Note: Recent fires in Wharton State Forest have been contained, but some trails were marked as closed this week (they weren’t actually closed when we walked them); point is, check here for updates on formal trail restrictions.
For many of us in the state, a trip down to Batsto Village on the southeastern edge of Wharton State Forest requires a full day. Driving down to the western edge of Atlantic County, just north of Hammonton, will take upwards of an hour for anyone north of the rough longitudinal line that connects Trenton to Asbury Park.
But, for history buffs, mountain bikers, kayakers, hikers and runners, it’s a must-visit location. You can spend a couple hours exploring the well-preserved grounds of Batsto Village, a 350-year-old iron manufacturing and residency compound, before hitting a number of trails on bike or foot or hopping in a canoe or kayak and exploring the Mullica and Batsto rivers and Batsto Lake. Round out your day at the burgeoning town of Hammonton for shockingly good beer and a bevy of global food options before heading back home.
The fun begins on the drive down to Batsto. The soil turns sandy, the land flattens out and, at this time of year, blueberry plants are fully fruited and abundant. Plenty of roadside stops provide the chance to pick up said blueberries, as well as numerous other South Jersey crops—melons, peaches, plums, apples, veggies, herbs and more. You’ll feel like you’re in rural North Carolina or Nebraska, which I realize sounds a little condescending to our South Jersey readers, but the point is: the fact that within a day you can get from the mountainous Skylands and the Appalachian Trail to urban centers like Newark, to the artsy beach of Asbury Park to the laid-back, outdoorsy farm culture of Hammonton is kind of what makes Jersey great.
Batsto Village’s history goes back to before the U.S. was a country, and given that history, the structures are remarkably well-preserved. Park in the lot and take a self-guided tour (or an audio tour) of the grounds. The centerpiece is the Batsto Mansion, with rooms re-furnished with period furniture, but there are plenty of past relics in every building on the site. Old buggies reside in a garage, scythes and other agriculture equipment are in a barn, blacksmithing and woodworking equipment have their own quarters, plus there’s a furnished general store (with only novelty items, nothing for sale), a large grain mill, animal quarters, a logging storage area and saw mill, and resident quarters.
Charles Read built the original Iron Works at Batsto in 1776, pulling bog iron ore from the water, using wood from the forests for charcoal and water as the engine to run his operations. Batsto provided materials to the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War.
Iron and glass production continued at Batsto until the late 1800s, when the property shifted hands, eventually ending up under the management of the state of New Jersey. The last resident of Batsto Village left in 1989, and today the site is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. And that’s for good reason—every building is in immaculate condition, and there are few other places to be able to see antique farm, manufacturing and lifestyle equipment in such a pristine natural environment.
Indeed, what elevates Batsto beyond a mere historical spectacle is the recreational opportunities on the site. On Batsto Lake, which is dammed, folks can fish or canoe—canoes are available from the on-site Nature Center (check for open days/times), and there are several water touring companies offering tours and rentals in the region.
Just walking the gravel paths throughout all of Batsto Village is a workout in itself, but the trails bring you into the Pine Barrens and immediately in natural isolation. The mountain biking trail doesn’t give you much elevation, but the submersion in nature, among thousands of pine trees, is wild. There are a few twists and turns, and a few logs to get over, but it’s overwhelmingly flat, making for an enjoyable, easy ride. At just under 10 miles, it’s a good workout but won’t leave you too sore.
There are several hiking trails from Batsto. You can hike along the Batsto River or the Mullica River. They’re well-posted and blazed at the site, but here’s a map in case you want to plan. All trails are, predictably, flat, but this is a unique way (and maybe the best way, outside of kayaking around the rivers) to experience the Pine Barrens. Flora and fauna are abundant; you’ll see trees in various state of life, and wildlife from chipmunks to owls.
Now, if you’re feeling ambitious, you can also start the 50-mile Batona Trail from Batsto—there are six camping sites on the trail, so you if you’ve got a week or so and want to tackle a unique challenge—and maybe the best thru-hike in the state, save for maybe the Appalachian Trail segment—look into it.
If all the recreation has you feeling a little hot, you can head up to Atsion Lake Beach; the swimming area is roped off, but big enough for many people to enjoy the water (which is clear), and the beach is long enough to spread out from others.
After all that, I can’t recommend enough heading into Hammonton for a beer at one of three excellent breweries: Chimney, Vinyl and Three 3’s. You can walk to each from any of the others, and although I won’t make any dubious claims, you could probably have a beer (or a taster) at all three and still be able to get back home. What you’ll also get by going there is a better sense for the laid-back nature of Hammonton, and waking through town, stopping off for Mexican, Italian or American food, is the feeling that Hammonton is a town ready to boom in the middle of the Pine Barrens.