Hike and Hang! These Scenic NJ Spots Have It All

Hit these hiking trails—then slow down, take a stroll and stop to smell the roses.

Illustration of hiker standing serenely, with a squirrel sitting on her backpack

Illustration: John R. Holmes

The thing I like best about hiking is stopping—or, more accurately, slowing down in a trail-adjacent spot that encourages less strenuous activities like strolling, taking in the sights or tossing a ball around. In the Garden State, there’s no better place for hikers seeking occasional respite than the Skylands area, the region that comprises much of northwestern New Jersey, and is home to Ringwood State Park and nearby Norvin Green State Forest. Each offers the opportunity to hit the trails and then press pause.

Streams, views and a hidden graveyard

Illustration of hiker holding walking stick and wearing waterproof boots while standing in scenic stream

Illustration: John R. Holmes

Ringwood State Park sprawls over more than 4,000 acres straddling the New York-New Jersey border, and many of its 18 blazed trails lead to spectacular vistas, including the glittering Wanaque Reservoir and the New York City skyline. The park also offers two extraordinary strolls, both of them anchored by large, historic houses.

One of my favorite hikes, known as the Manor Trail, begins and ends at the parking lot of Ringwood Manor, a rambling mansion built over the course of a century, from 1810 to 1910, and home, most famously, to the Cooper and Hewitt families. The approximately 3-mile, blue-blazed loop around the manor takes you past and across streams (waterproof footwear recommended) and offers views of a valley that was once home to several of the iron mines that flourished in the area in the 18th and 19th centuries. Before returning to the manor, you’ll pass Sally’s Pond, named for one of the Hewitt daughters. The reward for your exertions (and damp feet) will be a delightful ramble around the home and its environs.

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The manor itself is an impressive bit of architecture, but what I love best about Ringwood are its grounds, gardens and outbuildings, which look like they could use just a tiny bit of TLC, but are, in fact, all the more wonderful for their lack. An air of mystery permeates the site, as you wander past its scattered treasures, which include sphinxes, oversized urns, marble columns holding up nothing but air, and an almost-hidden graveyard whose stones are eroding into eternity.

Ponds, blooms and a balancing boulder

Another hike, also in Ringwood State Park, is longer and a little more challenging. The 5-mile, pink-on-white-blazed Five Ponds Loop, beginning and ending at Skylands Manor, leads you past the bodies of water for which the trail is named. No matter how many times you’ve hiked the loop, each of the ponds feels like a fresh discovery as it comes into view. Approaching Gatun Pond, look for the balancing rock, a large boulder that appears to defy gravity as it teeters atop a pile of smaller stones. The hike also affords two splendid views, one from the crest of Mt. Defiance (take a brief detour onto the Ringwood-Ramapo Trail to get there), the other overlooking the densely forested hills of Tranquility Ridge County Park.

When you’ve returned, stop and smell the flowers—literally. You’ll certainly want to gawk at Skylands Manor, the striking, Jacobean-style mansion built in the late 1920s for financier Clarence McKenzie Lewis. But once you’ve finished taking in its stained-glass windows and crenellated towers, make your way to Magnolia Walk, a broad, grassy path between two long rows of sweet bay magnolia trees, whose blooms fill the spring air with a heady fragrance.

The Walk is just one small section of the New Jersey Botanical Garden, where you can also stroll past azaleas, peonies, rhododendrons, a profusion of lilacs, a shady wildflower garden, and too many other blooms to list here.

Water, water everywhere

Illustration of swimmers in a natural pool

Illustration: John R. Holmes

About a mile’s drive from Ringwood State Park is Norvin Green State Forest, an undulating landscape of undisturbed woods and waterways whose 18 blazed trails range from rugged to moderately challenging. I like to hike the loop around the Highlands Natural Pool, which takes you along a brook, across a footbridge and past a quarry (no longer accessible to hikers). From the trail, you’ll get a good look at the pool itself, a man-made marvel carved out of the rocky hillside in the 1930s by a group of outdoors enthusiasts calling themselves the Nature Friends.

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On three sides, it’s a basic concrete swimming pool (albeit Olympic size and surrounded by dense forest), but on its far side, it butts up against rock and woods, where understory plants dip delicately into the water. The loop also connects you to other trails. For a short side trip, follow the Hewitt-Butler Trail to Wyanokie High Point, which offers a dramatic view of the Wanaque Reservoir.

Depending on the season and the weather, you can end your trek with a leisurely game of Frisbee or flag football on the large field adjacent to the New Weis Center for Education, Arts and Recreation or, if it’s swimming season, a dip in the bracing, spring-fed waters of the natural pool. If you opt for the latter, don’t be surprised if you find yourself doing laps with the odd frog or friendly water snake—there’s a reason natural is part of the name.

The field, just steps from the pool, is open year-round, but check the Weis Center’s website first to make sure there’s no event there that day. The pool is open weekends from Memorial Day weekend through June and during September and daily from the first weekend in July through Labor Day. Swimming is permitted only when lifeguards are on duty.

Leslie Garisto Pfaff is a self-avowed lazy hiker and a frequent contributor to New Jersey Monthly.

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