It may be a secret to some, but county parks offer more than baseball fields, tennis courts and picnic groves. They also feature hundreds of miles of hiking and walking trails, abandoned villages, historic sites, riding stables, and acres of lakes and rivers for canoeing and kayaking.
Last year, an estimated 300 county parks hosted almost twice the 16.5 million visitors to New Jersey’s 45 state parks and forests. We’ve picked a baker’s dozen of our favorite county parks for fall-foliage hikes and walks.
Here are our fall picks, arranged roughly north to south:
Campgaw Mountain Reservation, Mahwah (Bergen County)
This 1,383-acre park offers 11 miles of woodsy hiking trails, from reasonably level to somewhat steep, especially alongside the ski area. The park includes a disc golf course, with some holes atop the ski hill. For an easy walk, choose the orange trail. It has its own parking lot and covers a less than one mile circuit around a pond. 201-327-3500
Garret Mountain Reservation, Woodland Park (Passaic County)
There are eight miles of marked and unmarked trails in this sometimes steep 568-acre park. The yellow-blazed trail is a 3.5-mile circuit featuring a steep descent to scenic Barbour’s Pond, followed by a steep mountaintop climb for sweeping views of the Manhattan skyline. At the start of the trail near the Observation Tower, you can also take the Morris Canal Greenway detour to Lambert Castle, an 1892 mansion, once the home of a Paterson silk-mill owner, now a museum.
South Mountain Reservation, Essex County
The most diverse county park in the state has more than 19 miles of trails, as well as South Mountain Recreation Complex, which includes the Turtle Back Zoo, the Regatta Playground, a boathouse and restaurant on the Orange Reservoir. The easy, mile-long segment of the lengthier Lenape Trail (yellow blazes) from the Tulip Springs parking lot to Hemlock Falls is a popular hike. The Bramhill Terrace area off of Crest Drive offers dramatic views of Manhattan.
Frelinghuysen Arboretum, Morris Township (Morris County)
Mixed hardwoods, pine trees and themed gardens surround a large, white, 1891 Colonial Revival mansion in this carefully maintained suburban oasis. Markers identifying trees add to the enjoyment of the three miles of blazed hiking trails, some paved. Trails vary from flat to rather steep. A specialty braille trail accommodates blind visitors. 973-326-7601
Historic Speedwell, Morristown (Morris County)
The 8-acre park offers gentle walks among three historic 18th-century buildings on the former estate and factory of Stephen Vail, whose Speedwell Iron Works developed the first steam engine for an oceangoing ship. Vail’s son Alfred financed and helped design Samuel Morse’s telegraph, which was initially demonstrated January 6, 1838, in one of the restored buildings. The park is an entry point for the Patriots’ Path, a 55-mile-hiking trail that wends its way through Morris County.
Watchung Reservation, Mountainside & Berkeley Heights (Union County)
Begin your visit to this sprawling, 2,142-acre park at Feltsville, an abandoned 19th-century industrial village. One unusual building is part church, part general store. Some of the hiking and equestrian trails here are somewhat overgrown and poorly marked. Try the History Trail, a six-mile loop of easy-to-moderate grades.
908-789-3670; Feltsville, 908-555-2550
Washington Valley Park, Bridgewater Township (Somerset County)
This 718-acre park features seven miles of hiking trails accessed from two points, each offering different terrain. Miller Road car park (off Vosseller Avenue) is the starting point for a short hike to the popular hawk-viewing platform, especially during October’s migration. From there the trail turns steep and rocky, continuing down for 1,000 feet to a dam and Buttermilk Falls. From Newman’s Lane parking lot (off Washington Valley Road), Middle Brook Trail spins a mile-long loop around Washington Valley Reservoir.
Johnson Park, Piscataway (Middlesex County)
This 473-acre park bordering the Raritan River has something for everyone. Level, paved trails are ideal for older walkers, while the more energetic can opt for the exercise trail with nine workout stations. The park has ball fields, picnic groves, and a small zoo featuring farm animals and local wildlife. The park also contains East Jersey Old Town, a collection of 14 buildings from the 18th and early 19th centuries, either originals or restorations, including New Brunswick’s famous Colonial-era Queens Tavern.
Howell Living History Farm, Titusville (Mercer County)
In a peaceful valley, 130-acre Howell Farm, continuously operated for more than 200 years, offers easy walks from the visitor center to its farmhouse, barns and other outbuildings. You’ll see early-20th-century farm machinery and pastures with draft horses, cows and sheep grazing. About a mile away, the 4-acre corn maze, open late summer through fall, has two miles of paths. Hay rides at both sites and a picnic area near the visitor center make this an ideal family destination. Closed Monday. (Call 609-397-2555 for information on hours and admission price for the corn maze.)
Thompson Park, Lincroft (Monmouth County)
Thompson Park’s 667 acres and adjoining Brookdale Community College are carved out of Brookdale Farm, a racing stable dating to the 19th century. The farm’s old mansion serves as the visitor center. The park has 14 miles of mixed-use trails; most popular are the 4.2 paved miles of the Thompson Loop Trail, accessible from the Old Orchard parking lot. The unpaved Reservoir Trail, off Thompson Loop, is a moderately difficult 4.6-mile circuit that skirts the blue waters of Marlu Lake and the picturesque Swimming River Reservoir.
Wells Mills County Park, Waretown (Ocean County)
A large freshwater lake, bogs, stands of Atlantic White Cedar, a mixed-oak forest and plenty of pines are integral parts of this Pinelands retreat. The park has more than 16 miles of sandy hiking trails; the most popular is the 8.4-mile, white-blazed Macri Trail (white blazes). All trails are relatively easy. The park also offers disc golf and braille trail markings.
Historic Smithville, Eastampton (Burlington County)
The 312-acre historical park, incorporating a restored industrial village, has 4.5 miles of nearly level hiking trails. The 1.1-mile green trail, starting at the factory ruins, crosses Smithville Lake on a pontoon-style bridge, offering the unique feeling of walking on water; it ends at a parking lot on East Railroad Avenue. From there, you can circle back on the red trail through Smith Woods, another 1.5 miles. The village portion of the park features the 19th-century Smith family mansion (now an art museum), as well as gardens, outbuildings and factory ruins. 609-265-5858
Estell Manor, Mays Landing (Atlantic County)
In pine and mixed-oak forest, amid slow-moving rivers, the broad, sweeping curves of 27 miles of trails follow the old Bethlehem Loading Company’s railroad beds. The Swamp Trail (aka Boardwalk Trail) begins behind the Nature Center and runs 1.8 miles to Artesian Well, crossing a cedar swamp and passing the concrete remnants of the World War I munitions plant that once stood here. Hikers can make a 3.2-mile circuit by continuing on the road from Artesian Well and turning left onto North End Trail, just before the highway.