This past weekend my friend Amy and I went off to walk in the woods. Neither of us wanted anything strenuous. We wanted to be outside in the fresh air, walking, in nature. We had several ideas: the Middlesex Greenway, the Great Swamp, Patterson Falls, the Raritan canal towpath, and the Rutgers Ecological Preserve, among many other options. I’m willing to bet that surprises many of you who probably have only seen pictures of NJ from the NJ Turnpike. NOT our best side, for sure. Try taking Rt 287 up north towards the NY state line – that will surprise you as well. Back in the late 1970s NJ was 2/3 forest. We have all sorts of preserved areas, national parks, state parks and of course the Pine Barrens. There is STILL a lot of Mother Nature green in our state.
We opted for the Rutgers Ecological Preserve. Amy had only ever seen a tiny sign at one corner of the preserve, and often wondered how/where you could get in there. I often pass 2 of the small parking areas that have trail beginnings. Other than that, neither of us knew anything about it. I was fairly certain it would be mostly flat walking as I knew the general area was not at all hilly, or at least not more than our town. Amy and I both walk about town so it seemed a safe choice. We thought we’d walk for perhaps an hour. I thought we might manage 3 miles that way as I knew we’d be walking, not trying to “make time” or get anywhere.
My husband printed out 2 copies of the trail map for us. I figured we could park on Road 3, take the red trail to the orange trail, and then cut back on the white trail to get back to the car. Amy had her walking stick, and I had on long sleeves and long pants – I’d been warned by my neighbor about poison ivy.
We parked the car and walked to the only trail opening that we saw. It was the blue and white entrance. We turned and went back because we wanted red. There was a flat field, maybe for parking? To be honest, I can’t remember if there was a barricade up or not, but we walked across gravel and grass and did indeed find a second trail head – the red trail. There was almost no one else on the trail – a bicyclist passed us at the beginning but it was just the 2 of us, chatting and walking and looking at the trees.
There were a LOT of dead trees. In as sense the dead trees were much more interesting than the live ones. There is such stark elegance in the stripped branches. They make such curious shapes. We started seeing all sorts of animals and items in the branches.
We also discovered a brook. I wasn’t expecting a brook. That’s because I didn’t actually LOOK at the map other than to see trails. I’ll spoil the suspense now and tell you that we did not turn off where we had planned to turn back toward the car. We saw another brook when we were high up above it. My memory of the distances does not match with what I see on the map. I’m very bad at spatial recognition. But I’m fairly sure that we saw both brooks that are in the eastern side of the preserve.
Most of the path was completely clear. We had 2 spots where we did have to step over fallen trees. There were other spots where someone had come through and cut away large chunks of tree to open the trail.
We figured out we had missed the turn to the white trail when the trail began climbing up and up and all we saw were orange markers and then saw orange and blue markers. We’d also been walking for well over an hour at that point. Hey, we were having fun and enjoying ourselves.
I took out my cell phone to see if by any chance the paths would be marked on the map. Not unexpectedly they were not. But using my phone, showing me in what direction I was moving, and using the trail map, we figured out that we needed to hang a sharp left onto the blue path and make our way back there.
We followed the blue and white paths to a trail exit and realized immediately that it was the one on Road 1, not Road 3. That was easily fixed by backing up a few feet and hanging a right on the white path. That took us back to where we had started – our first foray out of the parking lot. All in all we walked for approximately 2 hours and covered 3.7 miles, including multiple stops for me to take pictures, and a longer stop on a bench on the top of a hill overlooking the brook.
We saw only 5 other people, plus some youth hiking group that entered at the junction of the red and orange paths just ahead of our arrival there. We never saw them again. We saw the bicyclist twice – once heading in and once on the trail. We saw a woman with her young dog. I think she said it was an English Springer Spaniel, but it was absolutely terrified of us and we didn’t wish to prolong its misery. We passed a man on his way out at the Orange/Red trail end on Avenue E. We passed 2 young student looking types when we took our hard left onto the Blue path. That was it. We were undoubtedly the loudest slowest folks in the preserve. 🙂
Once we were back at the car we decided we deserved some lunch. That of course necessitated thinking and deciding. As we cogitated I drove to show Amy some other neat things I knew in the area (but the horse wasn’t in the field 😦 ). She remembered a health food cafe she’d been to with a friend in our general vicinity. Given her description (near those strip malls, but not in them, but behind them, tucked away) I wasn’t sure we’d find that one but I did know where all the strip malls with tucked away back areas were in that area. We were such successful intrepid trekkers that day that not only did we find our way out of the woods unassisted, but we found her restaurant. We both had delicious wraps and iced coffee. A perfect ending to a perfect walk in the woods. Next time we’ll tackle the Great Swamp!