Visit NJ’s Often-Overlooked Bayshore Heritage Scenic Byway

New Jersey has no shortage of coastal attractions. But the sites along the Delaware Bay are often overlooked.

East Point Lighthouse
The East Point Lighthouse is a beautiful place to visit in Heislerville. Photo by Nancy Patterson

New Jersey has no shortage of coastal attractions. Destinations on the Delaware and Hudson rivers beckon leaf peepers every fall, as do the state’s many popular Shore towns. But the sites along the Delaware Bay are often overlooked.

That’s a shame, because Jersey’s southern counties are the setting for a wealth of historic villages and serene wetlands populated by migratory birds, crabs and other wildlife. This fall, get acquainted with a less-trafficked part of the state by following the Bayshore Heritage Scenic Byway. Traversing Salem, Cumberland and Cape May counties, the drive follows state highways, county routes and local roads. In total, it’s 122 miles if you drive the main spine, but increases to 142 miles if you take the spurs that lead to parks, beaches and lighthouses.

You can drive this route in either direction, but we chose to head south from Mannington Township and end in Cape May. Starting early in the day at milepost 1.53 on Route 540, we followed the Bayshore Heritage Byway signs—featuring a seagull with a fish in its claws. Heading toward Salem, we soon came upon our first spur to Fort Mott State Park in Pennsville.

[RELATED: The Best Fall Day Trips in New Jersey]

Constructed following the Civil War as part of a three-fort coastal defense system for the Delaware River, the fort was considered obsolete by the end of World War I. Today, visitors can wander through the old artillery batteries and along the still standing defense walls on self-guided walking tours.

Back in the car, we followed signs to the main route, crossing the Salem River and driving along a tributary until we reached the point where it flows into the Delaware. Our next stop was the Hancock House in Hancock’s Bridge. Built in 1734, the house features a unique herringbone brick pattern and was the scene of a British-led massacre during the Revolutionary War. Since 1932, it’s been home to a free museum, where you can learn about the family that occupied it for generations.

On the road again, we passed through towns with names like Harmersville, Gum Tree Corner and Othello on the way to the next spur toward Greenwich. On the banks of the Delaware Bay, the Bayside Tract Viewing Area offered some of the most beautiful views of the trip. Once a thriving commercial fishing village that supplied caviar to the world, Bayside is now part of a privately funded wetlands preservation program. Bald-eagle-sightings are frequent here.

After our waterfront detour, we set out for Bridgeton, the seat of Cumberland County. If you’re doing the scenic drive with children, plan to visit Cohanzick Zoo. Free and family friendly, the zoo—New Jersey’s first—is home to about 100 animals representing more than 45 species. For our Bridgeton experience, we opted instead to browse the massive collection of statuary, home furnishings and unique lawn ornaments at Jantiques, an antiques shop dating to 1933.

Continuing south, we drove 25 minutes to Fortescue Beach, once the self-proclaimed weakfish capital of the world. This bayshore destination attracted hosts of fisherman in the ’70s and ’80s, but by the 1990s, the fish population had plummeted. While tiny, the beach is a nice place to stroll and search for sea glass. While in Fortescue, we stopped for a late-afternoon bite at the waterfront Charlesworth Hotel & Restaurant (check their website for open hours).

Back on a winding country road, we passed through miles of marshland on the way to the Bayshore Center at Bivalve, home port to the A.J. Meerwald, a restored 1928 oyster-dredging schooner and New Jersey’s official tall ship. At the Delaware Bay Museum, we learned about New Jersey’s maritime history and its oystering heyday in the 1920s. Then we got a taste of true Jersey merroir (a term used to describe an oyster’s terroir) while sampling local oysters at the Oyster Cracker Café. We happily slurped down a dozen.

The East Point Lighthouse was built in 1849. Photo by Nancy Patterson

Our next stop was the East Point Lighthouse in Heislerville. Constructed in 1849, the red-roofed lighthouse is equal parts picturesque and historic. Its light was reactivated in 1980 and has been on ever since. The fully furnished museum is also open year-round for tours and special events.

By this point, we were eager to reach our final destination. The Garden State Parkway looked tempting, but we stayed on track, following Route 47 as it curved around the bayshore to the southernmost tip of New Jersey. Before we came upon the Cape May Airport, we veered off onto Bay Shore Road/Route 603, driving past the off-the-beaten-path bayside beaches of Cape May County.

Here, your options abound. If you arrive early enough, you can experience what living in a South Jersey village was like in the early 19th century at the living-history museum in Historic Cold Spring Village. You might want to try some bird-watching at Cape May Point State Park.

Or, if you have a designated driver, you could do what we did, and have a refreshing cocktail at the farm distillery, Nauti Spirits. It’s a fitting end to a day on the long and winding roads of South Jersey. 

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