New Jersey’s Best Biking Trails: A Passionate Cyclist Shares His Secrets

Forget the Turnpike! Biking is a terrific way to explore New Jersey.

Biker on a site off the Columbia Trail, coming out of High Bridge, New Jersey
A site off the Columbia Trail, coming out of High Bridge. Photo: Courtesy of Tom Vanderbilt

Before I ever lived in New Jersey, I was riding bikes in New Jersey.

Back when I was living in Brooklyn, I would often find myself on weekends at my in-laws’ house in Sparta’s Lake Mohawk community. As a keen cyclist, I soon discovered that Sussex County, once you got away from routes 15 and 206, was surprisingly ideal for riding. Whizzing past knee-high corn; stopping for an egg sandwich at the quaint little country store in Tranquility; riding down quiet roads with names like Shades of Death (which, eerily, would take you to Ghost Lake); rolling past ponds and fields on the crunchy gravel of the Sussex Branch Trail—I sometimes felt like I could have been in Vermont.

Early on, in 2015, a local rider named Connor Sokol pinged me on Strava, the running and cycling app. We chatted briefly, and, on the principle that it’s always better to ride in a group, we started heading out together. Much to my surprise, he was in high school (I am his father’s age—well, even a bit older). But he seemed wiser than his years, and he knew a lot about bikes—and the local landscape. My secret training base, as I jokingly called it, kept getting bigger as we occasionally banged out 100-mile rides up into the Delaware Water Gap and over the toll bridge (cyclists cross free) into Pennsylvania.

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Fast-forward nearly a decade, and I’m sitting over a steaming bowl at Cranky Noodles, a little ramen shop housed within Gears n’ Grinds, a bike shop in Sparta founded three years ago by none other than Connor Sokol. “From the beginning, I wanted to do more than a bike shop,” he tells me at the mechanic’s stand, clad in an apron and holding a wrench. “I wanted to create a community hub.”

So he partnered with chef Andre de Waal (who helms Andre’s Lakeside in Sparta) on what was at first going to just be a pop-up, but evolved into a permanent fixture. Sokol gets a flow of locals who come in to kibbitz over bikes and coffee, but also sees customers from the downhill bike park at Mountain Creek—“like a guy from South Jersey who drove all the way up, and he’s on his third run of the day on a $65 lift pass, and he destroys his rear wheel.” As Sokol notes, “We got him sorted and saved his day.”

My own life has come full circle, in its own way, and now that I’m a resident of New Jersey, my conviction has only deepened that the Garden State, despite its famous density—and all the cliches about turnpikes and traffic—can be an incredible place to ride a bike. Sure, there are monster highways lined with Jersey barriers and seemingly endless permutations of nails, bagel and tanning outposts. But there are also quiet, family-friendly trails that run for miles along quaint rivers; Belgian-style races (the Hell of Hunterdon) on little-traveled back roads; dewy hilltop meadows where you might come across a black bear; even epic single-track mountain biking in a defunct 1970s wildlife theme park known as Jungle Habitat. As someone who is down for pretty much anything on two wheels—I’ve even ridden a “Sno-Go bike” at American Dream’s Big Snow—I can confidently say that New Jersey provides choices.

Bikers on a trail through Bedminster, New Jersey

A trail through Bedminster. Photo: Courtesy of Tom Vanderbilt

Curiously, when I moved to Madison in 2021, I didn’t have cycling on my mind at all—we picked the town mostly because we knew it a bit, my wife having gone to high school in nearby Chatham in the 1980s. But fate seemed to intervene. A few months before we arrived, I met, via a mutual friend in Vermont, a local resident named Paul Rosica who, as it turned out, had a cycling club that met almost every day at 6 am in the parking lot of a local Starbucks for a prework (and often predawn) ride.

It didn’t take me long to become fully ensconced. Now, most mornings, we typically roll through the Great Swamp or Jockey Hollow, sometimes competing for sprints. On weekends, there are longer jaunts, over thickly wooded hills and through rolling horse country, to places like CocoLuxe Fine Pastries in Peapack-Gladstone, Bex in Califon, Chez Alice in Princeton, or King’s Gambit in Belvidere (good coffee and pastries, in my opinion, are as essential to cycling as wheels and brakes). Weather permitting—and New Jersey winters are statistically getting milder—we ride in all four seasons.

Cycling, of course, is about more than scenery or exercise; it’s about community. One of the benefits of living in the country’s most densely populated state is the opportunity to meet and ride with many other cyclists. Madison, like many towns, has its local bike shop (Hilltop Bicycles, 973-822-2453) and a shop ride.

Murat Koksel, a native of Turkey who works in the maritime industry and has lived in Madison for ten years—and who will do 100-mile ultra runs for either fun, punishment, or some combination of the two—leads the Saturday expedition, sending out a route (often named for a Pink Floyd or Metallica song) the night before. He has become so attached to these rituals that, a few years ago, when he received a few job offers that would have taken him out of the country, he eventually turned them down.

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“I thought about what really makes me happy and what I look forward to every day,” he tells me. “I thought about these roads and the friends I’ve made—I wasn’t ready to give that up for another place.”

It’s not just road cycling, of course. I routinely take my daughter, who doesn’t feel entirely comfortable riding next to the occasional car (or maybe it’s me who feels uncomfortable), for a ride on one of the state’s many rail trails. Owing to its industrial heritage (and, again, its density), the state is blessed, according to the Rails to Trails Conservancy, with more than 50 trails, covering some 326 miles (with more on the way), converted from former train lines. These trails, apart from being scenic—and flat—places to ride, are historically significant, from the Sussex Branch, on which mule-drawn trains hauled iron ore, to the Delaware and Raritan Canal, once a vital 19th-century conduit for transporting goods from New York City to Philadelphia. At more than 70 miles, it’s one of the country’s longest rail trails.

When we want something more challenging, we head even farther off-road, taking advantage of the state’s impressive array of mountain biking trails. Tom Hennigan, CEO of the Jersey Off-Road Bike Association, notes that, while the state doesn’t have a single concentration of professionally built mountain biking infrastructure like such hotspots as Vermont’s Kingdom Trails or Bentonville, Arkansas, he thinks the state is getting closer to becoming a destination.

Hennigan says, “When people start thinking, Should I drive six hours up to Kingdom Trails or bop on over to Jersey?, we want to get to the point where people say, ‘It’s not worth the drive when I could ride here.’” Trail riding, particularly in North Jersey—in spots like Wawayanda, Ringwood or Allamuchy—tends toward the steep, rooty and rocky, and is often not for the fainthearted.

“It’s either talus or till,” Hennigan says, referring to rocks that have broken off of hillsides or been dumped by glaciers.

Moving south, the trails become sandier, more sinuous—a personal favorite is Franklin Township’s Six Mile Run, which, while mildly challenging in sections, is more beginner friendly.

Not all is perfect, of course. The League of American Bicyclists ranked the state 16th out of 50 in its annual Bicycle Friendly State chart in 2022 (dropping a bit from the year before), noting that “New Jersey has a bicycle fatality rate worse than the national average” and that the state “spends a very low amount of federal funding on biking and walking per capita.”

There are signs of improvement, however. Jersey City, for example, reached its Vision Zero goal of having no traffic fatalities in 2022, even as it saw a rise in cycling thanks to new infrastructure—like 20 miles of new, protected bike lanes—and expansion in the CitiBike system. (In what’s often called a “safety-in-numbers effect,” cycling tends to get safer when more people are cycling).

On the horizon are projects like LINK, a 34-mile, multiuse trail that will connect 17 communities in Camden County; and the nine-mile Essex-Hudson Greenway—New Jersey’s version of Manhattan’s High Line—which, when completed, will allow cyclists to travel easily and safely from Montclair to Jersey City.

Whether you’re imagining you’re in the Tour de France as you climb to High Point, the state’s most elevated peak, or taking a sunset ride on a beach cruiser at the Jersey Shore, two wheels can take you to places you’ve never been in the Garden State.

Tom Vanderbilt is the author, most recently, of Beginners: The Joy and Transformative Power of Lifelong Learning. He lives in Madison.

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