Grand Loop Trail at Morristown National Historical Park
Best hike for history
6.5 miles (10.5km), 3.5 hours, moderate
American history buffs won’t want to miss this hike. Morristown National Historical Park is a major Revolutionary War site: here, the George Washington-led Continental Army spent the harsh winter of 1779-80. The Grand Loop Trail circles the historical Jockey Hollow woods, passing by a few interpretive zones, such as reconstructions of soldiers’ barracks. But hiking the trail is far more than just a stroll through history – the path is fairly hilly and reasonably long, requiring a fair bit of physical prowess.
If you’re interested in exploring some more, there are some 27 miles of trails in the park, including the Blue Trail that ascends Mt. Kemble and leads to a scenic overlook.
Best waterfall hike
2.8 miles (4.5km) round trip, 1 hour, moderate
New Jersey is home to a surprising number of waterfalls, but one of the best – and one of the tallest – is Buttermilk Falls, part of the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area. You could simply walk up to the cascades from the parking lot for an easy stroll (unless that lot is closed, in which case the next closest parking area is a two-mile hike away). But you won’t regret making the nearly three-mile out-and-back trek to the top of the falls and through the woods to the edge of the Appalachian Trail.
For something a little more challenging, tack on the journey to Crater Lake, which traverses a stretch of the Appalachian Trail, circles around the lake, then loops back to Buttermilk Falls. Zoom out even farther and you can actually hike more than 150 miles of trails in the park.
Stairway to Heaven (Pochuck Valley to Pinwheel Vista)
Best hike for trail variety
7.3 miles (11.8km) round trip, 4 hours, moderate
If the scenery on a long hike doesn’t change frequently, it’s easy to get a little bored. But that’s not the case on the extended Stairway to Heaven trail, which connects Pochuck Valley and Pinwheel Vista.
The out-and-back hike starts on 2.5 miles of boardwalk through wetlands, continues across a suspension bridge, passes a cow pasture, then reaches the eponymous feature – a series of steep switchbacks that lead to an overlook.
If you’re not feeling up to the challenge of the Stairway to Heaven itself, you can simply make your way to the suspension bridge and turn around there – that’ll shave about two miles off the hike, and save you the elevation gain.
Cape May Point State Park
Best beach hike
1.7 miles (2.7km) round trip, 45 minutes, easy
To preempt the “what exit?” jokes, head all the way down to Exit 0 on the Parkway to get to Cape May Point State Park, a beautiful oceanfront recreation area complete with a lighthouse, a beach and even a World War II bunker.
As for hiking, there are three trails: a half-mile wheelchair-accessible loop over boardwalks through forests and wetlands, plus a 1.5-mile trail and a two-mile trail that circle the park and run along the dunes.
The area is a migration stop for birds, monarch butterflies, dragonflies and horseshoe crabs, so be sure to pack your binoculars for your hike. While migration patterns are seasonal, you’ll see wildlife here year-round, including ducks, rabbits and foxes.
Hacklebarney State Park
Best hike for fall foliage
2.5 miles (4km) round trip, 1.25 hours, easy
New Jersey has splendid opportunities for leaf-peeping in the fall, and one of the best hiking areas for autumnal colors is Hacklebarney State Park, which has nine hiking trails that span five miles of woodland.
The best route combines the Main Trail and the Riverside Trail to create a 2.5-mile loop with very easy terrain – the trail is mostly gravel, and there’s not much elevation gain. It does, however, run alongside the Black River, providing lovely views.
But Hacklebarney has a relatively tight footprint, meaning many of the trails are intertwined, which makes it easy to pick a new route each time you visit. And when fall rolls around, you can just wander and follow the best colors.
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