In a pounding rain, about two hours before sunset on our first day hiking the Batona Trail, Matt and I realized we had made a naive mistake. Having already walked 13 miles, we were soaking wet and exhausted. The night was fast falling upon the Pine Barrens and, with more than five miles to go, it was clear we would not make camp before dark. For all the planning we had done, we had overlooked one big thing: our own limitations.
Matt, a far more experienced backpacker than I, was to be my photographer and traveling companion. Together we had visited the REI store in Marlton to acquire the gear I lacked, starting with a three-season sleeping bag to replace the one I’d been using since elementary school. Also in my shopping cart: Waterproof hiking boots, a headlamp, multi-purpose tool and a backpack.
Throughout September, we pored over state park maps and strategized how we’d tackle the Batona’s 50-mile swath through the thick, piney wilderness. Our adventure would begin on a Friday in mid-October. In the early morning, Matt’s girlfriend would drop us off at the trail’s northernmost entry point, Ong’s Hat, a ghost town off Route 72 in the Brendan T. Byrne State Forest. Three days later, my girlfriend would pick us up in Bass River State Forest, near the intersection of Stage and Coal roads.
On the map, figuring two nights camping, the route divided neatly into three roughly 17-mile sections. Seemed pretty simple. We would finish in time to enjoy a hot Sunday supper back home in Medford. Three days of fine flora, fauna and friendship. No big deal.
In the weeks before setting off, I found it remarkable how few people had ever heard of the Batona Trail. Growing up 15 minutes from Ong’s Hat, I had gone on many elementary-school field trips and summer-camp adventures along the Batona. Its flat, sandy terrain, soft underfoot; diverse wildlife; and multiple access points made it ideal for school-age excursions.
The Batona is the longest hiking trail in South Jersey, and the fifth longest in the state. Since Matt and I set out last October, it has undergone a few changes that have added about 2.5 miles, bringing the length to about 53 miles.
The original 30-mile trail was completed in September 1961 by volunteers from the Back To Nature Hiking Club of Philadelphia. Members dubbed the trail Batona, an acronym formed from the club name: BAck TO NAture. (Nowadays, it’s just called the Batona Hiking Club.)
Batona member Paul Piechoski, now 72, was among the volunteers who blazed the trail. “They knew it was a unique area, as far as the flora and fauna are concerned,” he recalls. “And it was a labor of love, putting a trail in and having people enjoy it. You do something like this to hand down to future generations.”
When Matt and I arrived at Ong’s Hat at 8:37 am last October 14, it was sunny, breezy, a bit humid, in the low 60s. Matt’s girlfriend snapped a picture of us leaning coolly against a large wood-mounted trail map. Then we picked up our respective 30-pound packs, said our goodbyes, and set out.
What’s most exciting about setting foot on the Batona is that you immediately feel its founders’ intent—namely, to get back to nature. What it lacks in craggy peaks, stunning vistas and international renown, it makes up for in hushed placidity and sometimes eerie beauty.
Not everyone feels this way. On more than a few message boards I had read, some called the trail boring. On one website, a particularly disgruntled hiker wrote: “If you like hiking flat sand trails and don’t mind ticks or mosquitoes, then go for it…For me, it was too much of the same scenery everywhere you looked. I think next time I’m going to put the mountain bike out there and just go fast.”
Yes, there are ticks, and hikers are advised to check their skin daily for the little suckers. But they are less of an issue in fall weather, and we encountered no mosquitoes on our October hike. But clearly the subtle charms of the Pine Barrens were lost on this guy. (And by the way, bikes are not allowed on the trail.) The forest teems with life, and most of it can be observed from the Batona Trail, if you are patient enough to look. The area is home to 23 kinds of orchid, along with plant species such as bog asphodel (which you can’t find anywhere else north of the Carolinas), flowering gentian, swamp azalea, prickly pear, wild magnolia and curly-grass fern, which was discovered in the Pine Barrens and grows almost nowhere else on the planet. Fortunately, there’s a handbook to help you identify them (see If You Go).
As for critters, you can spot white-tailed deer, coyote, the occasional black bear and, once in a blue moon, a timber rattlesnake—an endangered species considered docile that won’t attack unless provoked.
“You should really go during the spring when the tree frogs are calling,” says G. Russell Juelg, Pine Barrens educator and land steward with the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, which manages a short stretch of the Batona between Brendan T. Byrne and Wharton State forests. “There are all kinds of different frogs out there, and, if you get acquainted with them, you can hear them call while you’re hiking, especially in the morning or evening.”
Juelg says hikers might also see turtles, otters, beavers, owls, hawks and, depending on time of year, migratory birds, including black ducks and snow geese. The Pine Barrens is home to more than 80 different kinds of birds, including native species like yellow-billed cuckoos, hummingbirds, Baltimore orioles, brown thrashers, turkey vultures, screech owls and, yes, even bald eagles.
“It’s just awesome out there,” says Rosemarie Mason, a member of the Outdoor Club of South Jersey, which has taken over 30 miles of the trail’s maintenance from the aging members of the Batona Hiking Club. Mason, 58, has trekked the length of the trail three times. “There’s such a simple beauty to it,” she says. “Amazing little streams and wildflowers, and it’s all so unlike anything most people come in contact with day to day.”
Back at REI, having tossed well north of $500 of equipment into my cart, I had scoffed at Matt’s suggestion that I invest another $60 in a pair of nylon, water-wicking hiking pants that convert to shorts with a quick unzip. Pants are pants, right? My cotton cargo shorts would do just fine, thank you very much. Then we got caught in the rain, and I would have gladly spent twice as much for even one leg of those slacks. Turns out cotton shorts get waterlogged and heavy in the rain. And they chafe something awful—reminding me with each step of my dumb decision.
At first the rain fell lightly, dancing off the leaves autumn had yet to claim. It was early afternoon and we had just left scenic Pakim Pond. Rain suffuses the Pine Barrens with an eerie gloom. This is, after all, the reputed birthplace of the Jersey Devil.
The rain reminded me of the Pine Barrens’s remarkable ability to absorb water. According to a plaque at Pakim Pond, half the rainwater falling on the Pine Barrens region seeps through the porous, sandy soil into the estimated 17-trillion gallon Kirkwood-Cohansey aquifer, which supplies most of southern New Jersey with potable water. As John McPhee noted in his landmark book, The Pine Barrens, the deep sand thoroughly filters the water, rendering it exquisitely pure and delicious. (South Jerseyans consume an estimated 200 million gallons a day.) Meanwhile, surface runoff and seepage from the aquifer replenish South Jersey’s rivers.
As the spattering drops turned into a downpour, I did my best to accept nature’s grand plan, rationalizing my discomfort as trivial compared to the ecological importance of what was taking place around me. Still, it was a major bummer.
If the Batona has one significant drawback, it’s the scarcity of campsites. Between Ong’s Hat and Bass River, a distance of about 50 miles, there are just five designated places to pitch a tent, and only one of those—Batona Camp—is on the trail itself. The rest require a hike of as much as two miles. All the camps are spartan, nothing but open space, no platforms or shelters. You are allowed to build a fire (usually in a fire ring) as long as no temporary restrictions have been imposed due to heat or drought.
By afternoon, as darkness began to fall—and with Batona Camp still more than five miles away—my shorts had become a prison, my new boots were squishy with water and my feet ached. My 30-pound pack might as well have weighed a ton. And my legs, which had never carried me more than 14 miles in a day, were screaming surrender. We stopped to talk things over. We considered pitching our tent somewhere close to the trail but out of sight. It’s illegal, but desperation has been known to trump such
concerns. Trouble was, we were running out of potable water (provided at all camps except Lower Forge and Buttonwood Hill) and we craved the peace of mind of reaching a known destination. Besides, we had set a goal, and were unwilling to give up, no matter how bedraggled and miserable we felt.
A welcome respite came at Apple Pie Hill. At 205 feet above sea level, it’s the highest point in the Pine Barrens. Climbing to the top of the metal fire tower there, hikers are rewarded with the best view in the Pine Barrens. On a clear day you can see Philadelphia to the west and Atlantic City to the east. We couldn’t see nearly that far in the heavy cloud cover, but we enjoyed it anyway.
We reached Batona Camp 45 minutes after sunset. Setting up in the dark, Matt and I agreed it had been years since either of us had felt this sore and exhausted. If my body had a battery icon like the cell phone I was carrying, it would have read about 3 percent.
Matt boiled some water over a propane device and whipped up a pot of instant beef stroganoff. We huddled in our tent and gratefully devoured it. Shuddering at the thought of covering 16 miles the next day and 18 the day after that, the dismal truth belatedly hit us: The Batona is a four-day backpacking adventure.
Swallowing my pride, I called my girlfriend and arranged to have her pick us up a day later than planned.
Ratcheting down our ambitions, we hiked about 10 miles on Day 2, arriving at Mullica Camp in the afternoon. In leisurely fashion, we set up our tent beside the Mullica River—or, as we South Jerseyans call it, tongue-in-cheek, the “Mighty Mullica.” (And why not? It’s the mightiest we’ve got.) We gathered wood for a fire and rewarded ourselves with some hard-earned downtime.
That night, we sat around the campfire and laughed at our foolishness, what a friend would later call, “Taking the car you drive to the grocery store and entering it in the Indy 500.”
The night sky was spectacular. This, too, is what hiking the Batona is about—bearing witness to the subtly changing intensity of the moonlight as it added intriguing dimensions to our little corner of Wharton State Forest.
On Day 3 we set out to reach Buttonwood Hill, a hike of about nine miles. The weather had cleared beautifully. This turned out to be my favorite section of the Batona. Ghostly American white cedars line this stretch, springing from beds of bright moss that feel like clouds underfoot. Sunlight slices through the cedar groves, imparting a magical shimmer as the branches sway in the breeze.
Well-rested—and energized by the beauty around us—we kicked 14 miles on Day 4, hiking from Buttonwood Camp to trail’s end in Bass River State Forest. Despite the extra day, our supplies had held up. Only our egos were dinged.
As we approached our final destination, Matt and I pondered the lessons of our hike. Sure, the Batona is understated, isolated, perhaps even a bit lonely. But its minimalism, Matt pointed out, is sort of the point.
“I think one of the reasons some people may be turned off to this type of backpacking is because it’s not destination-oriented,” he said. “It’s not like we’re going to arrive at some enormous vista or the Grand Canyon or a grove of redwoods. We’re just out for the sake of being out here, aren’t we?”
“Exactly,” I said.
Put another way, hiking the Batona is a kind of zen experience. You’re not that far from the Parkway, the Atlantic City casinos, the Cherry Hill suburbs, even Philadelphia, but you’re in another world. As your senses adjust, nothing becomes something becomes more than you ever could imagine.
Nick DiUlio is New Jersey Monthly’s South Jersey Bureau Chief. Stoked by his Batona experience, he went camping in Alaska in August (making sure to pack a pair of nylon rain pants).