New Jersey has dozens of state parks, forests, and recreation areas perfect for a slow drive or a brisk hike to enjoy seasonal colors and the last traces of warmth before the coming snow. Most are free for day visitors at this time of year — though many charge fees between Memorial Day and Labor Day or for swimming and camping. All have trails and allow hunting on some or most of their land. The largest parks have campsites, some with cabins or lean-tos. Many have lakes or rivers for fishing and boating. Though some may not be ideal for leaf watching, each offers a pleasant way to enjoy New Jersey’s outdoors.
These are the largest of New Jersey’s natural areas and some of their most unique features, according to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s website:
1. Wharton State Forest, Hammonton
Unquestionably the largest state-owned area, Wharton encompasses 122,880 acres or 192 square miles in the heart of the Pinelands in South Jersey. It is more than three times bigger than the second-largest state forest. It straddles parts of Atlantic, Burlington, and Camden counties. In addition to trails and campsites, Wharton is home to Batsto Village, a former bog-iron and glassmaking industrial center from the mid-1700s through the mid-1800s. There’s also the remains of Harrisville, a once-bustling company town abandoned in the late 1800s, and Atsion Mansion, the summer home of a Philadelphia ironmaster built in 1826. The park is free, but there are fees for Batsto Village, as well as for swimming, boating, and camping.
2. Brendan T. Byrne State Forest, Woodland Township
The Batona Trail links Wharton with the 37,242-acre Byrne Forest, formerly known as Lebanon State Forest. Like its larger Pinelands neighbor, Byrne Forest also has the remains of an old village — Whitesbog, an active 19th- and 20th-century cranberry and blueberry producing community — as well as the Lebanon Glass works, which was active in the mid-1800s.
3. Waywayanda State Park, Hewitt
In Passaic County, the park’s 35,524 acres offer prime leaf-viewing in its hardwood and oak forests, as well as a view of the surrounding Highlands. Among the park trails is a 20-mile section of the Appalachian Trail. The park has broad views and offers prime viewing of the endangered red-shouldered hawk, barred owls, and great blue herons.
4. Bass River State Forest, Tuckerton
This is the third state area in the Pinelands linked via the Batona Trail. Its 29,147 acres straddle the border of Burlington and Ocean counties. One of its eight trails passes through the old Civilian Conservation Corps camp, which housed the workers who built park roads, trails, bridges, and other park facilities during a decade beginning in 1933.
5. Belleplain State Forest, Woodbine
Covering 21,254 acres in Cape May and Cumberland counties, this is the southernmost of the larger natural areas and is just outside the Pinelands, Like Bass River, Belleplain was home to a CCC camp that that helped build it, with workers converting a cranberry bog into Lake Nummy, as well as constructing buildings, roads, bridges, and dams.
6. Stokes State Forest, Branchville
Atop the 16,447-acre forest is Sunrise Mountain, which offers stunning views of surrounding forests and fields. The pavilion there, at an elevation of 1,653 feet, was built by the CCC. A 12-mile portion of the Appalachian Trail runs along the ridge. Tilman Brook has carved a ravine that includes several waterfalls and is home to the barred owls and other endangered species.
7. High Point State Park, Sussex
As the name states, this 16,091-acre park is both in the northernmost corner of the state and includes its highest point. At 1,803, the spot is marked by a 220-foot tall monument to veterans, completed in 1930 with funds from the Kuser family, which donated the land to the state for the park. The unobstructed view from atop the obelisk takes in the Poconos Mountains, Catskill Mountains, and Wallkill River valley. There’s a good view of the tower from the portion of the Appalachian Trail that extends through the southern portion of the park. High Point also includes the 1,500-acre Dryden Kuser Natural Area, an Atlantic white cedar swamp described as the highest elevation swamp of its kind in the world.
8. Allamuchy Mountain State Park, Allamuchy
With 9,092 acres of oak and hardwood forest, the trails in this park that straddles the borders of Morris, Sussex, and Warren counties provide good fall leaf hikes. The Musconetcong River winds through the park, making it a prime spot for fishing. Trails also lead to nearby Kittatinny Valley State Park and Stephens State Park. There is no entrance fee at any time of year.
9. Double Trouble State Park, Bayville
On the eastern edge of the Pine Barrens, this 8,495-acre park includes the Double Trouble Historic District that the state bought to preserve in the 1960s. The 200-acre village was a former company town with a sawmill and cranberry sorting and packing house. Farmers maintain its bogs today. Cedar Creek, which winds through the park, is open for canoeing and kayaking.
10. Long Pond Ironworks State Park, West Milford
This 6,911-acre park in Passaic County near the New York state border includes the remnants of an ironworks founded in 1766. Dating from the 18th and 19th centuries are the remains of furnaces, casting-house ruins, charging areas, ice houses and waterwheels, with restoration work in progress. A country store has been turned into a museum. Also in the park is the Monksville Reservoir, created in the 1980s. The reservoir can hold 5 million gallons of water and is a popular site for fishing and boating.
Information about all the state parks is available online.
There’s also an app that can be downloaded.