The beauty of life on the road in New Jersey is that one minute you may be in densest twists and turns of a highway interchange then emerge in the most stunning of settings, passing through dramatic peaks with a sprawling view of Manhattan in front of you. (Yes, we’re talking about that stretch of I-280 near The Oranges.) Or you’ll be cruising along the famed Jersey Shore only to find yourself pulling over at the most rustically delightful roadside market near the Pinelands (The Corn Stop in Mount Holly).
With 39,000 miles of public roadways to explore, there’s no doubt that the heart of the Garden State is in its arteries. Here, we explore five of the most fulfilling road trip experiences in New Jersey.
The complete Jersey Shore
Start – Sandy Hook; End – Cape May; Distance – 130 miles
Why pick and choose when you can see the Jersey Shore’s entire 130 miles of famed sand? Start in the north in Sandy Hook, where you can climb the 95 steps of the nearly 260-year-old lighthouse (check for closure alerts during the pandemic) and follow the Atlantic Ocean’s edge southward to Cape May with its designated National Historic District for its 600 preserved Victorian homes.
For those with a spontaneous spirit, ditch the map and just follow the coastline, making stops where instinct dictates – you can easily find yourself bouncing among lively boardwalks, charming resort towns and nature reserves while enjoying frozen custard, saltwater taffy and plenty of fresh seafood.
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If you thrive with a tad more direction, follow Ocean Avenue out of Sandy Hook and keep going. You may find a couple breaks on the road, like around Asbury Park (pull over for the boardwalk or beach, or perhaps catch some live music at The Stone Pony) and Spring Lake Beach (worth a stop for its serenity).
Around Manasquan, hop over to Route 35 and you’ll find yourself on the barrier island through beach towns like Lavalette and Seaside Heights. From there, take Route 37 back to the mainland. Route 9 will then guide you southbound again, where you can get reconnect with Route 35 again into Atlantic City, or just keep on going down parallel to the Garden State Parkway until you reach the equivalent of the parkway’s Exit 0 in Cape May.
River, peaks and falls
Start – Delaware Water Gap; End – Paterson Great Falls; Distance – 111 miles
Chase the geographic wonders of northwestern New Jersey, reveling in all the natural glory that the Garden State has to offer. Start on the western edge at Delaware Water Gap, spending days hiking, swimming or fishing in and around the Delaware River, while exploring the small towns in between – and don’t miss the drive along the 250-year-old Old Mine Road.
In the summer months, head to High Point State Park, home of the state’s highest elevation, in the Kittatinny Mountains. Or while the snow falls, opt for the ski areas like Mountain Creek in Vernon.
When you’ve had your fill of high elevation fun, drop back down to Lake Hopatcong – the state's largest freshwater lake – with 45 miles of shoreline, including beaches and marinas. Then cap it off with a visit to the second-largest waterfall in volume after Niagara Falls at Paterson Great Falls.
Pine Barrens Byway
Start – Pinelands; End – Belleplain State Forest; Distance – 86 miles
The southern part of the state is home to the Pinelands, also called Pine Barrens, which are as fascinating as they are vast. It’s no wonder that Congress deemed it the nation’s first National Reserve in 1978. Stretching across seven counties and 56 communities, the best way to get to know the 1.1 million-acre area is by driving through it, mile by mile.
The state has designated a Pine Barrens Byway route, starting in Wharton State Park’s Batsto Village, a restored town with 33 historic buildings. Also in the area is the 15-acre Batsto Lake, where canoeing, birding and fishing are all part of the daily routines.
From there, explore the 53-mile Batona Trail, Bass River State Forest with 12 miles of hiking trails, and the Tuckerton Seaport & Baymen’s Museum.
Then get deeper into nature by kayaking on the Mullica River or stopping at the 47,000-acre Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge, renowned for its migratory fowl. Finally, trace history to Atlantic County Park’s Estell Manor before going for more birding at the Tuckahoe Wildlife Management Area (look for long-eared owls and tundra swans), and ending in Belleplain State Forest, where you can truly get into road-trip mode with 23 miles of driving trails.
9 incredible hikes in New Jersey
Start – Fort Lee; End – State Line Lookout; Distance – 26 miles
This short but sweet drive is dramatic at every moment. After all, it hugs the Hudson River atop the Palisades cliffs, pitting the soothing waters against the steep rugged basalt stone in a tug of war for your attention.
Start by filling up in Fort Lee with Korean eats (top picks include So Kong Dong and BBQ Chicken) before entering Palisades Interstate Park through Fort Lee Historic Park. A short walk from the parking lot will take you to a postcard perfect shot of the George Washington Bridge from the clifftop.
Also nearby are a historic encampment and visitor center. Continue north to the Ross Dock Picnic Area or Englewood Picnic Area, both at the river level, where you’ll feel swallowed by the gigantic stone walls.
Whether it’s a relaxing picnic or a walk in the woods (the 30 miles of trails range from rock scrambles to literal walks in the park), let the forces of nature surround you. Keep driving north, making stops at Rockefeller Outlook and Alpine Lookout, both with viewpoints and trailheads.
Then take a break from the river by hopping over to the Tenafly Nature Center with pathways through 400 acres of wooded lands and programming year-round (like apple cider-making in the fall and maple sugaring in the winter).
Stop at the Women’s Federation Monument before ending at the State Line Lookout. And if you’re craving more, the interstate byway continues north in New York state for about another 27 miles to Bear Mountain State Park.
Best free things to do in New Jersey
Start – Trenton; End – Frenchtown; Distance – 70 miles
When the state first started its byway system in 1996, this was the first route it chose – starting in the capital of Trenton and cruising alongside the Delaware River all the way up the Frenchtown.
The adventure begins on the urban side by exploring Jersey’s roots at the New Jersey State Museum and Old Barracks Museum. Be on the lookout for the state capitol, whether you catch a glimpse from Route 29 or plan to stop in for a tour.
Veer just a few miles off the byway to Hamilton and get lost in the quirkiness of Grounds for Sculpture (where you can step into a sculpted version of the American Gothic painting).
Then choose your own adventure back along the route, with multiple state parks to enjoy: Delaware and Raritan Canal State Park, with 70 miles of trails; Washington Crossing State Park, packed with historical significance from the famed 1776 Christmas night crossing; or the Bull's Island Recreation Area, with a suspension bridge to boot.
As you move along the route, you’ll pass through some of Jersey's jewels: small towns like Titusville and Lambertville before ending up in Frenchtown.
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