Special acknowledgments: Tom Sexton, Director of RTC’s Northeast Region, Anya Saretzky, Trail Development Manager; Laura Stark, Rails to Trails magazine
NOTE: Rails-to-Trails Conservancy urges all individuals seeking trail experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic to practice social distancing at all times and follow the guidelines by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and state and local governments. For more information and resources on how to #RecreateResponsibly outside, go to railstotrails.org/COVID-19.
Escaping the interstate and exploring the backroads of New Jersey, it’s easy to see why it’s called the Garden State. And that’s just one reason why locals and visitors alike flock to the state’s 54 rail-trails—to get their fill of fresh air and gorgeous nature. Here are some of the best rail-trails in the state.
Counties: Hunterdon, Mercer, Somerset
The longest completed multiuse trail in the state, the 72-mile Delaware and Raritan Canal State Park Trail follows the towpath of the canal, which was built in the early 1830s as a transportation corridor between Philadelphia and New York. Today it serves as an integral part of the 800-mile Circuit Trails network and the 3,000-mile East Coast Greenway connecting Maine to Florida. Trail users can expect to see 19th-century bridges, remnants of locks, cobblestone spillways, and at least one abandoned train car (marked by graffiti). Picnic tables and towns with trailside cafés can be found along the way.
Visitors can explore some of the best New Jersey has to offer on the Henry Hudson Trail. Each year, thousands of trail users walk or pedal through forests and past picturesque meadows and Sandy Hook Bay. While the 22-mile trail is gorgeous year-round, it’s absolutely spectacular in the fall when the surrounding tree canopy explodes into autumn colors.
A 4-mile loop circling its namesake park and extending into a nearby residential area, the paved Cooper River Trail offers a pleasant, family-friendly escape for Camden County residents. Filled with mature trees and both wetland and grassland areas, the park abounds with butterflies and birds, including bald eagles, raptors, and, in the spring and summer, egrets and herons. The Cooper River Trail also connects to much larger trail networks, including the Camden Greenway (which will eventually provide access to Philadelphia) and the 800-mile Circuit Trails network.
Whether you’re aboard a New Jersey Transit commuter train or engaging in a human-powered pursuit, the Traction Line Recreation Trail is a rail-with-trail that keeps you moving. The line was originally created for trolleys hauling passengers between Newark and Dover in the early part of the 20th century. The trail portion runs 3 miles from Morristown National Historical Park to Drew University in Madison. Elevate your heart rate a bit more by either trying out the 10 workout stations along the route or, if you’re a wildlife lover, spotting any of the abundant animal life just off trail.
Built on the former Atlantic City and Shore Railroad line, the Pleasantville to Somers Point Bike Path connects those two cities with Northfield and Linwood, creating an important and beloved transportation corridor. The 8-mile rail-trail winds its way through the city centers and parks, with a few wooded sections to provide both shade and scenery; trail users are never far from a bathroom or lunch spot. Visitors can connect to the Route 52 Bridge Trail that links to nearby Cape May County.
Counties: Hunterdon, Morris
One of the most popular trails in the state, the Columbia Trail traverses 15 miles of the absolute best natural beauty that New Jersey has to offer. As Rails to Trails’ Laura Stark wrote, “… the Columbia Trail delves into the steep-sided gorge, picturesque with moss and rhododendrons tumbling over the rocks. After a heavy rainfall, crystalline waterfalls cascade down its sides. The South Branch of the Raritan River is close at hand and well-stocked with trout; you're likely to see fly fisherman wading into its cool, clear waters, and the graceful arc of their fishing lines.” Seemingly endless birch and aspen trees envelope the crushed-gravel trail as it leads into the Ken Lockwood Gorge Wildlife Management Area, where trail users can often see deer, coyotes and foxes, as well as herons and woodpeckers. This is a trail that rewards repeat visits.
Counties: Sussex, Warren
In the mood for adventure? The New York, Susquehanna and Western Railway laid tracks between Kittatinny Mountain and the New Jersey Highlands in the late 1800s, following the Paulinskill Valley’s namesake creek. Abandoned by the railroad in the 1960s, the 27-mile Paulinskill Valley Trail passes forgotten icehouses and depots that have been taken back by nature. The Paulinskill Viaduct, also known as the Hainesburg Trestle, may be the trail’s highlight, soaring 115 feet above ground. (At one time, it was the world’s largest reinforced concrete structure.) Keep an eye out in the woods to possibly glimpse bears, bobcats, mink or deer. The Paulinskill Valley Trail is part of the 1,300-mile September 11th National Memorial Trail connecting the 9/11, Flight 93 and Pentagon Memorials.
County: Cape May
Following a former rail line catering to Jersey Shore tourists, the 9-mile Middle Township Bike Path now appeals to a different generation of visitors. Campgrounds and wineries surround the southern end of the trail, which leads up to the Cape May County Park and its zoo, as well as Atlantic Cape Community College. The trail connects to the Cold Spring Bike Path and is an integral cog of the Cape May County Trail Network.
At one time, the narrow-gauge, mule-drawn Sussex Mine Railroad hauled iron ore from the mines to the Morris Canal. Rolling through forest and farmland and past several lakes, and intersecting both the Great Valley and Paulinskill trails, the Sussex Branch Trail feels like a real-life choose-your-own-adventure book today. The 20-mile trail also passes through Kittatinny Valley State Park, which makes a great basecamp for out-of-town visitors. The route has a few on-road detours, but visitors will be back on the trail before they know it.
Trails don’t get much more family friendly than the Saddle River County Park Bike Path. Winding through multiple residential areas and neighborhoods, the 7.6-mile trail is frequently used by parents walking their kids to school. At no point do they need to cross a busy road; instead, the trail uses over- and underpasses to avoid traffic. Along the way, they enjoy a bit of a nature break among the trees and suburban wildlife.
Eventually connecting approximately 30 trails over 800 miles, the innovative Circuit Trails network is a developing trail system that’s changing the way people live, work, play and get around in the Philadelphia–Camden, New Jersey region.