Drive these rolling hills, and you’ll find it hard to believe that New Jersey is the most densely populated state in the nation. While it’s true that more than 800,000 people live in Somerset and Morris counties—located smack in the center of populous North Jersey—to cruise their bucolic byways in the fall is to luxuriate in plowed fields, horse farms, historic towns and an unparalleled display of blazing foliage.
Start your drive where Route 512 meets Route 525 in the Somerset town of Liberty Corner. The spot is easily reached from I-287 (exit 26) or I-78 (exit 33). From the intersection of 512 and 525, travel north on 525 and consider stopping at a roadside stand for apple donuts and hot cider.
For a rewarding detour, turn right onto Route 640 East toward Basking Ridge to visit Lord Stirling Park, the 950-acre former home of Revolutionary War Major-General William Alexander. The park now houses the Somerset County Environmental Education Center (190 Lord Stirling), where you will find visitor education services, a gift shop and the starting point of numerous hiking trails. It’s also the site of the Lord Stirling Stable, with its 10 miles of dedicated horseback-riding trails.
Returning to Route 525, continue north to Bernardsville, one of the loveliest towns in the area. Its quaint downtown presents two blocks of gift shops, women’s boutiques, pizzerias, coffee shops, art studios and the Bernards Inn (27 Mine Brook Road), a culinary gem featuring fresh and seasonal fare by executive chef Corey Heyer. Linger here for breakfast, lunch or Sunday brunch, or continue north on 525, turning left on Route 510 (which coincides here with Route 124). This will bring you to the Morris County borough of Mendham, hometown of Governor Chris Christie. Mendham has its own darling downtown, with a deli, garden shop, jewelry stores, boutiques and the Black Horse Tavern & Pub (1 West Main Street), a local hotspot that offers casual dining in one area and fine dining in another.
Leaving Mendham, drive west on 510 toward Chester, a prime destination for browsing antiques and boutiques. You might want to make time for that favorite fall activity, pumpkin and apple picking. Chester boasts two of New Jersey’s most popular you-pick destinations: Riamede Farm (122 Oakdale Road), just east of town; and Alstede Farms (1 Chesterfield Drive), just west. Riamede Farm, where 35 acres of apple trees bear 34 varieties of the signature fall fruit, prides itself on being a quiet, old-time orchard. Got the kids in tow? At Alstede, young ones scamper about, enjoying a corn maze, petting zoo and ice cream parlor. (For Riamede, continue straight at the traffic light at Main Street, where 510 becomes Oakdale Road. For Alstede, turn left at that light onto Main Street and continue through Chester’s historic downtown.)
Before entering Chester, watch for the Chester Antique Mall, with its more than 30 vendors. In town, be sure to visit Sally Lunn’s Restaurant & Tea Room (15 Perry Street). Tucked away in a parking lot off Main Street, this Victorian parlor stocks more than 50 kinds of loose tea and foods imported from England—specialties like lamb and beef pasties and cottage pie. But it’s the house-made scones, baked from a purportedly secret recipe, that keep people coming back.
Just west of downtown Chester, travel back in time at the Cooper Gristmill (66 Washington Turnpike), the state’s only restored water-powered mill. Built in 1826 along the Black River, which drives its external water wheel, the mill helped feed the area during the industrial revolution. Until November, when it closes for the winter, you can take a 45-minute guided tour and watch staff in 19th-century garb grind grain into flour with the mill’s two sets of 2,000-pound millstones. (Alstede Farms is located just west of the mill.)
Continuing west on 513 (East Mill Road), you reach Long Valley, home of the Long Valley Pub & Brewery (1 Fairmount Road), located in a restored 200-year-old barn. The brewery has won nine medals for its beers and ales since 1999. Don’t miss the seasonal pumpkin ale, made each fall from locally grown pumpkins. You can also pick up a growler to take home.
From Long Valley, head south on Route 517 to Valley Shepherd Creamery (50 Fairmount Road). The 120-acre Morris County farm—run by cheese-maker Eran Wajswol, a former real-estate developer trained as an engineer—is a living workshop on sheep management and cheese-making. Take a cheese-making class or the Fall Harvest Tour, which includes a hayride, sheep-milking demonstration and a visit to the cheese-aging cave. You can purchase the creamery’s award-winning cheeses at its Sheep Shoppe and enjoy a picnic lunch on the farm porch.
In Fairmount, turn left on Route 512, heading east toward Hacklebarney State Park, a popular fishing spot in the fall, when the Black River is stocked with brown, brook and rainbow trout. The park is also great for hiking; the views from the trails in the northern portion of the 465-acre park are breathtaking.
Returning to Route 512, head east for Natirar, a Somerset County park in Peapack-Gladstone capped by the hilltop restaurant Ninety Acres (2 Main Street), one of New Jersey Monthly’s Top 25 restaurants in the state. In the park, you’ll find trails for walking, biking and horseback riding.
To close the loop, drive east from Natirar on 512. The scenic Somerset County towns of Far Hills and Bedminster will give you one last blast of fall foliage to brighten your way back to Liberty Corner.
Ashley J. Cerasaro is a former associate editor of New Jersey Monthly.Click here to leave a comment