A Guide to Backpacking Jersey's Batona Trail

Weaving through seemingly endless pines, the Batona Trail in southern New Jersey provides a rare opportunity for tranquil solitude in a densely populated area. Short for back to nature, the trail traverses several state parks and protected areas, giving hikers an unparalleled Pinelands experience.

The scenery is flush with Pitch Pine and Scrub Oak, with intermittent groves of Atlantic White Cedar. The Pinelands are known for the tea-colored streams and rivers, rich with the tannins of leaves and pine needles left undisturbed for years and quietly flowing past sandy banks. The area has a unique history, and the trail itself connects with several sites, allowing passers-by a glimpse of the Pine Barrens’ interesting and storied past. While the Batona Trail is a roughly 50-mile thru-hike and always a multi-day backpack, day hikers and kayakers have ample opportunities, as well.

Credit: Joseph Lasky
Credit: Joseph Lasky

Things to Know

If you are considering a hike in the area, keep the following in mind:

  1. Depending on the season, ticks are common. So, treating your clothing with permethrin and using DEET-based repellents will reduce your risk of tick bites. Checking your clothing regularly throughout the day is also a smart practice. Rattlesnakes can be found on the trail in the summer, as well.
  2. Camping should be done in designated areas. So, planning daily trail segments needs to be done with campsite locations in mind.
  3. Potable water is located at several campsites, and water from streams can be treated or filtered.
  4. The Pinelands are typically dry and susceptible to forest fires. So, any cooking done away from campground fire rings must be completed with a stove.
  5. There are ranger stations at Bass River, Batsto Village, and near Four Mile Circle, but not at the northern terminus of the trail (Ong’s Hat). Maps are available at these locations, as well as online.
  6. Keep your eyes out. Though the trail is supposed to be for hikers, occasionally sections may be shared with dirt bikes.
Credit: Joseph Lasky
Credit: Joseph Lasky

Getting Going

Because of its relatively flat nature, the trail is equally enjoyable whether you start from the Bass River or Ong’s Hat terminus. The more popular and perhaps easier-to-find terminus is at Bass River State Park. The trail is clearly marked with pink blazes, and a road crosses in several places, allowing for early exits in case of an emergency.

Bass River immediately immerses you in the heart of the Pinelands, where you quickly leave behind the state’s bustle for the serenity of the forest. From the start, the trail follows an embankment. These are relatively common and used by cranberry farmers to direct water. The hard-packed sand surface remains consistent for nearly the trail’s entirety.

Buttonwood Hill Camp is approximately 15 miles from the start. Getting there makes for an ideal first day, and it sets up an exciting second day.

Credit: Joseph Lasky
Credit: Joseph Lasky

From the Highlands to the Swamps

Leaving Buttonwood Hill and hiking for 3.5 miles, backpackers have the option to head down a short spur trail to visit Batsto Village. This site has preserved the history of the iron ore and glass-blowing industries that defined the Pineland’s economy from the colonial period through the late 19th century. The visitor’s center also provides information on the region’s unique ecological features.

After leaving the village, the trail follows along Batsto Lake and Batsto River, though views of either are few and far between. The section from this point to Lower Forge Camp is one of the lowest in elevation. As such, you’ll find swaths of Atlantic Cedar swamps, which break up the nearly constant “highland” Pitch Pine and Oak.

Depending on the time you spend at Batsto, Lower Forge Camp and Batona Camp are both practical options for camping. Lower Forge is 10 miles from Buttonwood Hill, and Batona is 15. As well, Lower Forge is situated on a creek, while Batona has a potable water well.

The Carranza Memorial is located close to Batona Camp and makes for an interesting short stop. Emilio Carranza, the “Lindberg of Mexico,” was a famed long-distance pilot in the 1920s who crashed in the Pinelands.

Credit: Joseph Lasky
Credit: Joseph Lasky

Hill Climbing

From Batona Camp, the trail passes through swamps before rising to Tea Time Hill, a rare and easily noticeable elevation gain. Then, you continue on to its highest point, Apple Pie Hill, which hosts a fire tower that is still in use. This spot has visitor parking, and other than Batsto Village, this will be the trail’s most populated location. The views are delightful, so stop to take in just how expansive the Pine Barrens are.

The trail then descends from the hilltop and passes along several cranberry bogs. Depending on the time of year, the embankments may be flooded. Here, waterproof boots may be helpful.

The last camp along the trail, Brendan T. Byrne Camp, is roughly 10 miles from Batona Camp, and is another 10 miles from the end. You will likely see day-hikers between Byrne and Four Mile Circle, but the last section to Ong’s Hat is much less traveled.

Other than the obvious sense of accomplishment that accompanies completing a multi-day trek, hikers have the added satisfaction of being in a place called Ong’s Hat. This location was apparently named for a man, Ong, whose hat got stuck high on a pine branch. Be warned: With few services available, Ong’s Hat is virtually a ghost town.

 

No other ecosystem like the Pine Barrens exists in the Northeast. As you hike, you’ll discover it’s home to several endemic plant and animal species that can’t be found anywhere else.

Credit: Joseph Lasky
Credit: Joseph Lasky

The NYCer’s Guide to Fall Foliage Outside the City

Get excited, NYCers, as fall is here! That means brisk air, apple picking (did someone say cider!?), fall brews, and, best of all, foliage! So, where do you go when you want to get out of the city and maximize your fall experience?

Credit: Michael Martineau
Credit: Michael Martineau

Northern New Jersey/Delaware Water Gap

Prime Foliage: November 5 – November 19

Distance from NYC: 30 minutes – 1.5 hour drive

Often overlooked, Northern Jersey and the Delaware Water Gap have several great state parks to explore, all within an hour and a half of NYC. You can take a stroll around a lake, summit one of the many mountains with views of the city skyline, or kayak down a river with the leaf colors popping above. Visit High Point State Park and hike the Monument Trail, walk around the lake and head up to Pond Eddy to kayak the upper section of the Water Gap, or, my personal favorite, summit Bearfort Mountain via the Ernest Walker Trail.

Why visit? Northern NJ and the Delaware Water Gap give you a few options that are very close to NYC. You can even head out in the morning and be back in time for a late lunch with friends. These areas also have smaller crowds, so you may have the trails all to yourself.

Credit: Michael Martineau
Credit: Michael Martineau

Connecticut

Prime Foliage: October 22 – November 12

Distance from NYC: 1 – 2.5 hour drive

If you’re looking for a day of hiking followed by a stop for some fresh cider, Connecticut has you covered, as it’s home a bunch of orchards and state parks that provide everything you’re looking for during peak foliage season.  Those looking to stay closer to NYC should check out Sleeping Giant State Park to rock climb the face or hike the Tower Trail, known for views all the way to Long Island Sound, and then drive just 20 minutes to Lyman Orchards for some fresh cider and apple picking. Feeling more adventurous? Head north to Kent to explore their awesome little town, Kent Falls State Park, and Macedonia Brook State Park, and then stop at Ellsworth Hill Orchard & Berry Farm.

Why Visit? Close and very easy to get to from NYC, Connecticut will give you the perfect fall day with friends or loved one. Spend the day exploring, or find a nice B&B and make a weekend out of it.

Credit: Michael Martineau
Credit: Michael Martineau

Hudson Valley, NY

Prime Foliage: October 22 – November 5

Distance from NYC: 1.5 – 2.5 hour drive, or take Metro-North

Leaf colors during prime foliage, hiking right along the river, and small towns with great atmosphere – should I keep going? There are many great places along the Hudson River to explore, from Cold Spring to Cornwall-On-Hudson to Beacon. Each town has a variety of fall activities you can do, and all have access to some great hiking. Local hiking favorites are Breakneck Ridge, Sugarloaf Mountain, and Storm King. Once you’ve conquered one of these mountains, head into town for a celebratory beer, most likely brewed in the area, and a burger, because you’ve earned it.

Why Visit? The Hudson Valley is very accessible for NYCers, mainly because you don’t need a car to get up there. The Metro-North will drop you off right in Cold Spring, so you can explore the town for the day. Couple the ease with the beautiful fall colors while you look over the river, and the group of friends you brought along will be thanking you for an awesome day.

Credit: Michael Martineau
Credit: Michael Martineau

Catskills, NY

Prime Foliage: October 15 – 29

Distance from NYC: 2 – 3 hour drive

If you want to hike a bigger mountain, but you do not want to drive all the way up to the Adirondacks, head to the Catskills. Mt. Wittenberg, North Point, Giant Ledge, and the Dickie Barre, Peters Kill, and Awosting Falls loop are just some of the great options to take in the fall colors. On top of the great hiking spots and The Gunks, easily offering the best rock climbing on the East Coast, you’re bound to find a fall festival in the area. Most of the ski mountains, including Hunter, Windham, and Belleayre, hold Oktoberfest celebrations and farmers markets. For those not looking to hike or climb, you can take some really beautiful scenic drives in this area, and find a few great breweries for some tastings.

Why Visit? The Catskills have a little bit of everything. The best part is, you can make it a day trip if you stay in the southern parts, like New Paltz. In the end, a fall day here is a day very well spent, and you’ll agree after experiencing it. 

Credit: Michael Martineau
Credit: Michael Martineau

Adirondacks High Peaks Region

Prime Foliage: October 1 – 15

Distance from NYC: 3.5 – 4.5 hour drive

Take in the morning’s brisk and clear air, and then, hit the trails, where you’ll find red, yellow, orange, and purple leaves all around you as you climb in elevation. Emerging above the tree line will fill you with instant excitement, because this will be your first glance at the Adirondack Park’s peak foliage from above. That first view leaves you speechless, and it’s hard to put into words the full effect and beauty of the High Peaks Region during the fall. I highly suggest spending a few days up there, so you can take it all in and fully enjoy everything.

Look around Lake Placid and Saranac Lake for access to the best hiking, paddling, and atmosphere. As there are so many hikes with incredible views, it is hard to only list a few, but Mt. Jo, Cascade Mountain, Indian Head, and Giant Mountain are all among the best. For those looking to experience the foliage without having to hike, take a drive up to the top of Whiteface Mountain via the Whiteface Veterans Memorial Highway or the gondola to the top of Little Whiteface, for high peaks views without the work.

Why Visit? The Adirondacks High Peaks Region is the mecca for fall adventure. The colors are just incredible, and the towns just add to the experience. Do yourself a favor and head up there for a few days during foliage season, because you will not be disappointed.