50 Hikes 50 States Project–New Jersey
Over Labor Day weekend, we decided to hike three states by flying on Southwest Airlines into Philadelphia for our 50 Hikes 50 States Project. We loved up frogs in Pennsylvania and got lost in New York. When we got to New Jersey, we figured the crazy adventure would have to continue with something unique, and the local Jersey girls didn’t let us down.
Meet the Jersey Girls
First, I want to apologize for using the word “girls” for beautiful, amazing women who deserve better. It’s not a word I’m comfortable using for females over 12, but it seemed like the right vernacular for this area of the country.
Our girls, our ladies, our women….were the unbelievably friendly and kind volunteers at the Great Swamp Natural Wildlife Refuge who greeted us, cared for us, and warned us. They took gobs of time to show off their well-done Visitors Center and their shiny gift shop. They wanted to know about us–asked us lots of questions–shared their love for their buggy swamp–and treated us to love and kindness. I felt like a rock star.
And then We Asked Where to Hike
Prior to arriving, I had researched the Great Swamp and hadn’t found many suggestions. I had a vague reference to a loop, but the directions were a bit sketchy and the description wasn’t too inviting. But I love swamps; having lived over twenty years in Florida, I find the large trees, ferns, and moist atmosphere intriguing. So I persisted.
The first question our lovely ladies asked was if we had pants. That should have been the first clue. And boots? Yes to both, but the temperature was hovering at 85 and the thought of pants didn’t appeal to me. Boots, meh. I generally save boots for rocks and roots, which I didn’t think we’d find here.
The reason for pants and boots, they said, was the underbrush. Because the trails were often muddy, the volunteers and staff have to manually clear the trails–no lawnmowers here–and the underbrush can be thick.
We reviewed several of the trailheads, and, well, the ladies were so cute. They certainly didn’t want to speak negatively about their beloved swamp, and they certainly wanted us to have a fun and delightful time, but they were having a tough time reconciling our desire to hike 3-5 miles and their desire to make sure we enjoyed it.
It’s Not Trespassing
After much back and forth, we decided to do the Blue Trail to the Yellow Trail. We followed the ladies’ directions to a road that had a large white gate. The trailhead sits just beyond the giant private house where it looked like we weren’t supposed to go. Yet we persisted. Down the road we went to its end and the beginning of the trailhead (a local address to put in your GPS that will get you close to the trailhead is 72 Woodlane Road, New Vernon, NJ.)
Signs subtly pointed the way to the trailhead. You’ll drive about 1/3 mile down a long driveway passing large, exclusive homes on the way to the dead end at the trailhead. I admit, I gawked a bit.
I’m not a fan of bug spray, but for this trail, it certainly became my best friend. We bugged up, but due to the heat, we decided to stay in shorts. I had on closed-toed Chacos (yes, Chacos makes a closed-toe shoe that I love!) and away we went. The trail starts by crossing a bridge over a pond, setting the stage for a swamping experience. Beyond the bridge, a few steps on elevated boardwalk move you along.
From there, we hiked in dark soil that occasionally had puddles. Grasses, ferns, and fodder fell over the path, but it didn’t keep us from enjoying our amble. Brilliant orange and green mushrooms dotted the forest floor. I grabbed a stick to wave in front of me along the trail to clear cobwebs. Occasionally, I swatted a mosquito or too. Yup, it was buggy, and yup, the bug spray helped substantially.
Blue blazes marked the trail. We often lost the trail due to overgrowth, and always found it by the well-placed blazes. A deer darted in front of us. By the time we arrived deep into the swamp, my Florida-ness had become somewhat confused. Having lived in Florida for twenty years and had hiked many swamps, including the Everglades National Park swamps and those in Big Cypress National Park, I kept looking for cedar, cypress and other assortments of pine.
There were none.
A New Jersey Swamp Differs from Florida!
Instead, I felt like I was in an upland forest with a muddy bottom. Oaks, maples, sweet gum and birch trees provided thick cover and fabulous shade. Occasionally, I’d see a “swamp plant” like fringed orchid or swamp rose. But mostly we’d see mushrooms, ferns, primrose, yarrow and black-eyed susans. Fallen logs held surprises and welcomed exploration in their decay. Spiders, crawly things, and roly polies wiggled about.
Abundant with life, from little specks of color to big bounding deer, our senses popped.
The trail took us along the river to the Yellow Trail, which looped back to the Blue Trail. By this time, the wonder of the swamp had begun to wear off. We’d only hiked maybe a mile or so, but I was about ready to return to the trailhead. Between the tree canopy, the sun beat down a fierce heat. Humidity in the swamp and started to kick up and our bug spray began to weaken. I began to reflect back on the conversation we had engaged with in the swamp. No wonder our friends had recommended pants and boots.
By the time we returned to our start, we were ready to say adieu to the swamp. Hiking in swamps takes a certain grace. It’s a place to slow down, see the small things, ignore the flying teeth that want to eat you, and exercise patience. The swamp slowly opens up and comes to you, if you’ll let it.
But you have to let it.
Be prepared; wear long sleeves and long pants, spray on extra thick bug spray, cover your head, and brings lots of water. Leave deadlines behind and embrace the rhythm of the swamp. And the sounds. And the sights. And listen to the locals. These Jersey ladies know their stuff.
From the Swamp to the Shore
After the last bug swat, we turned the car to the Jersey shore to see “the real” Jersey Girls and Jersey Boys. We stumbled upon Bruce Springsteen’s beloved Asbury Park (and his home where he grew up), drove along giant mansions, board walked the shore, and watched the sun set.
We grabbed an Asbury Park Blond brew at Asbury Park Brewery, and I tried on a funky fifties dress at Bette’s Bombshells that didn’t quite worked, but I loved. Our weekend of hiking thrice during our 50 Hikes 50 States Project had come to an end, closing out the summer season of our hiking adventure. Next up, Kentucky in the fall!
What You Need to Know about this Hike (click for interactive map)