We know, we get it. You think that writing a “best hikes in NJ” post is stupid because no one goes hiking in New Jersey. But just because we’re not freaking Colorado or whatever doesn’t mean that we’re lacking gorgeous trails and woods to romp around in. Contrary to whatever a–hole you might hear running their mouth off about it, hiking in New Jersey is actually pretty rad.
Being born and bred little Jerseyians, we know a thing or two about it. Winding through Northeastern woodlands in the Summer has long been one of my favorite pastimes. I love the shadowy light that comes between tall Oaks and Maples, the rocky streams and floral meadows. It’s honestly majestic AF on these NJ hiking trails.
New Jersey has bits of the Appalachian trail for you dedicated monkeys who want to put away some substantial mileage and local hidden gems that are better for after work strolls. From rolling hillsides to dense woods, this is the best hiking in New Jersey.
*Note* Please, PLEASE, be safe and careful in parks right now. While under quarantine, more people than ever are seeking out the serenity and comfort of New Jersey’s parkland. As travel changes from coronavirus, folks are staying closer to home.
This is proving to be a bit problematic, with complaints about people pooping too much in the park, for example. Here are our thoughts on this: spending time in the outdoors is an amazing way for us to stay healthy both mentally and physically…so don’t be a d-bag and ruin it for everyone else.
Wear a mask. Bag your poop. And enjoy your hike.
Why should you go hiking in New Jersey?
Hey New Jersey Haters: Hear this! New Jersey has an incredibly diverse landscape. Those of you who live here know this already, but for you outsiders, allow me to put on my scientist hat for a moment here and explain. Gather round children, it’s “stop shitting on my home state” storytime.
It all started a long, long time ago, when wooly mammoths still roamed the Earth. For real. Part of what makes the landscape and ecosystems in Jersey (read, the plants, animals, and environments that naturally thrive here) some of the most diverse in the country is that the glaciers used to dip into the state. About halfway down our state line, they stopped. When the glaciers receded thousands of years later, they permanently altered the landscape, creating rolling hills and leaving behind soil fertile enough to grow tomatoes the size of your face.
That’s one reason why the Southern half of the state has these super flat areas like the pine barrens–which, by the way, is home to some very cool plants and animals like these carnivorous pitcher plants–and the Northern half has peaks and valleys covered in dense forests of oaks and maples.
The reason you go hiking in New Jersey, then, is because it’s really freaking cool to be able to see all these different landscapes within such a short distance of each other. Within an hour’s drive you can be in coastal habitats, sandy, pine forests, or the Appalachian mountains. We are KILLING the diversity game here.
Best Hiking Trails in New Jersey (From Shortest to Longest)
1. Mt. Tammany, Delaware Water Gap
|Directions||Access this trail through the same lot as above the Sunfish Pond hike. Click here for directions.|
|Highlights||Views of Pennsylvania’s Mt. Minsi and the Delaware River from the top.|
A shorter hike with a lot of rewards, Mt. Tammany trail is also a really popular one. The grade alternates between being moderately steep and flat as you get closer to the peak.
At the top, there are rocky outcroppings with views of Mt. Minsi, Pennsylvania’s weak-ass mountain competition (it’s actually really, nice, but this about Jersey, so we have to get defensive and aggressive) and the Delaware River.
It’s the perfect spot to enjoy a wee bit of string cheese, granola bar, or a PB & J (yes, we eat like children when hiking).
2. The Carpenter’s Trail, Palisades Interstate Park
|Directions||Head to the Fort Lee Historic Park visitor center and look for the trailhead for Carpenter’s Trails. Follow these google maps directions|
|Highlights||Water and NYC views, multiple bathroom and picnic stop offs. Don’t need a car, there’s a bus from NYC.|
Palisades Interstate Park starts in Northern New Jersey and continues into New York on the Western side of the Hudson River. It’s also super accessible from NYC without a car, with an easy bus that crosses the river.
Read: this park has awesome views of NYC, the George Washington Bridge, and the Hudson which, contrary to popular belief, has been cleaned up a gigantic amount and is home to thriving communities of birds and fish.
But that’s not why you’re here. You’re here to hike the awesome Carpenter’s Trail, which winds along the shores and up through the cliffs along the Hudson. This is a pretty easy hike — it’s mostly flat — but there are a few areas of slight elevation gain when you climb from the shore trail to the cliffs.
3. Sunfish Pond Hike, Delaware Water Gap
|Directions||Google Maps “Sunfish Pond” directions will bring you to the trailhead. Click here to access them.|
|Highlights||Hiking on the Appalachian Trail and a sweet mountain pond at the top.|
This is a really fun and popular trail. We went on a 90+ degree day, which, perhaps unsurprisingly, I don’t recommend, but it’s lovely anyway. Follow the Dunnfield Creek (GREEN) to Sunfish Pond with return via the Appalachian Trail (WHITE) route. It’s pretty simple to follow the trail markers but we planned it out based on these directions.
The hike starts off near a woodland, rocky stream. It’s much busier down here but, as with most hiking, it thins out the further up you climb. There’s a campsite when you hit the Appalachian trail which has a nice view of the valley. The pond itself is a sweet little water spot. It’s wide enough to swim in, but I’m not sure if it’s deep enough…I never made it in.
Right before I was about to go for a dip, I saw a nice little swarm of snakes weaving between my feet and the rock I was dangling my legs from. I skipped the swim. Instead, I chatted with an AT thru-hiker for a while about his journey and the culture shock he was feeling after a wee side trip he took into New York City after spending months on the trail in the wilderness.
It’s worth the time on the trail just to enjoy the AT and fellow hikers, and the pond really is quite nice.
4. Sussex Branch Trail, Kittatinny Valley State Park
|Difficulty||Moderate to Difficult (Length)|
|Directions||You can start on either end of the trail. Find directions to both here|
|Highlights||The sheer length and diversity of this trail make it a win…you might get tired but you won’t get bored.|
And you thought you couldn’t schlep through Jersey uninterrupted for 20 miles…you thought wrong! Now we’re getting into the big guns.
This trail has a bit of everything, weaving through old underpasses for farm supplies, past fields and bogs, and over multiple rivers. It was once a railroad, and the route takes on that significance with it’s access to both communities and the natural world around them.
For a more detailed look at the entire trail, check out this breakdown.
5. Batona Trail, Pinelands (multiple parks)
|Difficulty||Difficult (Length and Terrain)|
|Directions||It’s a long trail, so you can hop on or off as you wish. Good starting points for the trips on the trail are the Brendan T. Byrne State Forest headquarters and the Batsto Visitor Center.|
|Highlights||Backpack through the entire New Jersey Pinelands National Reserve with this connected trail that crosses 3 state forests. Note: You’ll need a permit to camp on the trail which you can obtain at the park stations and visitor centers.|
The Pinelands are a really unique ecosystem that houses a whole mess of rare plant and animal species. And the pine tree forests here are just plain rad.
This trail mostly avoids the sandy roads common in the Pinelands, focusing instead on the wild, mostly untouched forested areas, beginning in Bass River State Forest, through Wharton State Forest and finishing in Brendan T. Byrne State Forest.
6. New Jersey section of the Appalachian Trail
|Difficulty||Difficult (Length and Terrain)|
|Directions||This the northern starting point for the Appalachian Trail in New Jersey, which is the traditional direction for AT thru-hikers. Begin here and work your way South to follow their path.|
|Highlights||Hiking on the legendary Appalachian Trail! Also crossing through a lot of diverse terrain and landscapes, including a wildlife sanctuary.|
The Appalachian Trail is amazing because it stretches down much of the East Coast, from Maine to Georgia, and attracts countless hikers who attempt the long and challenging trek every Summer.
Which is pretty freaking dope.
But the other REALLY cool thing about the AT is that while some of it is deep in the wilderness, much of the trail can be easily accessed throughout its route from towns and roads.
You can hop on NJ’s portion right on the border of New York state and work your way south, passing through state parks and wilderness areas as you go.
Backpack along and meet thru-hikers (who will no doubt be ridiculously impressed by Jersey’s gorgeous charm), but know that you can only camp in designated areas.
Meaning, make sure you can do the hikes between each site before setting out.
Best Places to Hike in New Jersey (By location)
Hiking in Northern New Jersey
Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area
It’s a recreation area because it’s capital “F” fun here. In this small, but very well protected and ridiculously pretty span of woods and river, you can:
- White water raft
- Raft with no white water (float, sunbathe, and maybe crush a beer or two)
- Scout waterfalls
You get the idea…it’s an outdoor lover’s little playground.
Ramapo State Forest
Maybe I pushed this in here because I’m nostalgic, I grew up hiking here. It was by far the closest wooded hiking area by me in Bergen County — roughly 20 min door to door — and where I spent a lot of my youth playing outside. It’s also where I spent my adolescence indulging in riff-raff with my other rugrat friends (aka swimming illegally in the reservoir and…well other things I won’t mention here).
But, romp down memory lane aside, it’s also a really nice place to spend some time.
It’s close proximity to New York and highly populated residential parts of NJ means this park gets busy, but hiking here also represents a lot of what’s nice about hiking in New Jersey in general: you’ll bump into other like-minded people, it’s relatively easy to access (anyone can come along), and the scenery is still really peaceful and nice.
I used to see black bears up here all the time, but I’d also pass by groups of 6 teenagers. It’s a bit of everything.
Hiking in Central New Jersey
Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge
For all you bird nerds out there, Great Swamp is a can’t miss. Sitting smack dab in the middle of a highly populated, urban area, the wildlife refuge is the perfect stopping off point for migratory birds to rest, feed, and nest.
Get your binoculars out and tiptoe through the trees to spot a bunch of bird species (this is not my wheelhouse as much so I don’t know exactly what’s there, I just know that people who are in the know about this kind of thing say it’s awesome for this).
Hiking in Southern New Jersey
Pinelands National Reserve AKA “The Pine Barrens”
I LOVE THE PINE BARRENS! The ecology nerd me goes wild over all the rare, endemic (aka, not found anywhere else in the world) plants sprouting up down here. It’s also a totally different culture than the rest of Jersey.
It’s sandy, far denser with trees than it is with people, and it’s also where the Jersey Devil lives…if you believe in that kind of thing. Which as a rule I don’t, but it can get eerie out there winding through swamps and bogs, with no help for miles…
Anywayyyy, if you’re not afraid of being a potential character in an X-Files episode, then you might also like it down here. Oftentimes, the only other living creatures you’ll pass on a hike will be a frog leaping into surrounding water or a bird startling overhead.
It’s a really cool place…just go.
Cape May Point State Park
Ok full disclosure I’ve actually never been here, but you can’t mention New Jersey to an out of stater without hearing, “Oh, I mean, well Cape May is beautiful.” It’s like our crown jewel, or whatever. So it’s here.
I know, I know. I’m going to go. I just haven’t yet. The overpriced B&B’s and other people’s obsession with it has made me stubbornly avoid it…although the whale watching tours that launch from there might be enough to finally pull me in.
Hiking by the Jersey Shore
Gateway National Recreation Area (U.S. National Park Service)
Growing up, Sandy Hook always had a weird reputation where I’m from. Like it was trashy or dirty or something. So I haughtily didn’t go, opting instead for the “nice” beaches.
Then I grew up, became a little bit less of a douchebag, and went to Sandy Hook. Well, actually, one of my Ecology classes went on a hike there and showed me how this barrier island, which is one of the few strands of wild and natural coastline left in New Jersey, is actually wayyyy nicer than most of the beaches I’d been going to.
There’s a lovely little trail that winds along the coast for miles that’s also one of our favorite spots to run on the Jersey Shore. In season, beach plum trees and native cacti provide sweet, juicy fruits to snack on.
Double Trouble State Park
This was a recent discovery a couple years back that we really enjoy. Another one that’s in that sandy, pineland landscape, trails here start in a historic company town, a bit of a look at the Pine Barren’s past, and then quickly dissolve into the woodlands. Our favorite route involves circling in and around the bogs and wetlands in the park.
Best State Parks in New Jersey
There are so many great parks in New Jersey, but these are two of our favorites. If you want to spend your time exploring all of them — which we HIGHLY recommend — the full list of New Jersey State Parks is here.
Island Beach State Park
This one is two-fold: one, it’s an impressively well-kept state park on the tip of a barrier island in New Jersey. The beachside is open Atlantic, feral and rough ocean perfect for fishing or practicing bailing out of a rip tide.
On the other side is the bay. We may be guilty of staying past closing on several occasions here to watch the sunset and hold hands over on the bayside.
It’s a bit wild for NJ, with less restrictions than other spots. Mainly, that you can BRING YOUR PUPPY TO THE BEACH! Alas, while it has many fabulous features, our favorite reason to visit Island Beach State Park is that it is dog-friendly.
Other peeps like that you can drive your car on it, for some reason this is important, but we kind of think that part is weird.
Delaware and Raritan Canal State Park
When I was just a wee lass sweating out hangovers at Rutgers University, this main canal trail was one of my favorite running trails. The tip of this roughly 36-mile long trail ends in New Brunswick, not far from where I lived my first year in town.
It’s flanked on both sides by the Raritan River and the–shocking–canal! It’s mostly just a quiet and lovely trail that runs through central Jersey. The other trail in the park is also really nice, swinging through some really cute and quaint towns along the Delaware River in Western NJ.
Fellow New Jerseyians – any favorites we missed? Let us know in the comments! Happy trails friends!