Much like Mercer Meadows a few dozen miles to south, it feels impossible for Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge to exist in New Jersey; particularly in the sprawling suburbia of central-north Jersey, a few minutes off of 287. Just when you feel like the trail is going to wind up at some McMansion’s backyard (the Swamp does abut the tony Madison/Chatham area), or the road is going to give way to a strip mall, you take a turn and end up overlooking cattails until the horizon.
It’s a relatively massive (given the region) 12 square miles, so you ought to plan your trip and maybe do it in two or three visits, instead of one. On the eastern edge of the park, you’ll find the Helen Fenske Visitor Center (open during midday hours every day but Monday and Wednesday). It’s not nature in and of itself, but it’s a unique supplement to your experience; there are wildlife and recreational exhibits inside, plus easy trails just outside that lead to vernal pools and the Passaic River, and a trail specifically designed to engage kids with the surrounding nature.
Drive or walk south from the Center and you’ll pass several observation areas overlooking dense, unperturbed swampland. Plenty of waterfowl and migratory birds stop through on any given day, and there are mounted binoculars on site to aid your experience. Even if you don’t see anything, the foliage swaying in the wind is a peaceful sight.
Eventually, you’ll make it over to the east side of the park, which is where you’ll have more intimate interactions with the wilderness. There are 8.5 miles of trails and cross-country paths that traverse the area; a plot of land that was the first such area protected and restored by the U.S. Department of the Interior and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and which today serves as an outdoor classroom and laboratory. In the wilderness area, no structures, motor vehicles, motorized equipment or even mechanized modes of transport like bikes* are allowed.
(*The roads outside the Refuge might make for a better bike experience—if not expressly prohibited for cyclists, the roads in the Refuge have dense, chunky gravel that only make them suitable for a mountain bike. Plus, head south into Berkeley Heights, Warren and New Providence and you’ll be able to ride some wild climbs and descents.)
In the wilderness area, you’ll need waterproof boots or footwear (it’s a swamp, after all), and now is a really good time to go because the ticks, flies and mosquitoes aren’t too bad (again, it’s a swamp.) In addition to the birds and waterfowl you’ll see, there are plenty of turtles and frogs to spot or, in the case of the latter, listen to, plus woodland creatures like fox, deer and muskrat. Unique wetland flowers and plants keep each turn interesting, and—boy, is this gonna sound weird—but the smell of the swamp is intoxicating and not nearly as dank as you think.
Now, if you want some of the nature but less of the muddy shoes and mosquito bites, head to the Wildlife Observation Center. There, you’ll be able to walk on about 1.5 miles of boardwalk over the swamp in three directions. At the end of the two main offshoots, there are well-constructed blinds that afford a stunning 280-degree view of wetland scenes. The boardwalks themselves are a feat; they twist and turn along the path, creaking against trees, and though they’re totally sturdy and in great shape, the occasional budging plank and weathered wood connects you with the craftsmanship that went into making it.
Overall, the Refuge makes for a curated, but unique and worthwhile natural experience. By virtue of it being a swamp and it being a protected area, you’re forced into certain areas, but those areas are well-maintained and provide exceptional opportunities to view wildlife. In the way, the Swamp very much feels like a National Park. If you want to support the Refuge, check out the Friends of the Great Swamp, who not only help maintain the area, but provide educational and recreational activities for visitors.
Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. 32 Pleasant Plains Road, Basking Ridge. Info here.