Delightful Duke

Smack in the middle of Somerset County, one of the state’s largest privately owned parcels of undeveloped land beckons guests to explore and learn.

After more than five years of planning and implementation, Duke Farms, the magnificent wildlife and nature preserve, opens to the public this month. Rest assured, no one will be disappointed. Located in Hillsborough, abutting the Raritan River, Duke Farms is nearly 3,000 acres of farmland, woodland and grassland. It’s  an abundance of riches—larger than New York City’s Central Park. The site has been for some 100 years largely off limits to the public. But now, following a massive renovation, the property—childhood home of the heiress Doris Duke—is about to become a center for recreation and education, as well as a model of environmental stewardship, welcoming visitors year-round.

The backstory is familiar: Doris Duke’s father, James Buchanan “Buck” Duke, a fabulously wealthy tobacco tycoon, died in 1924 when Doris was just 12, leaving her the vast majority of his $50 million estate. Dubbed “the world’s richest girl,” Doris spent much of her life trying to avoid the spotlight, dividing her time between several homes, including Duke Farms. Despite her jet-setting lifestyle, she took a keen interest in horticulture, wildlife and environmental conservation; in fact, one of her first philanthropic endeavors was to create a public display of the gardens at Duke Farms in 1958.

Despite two short-lived marriages, Doris never had children (although she famously adopted, then un-adopted, a grown woman in the 1980s). When Doris died in 1993, the Doris Duke Foundation was valued at $1.2 billion. After years of legal wrangling, the estate was settled and the Doris Duke Foundation developed the Duke Farms Foundation, which spearheaded the latest transformation of Duke Farms in tribute to Doris’s commitment to the environment.

There’s plenty to do at Duke Farms.  “We’re committed to educating and inspiring the public about the importance of maintaining our environment,” says program director Nora Wagner. The buzz phrase is “environmental stewardship,” and visitors are reminded of this wherever they turn.

Guests drive through the stone gates off Route 206 and park at the only parking lot, landscaped with rain-friendly plantings to avoid flooding. There, visitors will discover the Farm Barn; once a horse and dairy barn, it now houses the orientation center, classrooms and café. The orientation center has interactive touch screens, continuous-loop videos, property maps and a hydration station to fill water bottles. “It’s the best place to start your visit,” says Wagner. From there, walk, bike (bring your own or rent on the property), or guests with special mobility needs and parents with strollers can hop on the bio-fueled tram to explore the rest of the property. Cars are forbidden beyond the orientation center, and the entire property is carry in/carry out. The only trash receptacles are in the café, and there even the forks and plates are biodegradable. “We want to leave no footprint on the property,” says Wagner.

Visitors are encouraged to explore the property at their own pace. “There are 40 self-guided audio tours,” says Wagner. “You simply dial in on a regular cell phone.” Among the highlights are the original stone foundation for Buck Duke’s never-completed 80,000-square-foot mansion; the Coach Barn, originally a stable and carriage house; and the Orchid Range, a conservatory more than 100 years old, which houses some 1,500 orchids—Doris’s favorite flower. There are seven scenic waterfalls and literally thousands of native plants and trees. There is also a community garden with 400 plots, all of which adhere to organic-gardening principles.

Duke Farms is offering a number of programs meant to educate and inspire—everything from nature and recreational classes to professional-level continuing education. For instance, you can bring your own mountain bike and join a guided bird-watching expedition; take a self-guided hike through various wildlife habitats; sign up for a two-hour introduction to organic gardening; or explore the natural wetlands on foot. Professionals can take part in continuing-education courses, many offered in conjunction with the Rutgers University Environmental Steward program.

The best way to find out what’s happening at Duke Farms is to log onto its website, There, you’ll find daily visitor information, programs, schedules, directions and more.

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