Poet and philosopher Henry David Thoreau found a haven for peace and inspiration within just a few miles of his birthplace. He didn’t believe that it was necessary to travel to the ends of the earth to tap into the healing source of nature. Thoreau was definitely on to something.
This fall we can take a page from Thoreau’s journal by enjoying the beauty of our own ”backyard.” Whether we bring the kids along for a hike or opt for a romantic respite with a special someone, the dazzling colors of New Jersey’s autumn are here for the taking. Grab a blanket, a picnic basket filled with delightful treats from a local deli or gourmet shop, and indulge in a day of serious relaxation.
Refresh your mind, body, imagination, and spirit by answering the call of the wild. Walking in a natural setting is a great opportunity for lively dialogue, and when the conversation rolls into silence, it’s easy to enjoy the hushed sounds around you—wind rustling through the trees and the scurrying of woodland creatures.
Parks, like people, have distinct personalities; choose the one that will give you the respite you desire.
Jockey Hollow National Park, Morristown
In almost any season, Jockey Hollow offers a peaceful interlude to those who meander beneath its towering hardwood trees. In the fall, its woodlands burst into colors that dazzle.
A fascinating past makes this park a must-visit for history buffs. During late 1779 and early 1780, George Washington’s troops camped on this land; it was the area’s most brutal winter in more than 100 years. According to historians, there were seven blizzards during December alone. While many of the soldiers initially slept in the snow, they eventually built 14-by-16-foot wooden huts, each of which housed a dozen men. Although the original huts are no longer standing, visitors can view replicas of the rustic lodges.
Other popular Jockey Hollow attractions include the historic Wick House, garden, and orchard. In the fall, winter, and early spring, visitors to the 1750 home of the Wick family are greeted by a park employee dressed in period costume as they enjoy a self-guided tour, warmed by a fire ablaze in the parlor hearth.
One of the best ways to enjoy the park is by walking the 6.5-mile Grand Loop. While the terrain is hilly, it is suitable for even novice hikers. You can follow the white trail markers or slip in and out of the Grand Loop without trekking the entire length.
Whether you choose the verdant lawn of the Wick House, the adjacent open field, or the grassy knoll near the soldier huts, there are many scenic spots to open your picnic basket at Jockey Hollow. If you prefer to grill hot food, you can’t go wrong with nearby Lewis Morris County Park, where outdoor cooking is allowed. Reservations and permits are required at Lewis Morris for groups of 25 people or more.
Hacklebarney State Park, Long Valley
With its combination of craggy and smooth trails, gushing mini-waterfalls, and the Black River waterfront, Hacklebarney State Park in Morris County has a wilder feel than Jockey Hollow. “The Barney,” as locals call it, is a 465-acre glacial valley filled with oak and hemlock trees. The trout-stocked river is a favorite of area fisherman, but be sure to have a state fishing permit before you drop a line in the water.
There are five miles of trails from which to choose, and they are marked in white, blue, and red. The white trail encircles the park and takes about an hour to walk. It is rocky at times, so it’s best to wear hiking boots or sturdy shoes. The blue and red gravel trails are less rigorous and a good choice for those with tender feet.
From the parking lot, you can take the blue trail down dozens of steps toward a stream-side picnic area with grills and tables. There are more than 100 picnic tables scattered throughout the park, available on a first-come, first-served basis. If you’d rather spread out a blanket and bring your own chairs, you’ll enjoy the grassy, open field near the park entrance. Because of the dramatic cut of the landscape and the large boulders that seem to have tumbled into place beside the dark, glistening river, it’s easy to forget you’re so close to home. The dense woodland trees offer a cool environment in almost any season. Even on the hottest and most humid summer days, Hacklebarney has a perpetual feeling of autumn.
South Mountain Reservation, Millburn/West Orange/Maplewood
South Mountain Reservation covers over 2,000 acres in central Essex County, extending through West Orange, Maplewood, and Millburn, and bordering South Orange. It has been preserved primarily in its wild state, and is nestled between the first and second ridges of the Watchung Mountain Range. Originally home to the Lenape Indians, the reservation has changed only slightly through the years.
The woodlands are thick with hardwood trees, and tall hemlocks tower above streams and ponds. The west branch of the Rahway River flows through the picturesque valley. Be sure to bring your camera because, deep in the woods, you’ll be delighted to find Hemlock Falls, a dramatic 25-foot waterfall.
The Crest Drive area is a picnicker’s paradise since it is closed to vehicles at the old deer paddock. Bring a basket full of goodies, and enjoy a leisurely walk down to Washington Rock, a bona fide Revolutionary War historic site. Washington Rock dates back to the late 1700s when it was home to Beacon Signal Station 9—one of 23 beacons built by General Washington to observe the movements of the British troops quartered on Staten Island and New York City.
At the turn of the century, the Essex County Park Commission organized the purchase of the land. Restoration of the forests included the replanting of rhododendron and mountain laurel groves in the 1910s, and the planting of red and white pine in the 1930s. The park has an extensive system of trails that wind along the Rahway River and the Watchung hilltops.
For a more complete listing of the state’s wonderful parks and woodlands, visit: