Whenever I’m gawking over someone’s Instagram post of the stunning vistas offered by the AT or the PCT, I feel like Goldilocks, wishing for an adventure that’s more than a day hike, but less than a six-month slog across the country for which I’m woefully unprepared. Fortunately, I’ve discovered that not only do such trails exist, they exist within driving distance of New York! One of them is the Batona Trail, which draws hikers into the beautiful and unique world of the New Jersey Pine Barrens. Below, find out what makes it special and how to experience it.
Unlike its big sister, the Appalachian Trail, the Batona trail is a relatively new addition to New Jersey’s hiking opportunities. Built in 1961 by members of the Batona Hiking Club, its name comes from a shortening of the phrase “Back to Nature.” Beginning at Brendan Byrne State Forest, the trail passes through three more state parks: Franklin Parker Preserve, Wharton State Forest, and Bass River State Forest. All in all, it’s 53.5 miles long, and most through-hikers complete it in 3 days. If you’re paying attention right now, you’ll probably have noticed that those are three long days – but Pine Barrens terrain tends to be flat and sandy, making these long-mileage days possible.
For centuries, the Pine Barrens has been a haven for the state’s misfits and troublemakers – from colonial Quakers expelled from their communities to bootleggers operating during Prohibition. Throughout the 20th century, (largely exaggerated) rumors of lawlessness and inbreeding contributed to the region’s formidable reputation. The Pine Barrens even has its own monster – the Jersey Devil, part dragon and part human, for whose capture the Philadelphia Zoo once offered a $10,000 reward. The Batona Trail starts at the ghost town Ong’s Hat, which has been a trading post, bootlegging venue, and even the site of a famous and unsolved disappearance. Through-hikers will pass through Batsto Village, the remains of a town that once manufactured bog-iron.
The Pine Barrens’ sandy, acidic soil – and the flora and fauna that have evolved to thrive there – make the area a truly unique ecosystem. There’s nothing quite like it anywhere else in the world. It even has a slightly cooler climate than the rest of the state. Although the Pine Barrens are inhospitable to agriculture, farmers cultivate cranberries and blueberries in local bogs, and the soil acts as a natural water-purifying system, producing the cleanest drinking water in the country.
If you want to dip a toe in the water before committing to the entire trail, these day hikes will take you through the highlights in an afternoon!
Brendan T. Byrne Campground to Ong’s Hat: starting out at one of the trail’s popular campgrounds, you’ll traverse pine forests and cedar swamps, getting a taste of the Pine Barrens’ unique flora. Highlights include the Lebanon Fire Tower and the tranquil Deep Hollow Pond – a great place to stop for lunch. Park one car at the campground and a second at Ong’s Hat. Mileage: 9.
Carranza Memoral to Apple Pie Hill: this trail can be done one-way or elongated as an out-and-back hike. Pick up the pink-blazed trail at the Carranza Memorial (dedicated to an early aviator who crashed here during a storm). Wending through miles of pristine cedar swamps, you’ll forget that there are roads and cars anywhere nearby. A short climb at the end takes you to Apple Pie Hill, where a fire tower offers views of Philadelphia in one direction and Atlantic City in the other – BUT keep in mind that the tower is only opened when staff are there during fire season. Park at Carranza Memorial and, if you want to do the shorter hike, leave a second car at Apple Pie Hill. Mileage: 4 or 8.
Apple Pie Hill to Route 72: This section starts where the previous one leaves off. Starting at Apple Pie Hill, you’ll hike through Franklin Parker Preserve’s slice of the trail. This hike is appealing because it’s particularly isolated and swampy; even though the terrain is flat, the quirky bridges and boardwalks will give the afternoon an adventurous feel. Park one car at Apple Pie Hill and the other at the intersection of the Batona Trail and Route 72. Mileage: 8.
Keep In Mind: a few trail-specific guidelines to keep your day trip or camping adventure safe and fun.
1. Campsite permits for any of the five Batona Trail campgrounds must be obtained prior to the trip. You can do this by visiting www.camping.nj.gov or calling the state parks in which they are located.
2. Especially as we’re coming into summer, watch out for ticks! They’re common on the trail.
3. The Pine Barrens is a fire-prone area, so cooking must be done in fire rings provided at the campgrounds. Make sure to check out other park guidelines before you head out.