The South Mountain Reservation Fairy Trail Is a Magical Place to Visit

The enchanting half-mile trail, dotted with dozens of tiny homes made from items found outside, sparks a reverence for nature among visitors of all ages.

Tiny houses on the South Mountain Reservation Fairy Trail in Millburn
At the South Mountain Reservation Fairy Trail, 80 tiny houses dot a 1.5-mile path. Photo: Bryan Anselm

Just steps away from the bustle and charm of downtown Millburn lies an unexpected and magical world, where tiny houses, some decorated with shells or rocks, others covered in moss or acorns, dot the South Mountain Reservation Fairy Trail and, if you believe in the lore, provide a haven for the fairies who live there. But for the New Jerseyans who care for the trail and the visitors who frequent it, the area is much more than a fairy tale come to life. It’s a place that inspires curiosity, awe and, in the case of the littlest visitors, the start of an important relationship with the natural world around us.

“If I go down the trail, I tend to talk to the kids and just ask them, ‘Have you seen any fairies?’ says Beth Kelly, co-coordinator of the Fairy Trail. “And we try to bring them into, ‘Did you see the sun? Did you see the clouds? Did you see any wildlife?’ We try to bring them into nature because they’re so enthralled with the whole piece of the fairies.”

The half-mile trail, which is part of Essex County’s expansive, 2,000-plus-acre South Mountain Reservation, is an enchanting place to visit. It inspires squeals from visitors of all ages when they discover the next tiny marvel along the path.

A fairy house along the South Mountain Fairy Trail

The homes on the Fairy Trail are made entirely from items that can be found on the forest floor or in someone’s backyard. Photo: Bryan Anselm

Although it can feel like the homes appeared on the trail by magic, that’s certainly not the case. More than a decade ago, the structures began mysteriously popping up along what is now known as the Fairy Trail, a half-mile portion of the Rahway Trail, starting at the Locust Grove picnic area. They turned out to be the work of local special education teacher and artist Therese Ojibway, a lifelong fan of fairy tales who spent a lot of time at the South Mountain Reservation when her own son was a child.

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Ojibway moved out of state in 2022, so the South Mountain Conservancy, a nonprofit that works to preserve, protect and advocate for the South Mountain Reservation, brought in two trail coordinators, local school administrator Beth Kelly and business owner Julie Gould, so that the magic could continue.

A fairy house along the South Mountain Fairy Trail

The tiny houses are meant to blend in with their environment and avoid detection from predators. Photo: Bryan Anselm

A handful of Ojibway’s original houses still stand, but Kelly, Gould and, on occasion, members of the community, build new houses to replace ones that have been destroyed by vandals or damaged. Last year, the trail lost 20 structures. “We call them ‘trolls’ that come by every once in a while,” says Gould. “It’s unfortunate.”

New Jersey Monthly's April 2024 cover

Buy our April 2024 issue here. Cover photo: Bryan Anselm

Today, 80 houses stand along the trail. The goal is to reach 100.

The attention to detail on the homes is exquisite—from tiny shutters made of acorns and twigs, to teensy doors that really open, to minuscule beds, chairs, tables and even cereal bowls constructed from items that can be found on the forest floor or in someone’s backyard.

Only natural materials are used so that the houses enhance rather than hinder the experience in nature. They include scavenged acorns, pine cones, dried reeds and grasses, seashells, dried flowers, natural vines, and tree bark. Visitors may also notice that the houses don’t have bright colors or flashy details; they are meant to blend in with their environment and avoid detection from predators.

Visitors are encouraged to look at the houses, but to maintain a respectful distance. People are asked to not leave a trace on the Fairy Trail (which includes displaying their own fairy-house creations). Visitors can carefully open the houses’ small doors, but are asked to otherwise refrain from touching the structures or taking any items from them.

A fairy house along the South Mountain Fairy Trail

Visitors are asked to refrain from touching the Fairy Trail structures, with the exception of carefully opening their small doors. Photo: Bryan Anselm

Kelly remembers once finding a house along the trail that someone had made out of popsicle sticks and regular glue—instead of nature-friendly outdoor glue. “It must have rained. I had a thousand multicolored popsicle sticks all over the trail,” she says. “So I spent an hour just trying to get the popsicle sticks.” Kelly and Gould maintain the trail, walking with trash bags and tool kits in hand.

On occasion, community members can create houses to be displayed along the Fairy Trail—if they work with Kelly and Gould and follow a set of fairy house-building guidelines. (The guidelines are also helpful for anyone who wants to build a fairy house in their own backyard.) Scout troops and school groups have also helped fix up and even build houses. (Anyone who is interested can email [email protected].)

A fairy house along the South Mountain Fairy Trail

There are currently 80 homes on the Fairy Trail; the goal is to reach 100. Photo: Bryan Anselm

As well as adding more fairy houses to the trail, the South Mountain Conservancy has a master plan to implement improvements such as benches and a covered pavilion. Leaders are also considering making the trail a loop—right now, it is hike in, hike out. The group estimates its plan will cost more than $200,000.

On May 4, the trail is hosting its second annual Fairy Day, an event filled with activities that families are sure to love—whether its their first, fifth or 15th visit to the trail. “You see the joy on [kids’] faces, you watch them engage with the magic, and the trail just becomes a part of your heart,” Kelly says.

Find the Fairy Trail: Enter Locust Grove Parking or 197 Glen Avenue, Millburn, into your GPS. If the parking lot is full, park across the street. The trailhead begins to the left of the parking area along the Rahway Trail. You will see a welcome sign. 

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