The description “avid outdoorsman” doesn't do Mike Helbing justice.
Helbing has been leading hiking expeditions for nearly two decades, exploring his home state of New Jersey and the surrounding regions—but these are no ordinary excursions. Every Sunday, a group of intrepid adventurers sets out on a trek of 15 to 20 miles, exploring a different part of New Jersey or the surrounding area.
A self-proclaimed “lifetime hiker,” Helbing’s hiking résumé is long, and he has no intention of stopping anytime soon. During his 18 years of leading excursions, he has hiked the length of the Appalachian Trail eight times over. (Tack on another 4,400 miles if you include his repeat hikes!) He recently finished hiking every oceanfront beach in the Garden State, and he’s only a handful of hikes away from covering the entire perimeter of New Jersey.
In the state with the highest population density in the nation, some may ask what is so captivating about New Jersey. Could it really be so great to hike around a state where 90 percent of the population lives in an urban area?
According to Helbing, there is a lot to the state that people overlook.
“There is something for everyone in New Jersey,” he says. “[It’s] very diverse ecologically, geologically and historically. You can never get bored with it.”
He waxes poetic about the state’s rich railroad history and could talk for hours about the geology of New Jersey, but at the end of a hike, it’s not a specific destination or one highlight that leaves Helbing coming back for more. It’s all the parts coming together that create the memorable outing.
“Some people wouldn't consider some of the places we visit a destination in and of themselves, but when combined with other locations in the form of a long hike, we build a greater experience,” he says. “We can visit a small museum for example, or a minor overlook, an interesting rock formation, whatever odd little thing that no one in their right mind would drive four hours to visit. But you see, people do drive four hours to do my hikes, because the experience is the sum of its parts.”
The origins of the famous “Mike Hikes” go back to Helbing’s 17th birthday. Instead of having a party, he decided to lead a 20-mile hike in Warren County. “That was the start of it all,” he reminisces. The initial outing turned into a weekly hiking group, which he continued to lead throughout college and beyond.
Since then, he has formalized the group under the auspices of his nonprofit organization, Metrotrails. The group is dedicated to assisting in the planning, development, maintenance and promotion of trail systems in the New York/Philadelphia metropolitan area. Group hikes focus on the natural and historic aspects of their routes as well as ensuring the preservation of these aspects for years to come.
These hikes aren’t for the faint of heart; folks who have taken part in a “Mike Hike” recommend being prepared for anything and everything, and according to Helbing, Metrotrails attracts the type of people who want “a little something more” in the way of a hike.
You never know what you’ll find with Helbing leading the way, but his enthusiasm makes it easy to embrace the adventure. “I’m totally obsessed with this experience,” he admits. “I’m just a junkie for this stuff.”