A bald eagle swoops silently through the trees. Frozen waterfalls glisten in the sun. Tiny animal tracks dot the pristine snow. These are some of the sights that reward wintertime visitors to Duke Farms, the 2,742-acre nature preserve in Hillsborough in the heart of Central Jersey.
Since reopening to the public in May 2012, Duke Farms has attracted more than 1 million visitors, including 600,000 this year alone. Most come in the warm months to stroll or bicycle amid the historic buildings, dozens of statues, open fields, woodland and water features of the property, once the home of the late heiress Doris Duke.
But far fewer visit in winter, when the preserve shows a different side. Those who do might spot a red fox or a rare river otter—if they are lucky. Birds are abundant. During last year’s one-day Christmas bird count, birders tallied 91 species, including 11 kinds of ducks and 16 kinds of raptors. Several bald eagles and great horned owls were sighted, as well as the charismatic short-eared owls that frequent the property’s far-flung meadows.
“What I like best about Duke Farms in the winter is the peace and serenity,” says Duke Farms executive director Michael Catania.
Parts of the property have been open to the public over the years, but it wasn’t until six years ago that the entire preserve was reinvented as an outdoor destination under the direction of the Duke Farms Foundation.
The park is open to the public daily (except Wednesdays, Thanksgiving and Christmas) throughout the year; winter hours through March 31 are 8:30 am to 4:30 pm. Admission is free. Family-oriented wintertime activities include a nature walk on December 6 and a maple-sugaring festival on February 28 and March 1. The latter features visits to some of the property’s sugar maples, tapping the trees and boiling down the sap in a wood-fired evaporator to make maple syrup.
But you don’t need a special event to enjoy Duke Farms in the colder months. All sorts of paths beckon to be explored on foot, cross-country skis or snowshoes. “The scenic views of the property are spectacular after the leaves have fallen,” says Catania, “and the ice formations on the waterfalls are awesome.”
The best place to begin is the orientation center just off Route 206. Here you can get your bearings (and a map of the property) and even grab a hot cocoa or a bite at the Farm Barn Café, which offers organic and locally produced fare.
The orientation center comprises the first floor of the 22,000-square-foot Farm Barn and typifies the foundation’s commitment to environmental sustainability. The stone building, which dates to 1906, has been renovated to LEED-platinum standards, the highest rating from the U.S. Green Building Council.
From the orientation center, visitors can head out on the property’s 18 miles of paths through the mostly level terrain. It’s especially dramatic when nature wraps the preserve in a fresh coat of white.
“Cross-country skiing and snowshoeing give visitors a whole new way to enjoy the property after a snowfall,” says Catania. One of the most enjoyable activities is identifying animal tracks in the fresh snow.
The best place to go exploring is a 640-acre swath of open space, known as the park, that’s fenced in to keep out the white-tailed deer that once overran the site and devoured the native plants. You can enter this sanctuary through a gate across the road from the orientation center. Several miles of path run through this section of the property, passing ponds, classic statues and the spectacular Orchid Range, the huge, glass-enclosed conservatory where Doris Duke once created elaborate botanical displays.
Seeing a hawk or eagle in winter is not that uncommon, especially if you join one of the preserve’s two-hour, early-morning Up With the Birds walks. The fee is $5.
“We get everybody, from people who have bird-watched all their lives to people who have never bird-watched before,” says birding guide Bruce McWhorter Jr. “It’s a very laid-back atmosphere, not rushing around to see as many species as we can. We make it a more educational and rewarding experience.” (You can also get a dramatic online view of avian life in the park.)
When it’s time to come in from the cold, visitors have two excellent options: the orientation center or the Orchid Range, which these days is dedicated to Duke’s favorite flower, the orchid.
“We have a couple of hundred species of orchids in there, with thousands of flowers and buds,” says Nora Wagner, Duke Farms’ director of strategic planning and programs. “It’s so nice because it’s such a sensory experience, with so many different smells and colors. The plants are even different textures.”
Like the orientation center, the Orchid Range is LEED-platinum-certified, the only such greenhouse in the entire country.
It’s all part of Doris Duke’s legacy and Duke Farms’ mission: to serve as a model of environmental stewardship and sustainability.
For more information, directions and a schedule of events, go to the Duke Farms website.
Click here to read about a family of eagles on the Duke Farms property.
Jim Wright writes “The Bird Watcher” column for the Record. He is the author of coffee-table books about the Meadowlands and Allendale’s Celery Farm Natural Area.