It was a little after 10 pm when I lost track of where I was.
Sitting beside a roaring fire at the Mullica River Wilderness Camp, my friend and photography partner Matt and I polished off a bag of freeze-dried ice cream and reclined in our chairs to the symphony of whip-poor-wills and tree frogs erupting around us. An early summer moon hung large and luminous over Wharton State Forest, casting faint shimmers on the river just a few feet from our secluded site. The woods beyond were shrouded in darkness.
Matt and I grew increasingly silent and introspective as the rhythmic patter of the forest grew louder. Minutes passed; the world slipped away. Suddenly, it struck me. “Whoa,” I said to Matt. “I just forgot where we were for a second.”
Over the past decade, I’ve traveled the country and camped in some of the most isolated environments imaginable, including the Alaska wilderness. And yet here I was, only a half-day’s hike into the Pine Barrens, and suddenly feeling as remote from civilization as I’d ever been. That’s what hiking the Mullica River Trail will do to you.
The trail is modest in length. Stretching 9.5 miles between the historic Burlington County villages of Atsion and Batsto, the hike is easy enough for beginners and stimulating enough for backpacking veterans. (Be forewarned: There are no facilities along the trail.) The terrain is level, the yellow blazes are bright, and the trek can easily be completed in a single day. But if you allow yourself the luxury of an overnight stay, the seclusion will astound you.
“It’s amazing how such a relatively short trail can make you feel so far away from everything,” says Mike McCormick, a seasoned backpacker and publisher of SouthJerseyTrails.org, a blog cataloging the more than 100 hikes McCormick has taken through the southern tier of the Garden State. “This was the trail I took my 3-year-old son on for his first overnight adventure. And it was perfect.”
We chose a northbound hike, starting around 1 pm at the southern entrance to the trail, about a half-mile west of Batsto Lake. There’s plenty of parking at the Batsto Village visitors’ center (31 Batsto Road, Hammonton). It was a gorgeous and breezy summer afternoon. For Matt and me, the air was buzzing with the excitement that always comes from carrying our lives on our backs, if only for 24 hours.
Less than a quarter mile into the hike, we made our first detour onto an orange-blazed loop off the main trail. This offshoot hugs the Mullica River for a few hundred yards. Our feet got a little wet in certain spots, but it was worth it to walk along the sandy banks.
The next four miles to the primitive campsite were vintage Pine Barrens. Wide, sandy stretches of trail provided gorgeous views of the river or meandered close to the occasional cedar swamps. Along the way, we got an eyeful of the area’s diverse plant life, including the bog asphodel, myriad orchid species, swamp azaleas, prickly pears, wild magnolias and the curly-grass fern, which was discovered in the Pine Barrens and grows almost nowhere else on Earth.
And while we didn’t see any wildlife beyond the occasional squirrel, it’s not uncommon on the trail to spot some white-tailed deer or an elusive gray fox. The only signs of human life came when we encountered a group of teenagers blasting country music from a pickup truck and jumping into the river off of Constable Bridge.
“North Jersey typically gets all the attention because it has mountains and breathtaking ridges and a stretch of Appalachian Trail,” says McCormick. “The Pine Barrens is a more subtle experience. An acquired taste, if you will. But once you get out there and start looking around, it’s gorgeous. A trail like the Mullica just sucks you in.”
Our first day of hiking went faster than expected. Matt and I arrived at the wilderness camp just after 3 pm. The camp has 10 primitive sites (potable pump water is the only amenity); we were pleased to have the place all to ourselves. The sun was still warm and high, so we quickly set up our tent on the elevated banks of the river and took a dip in the Mullica’s chilly, tea-colored waters.
Fires are permitted at the camp, but you have to either pack in your wood or use whatever fallen trees you can scavenge. Armed with two hatchets, we each set out to find fuel. There were plenty of downed trees to choose from, although hacking them into manageable lengths proved formidable.
The Mullica River Wilderness Camp is exceptional. The camp is spacious and well maintained and provides an unparalleled opportunity to simply sit in the cathedral of the state forest while the sun sinks behind the pines. As I discovered, you can easily lose yourself here—in a good way.
“People don’t believe me when I tell them how quiet it gets out there,” says McCormick. “You’re far enough away from any roads or civilization that you don’t hear anything all night except the whip-poor-wills.”
Starting early the next day, Matt and I hiked the remaining 5.5 miles north to Atsion in a little over three hours, taking our time to rest and soak up the morning peace. About one mile north of the campsite, we came upon a connector trail linking the Mullica to the Batona Trail. Rather than keep following the yellow blazes, we forked left and walked Mullica River Road, which closely hugs the river for about two miles before linking back to the trail proper. The park ranger who sold us our camping permit ($11) recommended this detour, and while it added a bit of time to our journey, it was worth it to stay close to the water.
Another 2.7 miles took us to the Atsion visitor’s center (721 U.S. 206, Shamong), where we had parked one of our cars the day before. Our hike was over before lunch, and even though we yearned for just a little more time in nature, we were nonetheless struck by the Mullica’s perfect combination of ease and isolation. Whether you’re an experienced hiker or someone who’s never hauled anything heavier than a schoolbag, this trail could be the perfect jaunt.
Nick DiUlio is NJM’s South Jersey bureau chief.Click here to leave a comment