Visiting NJ’s state parks: From the Pinelands to the Isle of Hope

BY Briana Vannozzi, Correspondent |

New Jersey may be the fourth smallest state in the country, but it packs millions of open-air acres all ready for people to roam. New Jersey’s natural treasure is the hundreds of national, state and county parks.

South Jersey’s Wharton State Forest is located in the heart of the Pinelands. At roughly 120,000 acres in size, it’s the largest tract of land in the New Jersey State Park system.

“In the forest itself, we have about 145 miles of trails, but here at the recreation area we have two trails, about 3 miles total,” said Rob Auermuller, Wharton State Forest superintendent. “Nearby we also have the Batona Trail and the Yellow Trail, which is the Mullica River Trail.”

The forest stretches between parts of Burlington, Camden and Atlantic Counties, and there are hikes long enough to take you through each.

“You can literally go out here for weeks on end and see something new every day,” Auermuller said.

There’s also campgrounds, fishing and boating of all kinds. At the Atsion Recreation Area you can take a swim or soak in rays on the beach. The nature center shows off some of the endangered species and offers classes for students.

On a busy weekend during peak season, Atsion Recreation Area could see as many as 3,000 to 4,000 visitors on the beach, or over in the picnic area, hiking or biking. The lake is one of the cleanest ecosystems in all of New Jersey because it’s surrounded by protected land in the Pinelands National Reserve and is home to rare plants and wildlife.

If the whole outdoors thing isn’t for you, Historic Batsto Village might just be your thing. It’s a former bog iron and glass manufacturing site.

“One of the really neat features is that you don’t have very good cell service in the Pine Barrens, so you step back truly into the 19th century,” said Wharton State Forest interpretive specialist Alicia Bjornson.

Some 60 miles away in the Barnegat Bay is Island Beach State Park. It’s a popular destination for beach goers and summer tourists.

“It’s one of the few remaining barrier islands, actually, along the whole East Coast. It’s a 10 mile stretch of islands surrounded by Barnegat Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, so it’s a really special environment. These barrier islands don’t really exist like this anymore,” said Kelly Scott, interpretive specialist at Island Beach State Park.

There’s great fishing and clamming. The Sedge Island Marine Conservation zone was one of the first protected conservation zones in the whole state.

There are year long programs for all ages to keep you coming back.

“I always sleep better when I’m out here and being active. We have a number of trails. Trails that go out to the ocean. Trails that go out to the bay that go through maritime forest that you don’t see everywhere, and even just driving in the park,” said Island Beach State Park Superintendent Jennifer Clayton.

But you don’t have to travel to remote corners to find a sanctuary. In one of the most populous cities in all of New Jersey, Liberty State Park draws roughly 4.5 million visitors a year.

“It all comes down to quality of life and health. Having more open space and park space in very urban areas has a better, healthier population. It was open to the public on Flag Day, which is June 14, 1976,” said Rob Rodriguez, Liberty State Park superintendent. “At the time, this was a massive railroad yard, an old industrial site, that had been dilapidated for years. It was the goal of some local residents and preservationists to actually build a park right behind the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.”

Even though the once-thriving railroad industry no longer runs here, remnants of the old Central Railroad of New Jersey Terminal take up the northern portion of the park.

“You had a lot of folks coming to and from New York City to go to work every day, but you also had immigrants that were processed off Ellis Island. They would come here, and this is where they would start their journey west,” Rodriguez said.

And every year, hundreds of thousands flock to the park to hop on a ferry for a tour of the Ellis Island and Lady Liberty.

“At the time it was dedicated New Jersey’s bicentennial gift to the nation. At the time it was a massive railroad yard, an old industrial site, dilapidated for years and it was the goal of local residents to build a park right behind the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island,” Rodriquez said.

Until Liberty State Park was built, there was only one way to get there — from Battery Park in lower Manhattan. In addition to visiting the historic museum, the park is host to the Liberty Science Center and most of the nearly 1,200 acres is open space.

For residents who live in Jersey City who may not have a backyard, the park is their backyard.

“I like to call it the front yard,” Rodriguez said. “This is Jersey City’s front yard to the world.”

And some front yard it is. So no matter where you are in the state, go explore. There’s one waiting just for you.