You might not think of the Pine Barrens as a place for leaf-peeping, but we found the off-road biking trails in Wharton State Forest to be ablaze with color. Wharton is the largest state forest in New Jersey, encompassing about 115,000 acres roughly 20 miles northwest of Atlantic City.
The Wharton Forest Bicycle Trails start at the northeast corner of the parking lot at the Batsto Visitor Center (609-561-0024), near the historic village of Batsto (Route 542). All are single-track trails marked with colored circles on the trees. The Jersey Off Road Bicycle Association (JORBA) helps maintain the five trails of varying lengths. Wide-tire bikes designed for trails are essential. You’ll also want to carry drinking water and trail snacks.
The longest trail, marked with orange dots, is a remote, 19-mile ride suited for experienced riders. We chose the green-marked Fire Tower Trail, a six-mile, loopy, swoopy, fun ride. The surface is hard packed, with little loose sand and sometimes a root to be avoided. There are lots of twists on this tight trail. At its narrowest points, the forest engulfs you.
With little effort, you can rip through the pine flats—or take your time and gawk at the beauty. The blazing bushes are a patchwork of peach, pink, crimson and maroon. White toadstools push through the piney forest loam, and gentle winds shake pine needles onto your shoulders. It’s autumnal bliss.
Three other short trails range from under a mile to three miles. JORBA also leads night rides from the visitor center. Check their website for schedule.