New Jersey: An Unexpected Place of Natural Wonder

Shilletha "Dragonsky" Curtis


When you hear “New Jersey,” what comes to mind? Most strangers I've met have simply called my state trash. I’ll agree driving on the Turnpike from the Delaware Memorial Bridge to New York City is stale and grimy. Nobody wants to look out at dull flat land for miles on end with the occasional power plant that vomits virulent fumes into our Earth. I apologize to those who travel on Interstate 95 for you have not seen the beauty that is New Jersey. My small overpopulated state of nine million has been made the brunt of every joke and insult in innumerable movies. Its residents have been branded with the scarlet letter R for being rude and less than pleasant to deal with. But I tell you, there are more gems to be seen besides the beaches, boardwalks, and casinos. These gems lay hidden on the roads less traveled by some but seen by many. Hey, they don’t call it the Garden State for no reason. Let's dive into some of the best natural areas that New Jersey has to offer. 

Worthington State Forest

Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area 


Endless fields of ferns cover the forest creating an immense ocean of green waves, wavering back and forth in the wind. In the midst of them lies an abundance of trails leading to more dinosaur age feats. Sunfish pond, a national natural landmark and glacial pond carved out by glacial forces during the last Ice Age, sits 1000 feet above its surroundings.

Skimming the pond lies another creature from the dinosaur age; the dragonfly. From mountains to flora, Worthington State Forest creates a setting that takes the curious wanderer back in time to a period where humans didn't yet exist. Worthington is a testament to time. No wonder it's part of a National Recreation area - its beauty cannot be denied.



For Appalachian Trail thru-hikers, this is their entry to New Jersey, and as I’ve heard many times, they were “pleasantly surprised.” The trail crosses over the I-80 bridge and then gradually climbs into the lush green tunnel, passing the clear waters of Dunnifield Creek, a ravine on the right where day hikers frequent and climb the mighty Mt. Tammany.

As one wanders deeper down the trail, they will marvel at my favorite spot: Racoon Ridge. On top of this ridge is a 360 degree view of the Kittatinny Mountain range and surrounding ranges. One of my favorite things to do here is camp and wake up to a serene sunrise filled with solitude, as most day hikers don’t traverse past Sunfish Pond to experience it. No matter where you’re hiking to in Worthington, there are many adventures to have and unforgettable memories to bring back for a lifetime. 

Garret Mountain Reservation

Paterson, New Jersey 


When it comes to the outdoors, I’m all about accessibility. For People of Color, those living in poverty, and individuals with disabilities, getting outside is not always easy. Not only does Paterson, New Jersey have Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park, phenomenal food, and the third largest Peruvian population in the United States, it also has 310 acres of recreational and green space. Garret Mountain Reservation sits at 500 feet above sea level, offering pristine views of New York City and the surrounding mountains. This tiny but mighty reservation is accessible by train and a short Uber ride, making it one of the most accessible spaces in the state. Bike trails, hiking trails, ponds, and the Lambert Castle (Yes, I said castle) make Garret Mountain a unique destination for people from all walks of life. Meandering through the yellow and white loop trail, I found myself smiling, nearly forgetting at times that I was in a bustling city. Lime green trees whose leaves tremble like the Aspen, provided a canopy of safety and serenity. Large boulders occupy the forest, demanding to be sat on while the sparrows sing loudly. It was moments like these that reminded me why having access to nature is so important especially in urban spaces. 

Double Trouble State Park & the Pine Barrens


Picture yourself strolling down a path made of packed sand, blanketed with the soft yet prickly needles of pines. The tannins in the still ponds and bogs complement the deep greens of cedars amidst rows of Pine Trees. A nostalgic sweet and refreshing scent lingers in the air, a reminiscence of Christmas.

There’s nothing like getting into Double Trouble State Park down the Garden State Parkway at exit 74. We love to tout our exits more than we like to pump our fists. This park gives a double surprise: the historical village of Double Trouble and eight miles of gentle, graded, flat trails nestled in the Pine Barrens. The Pinies as we call them are a mysterious yet incredible feat of nature, covering 22% of New Jersey’s land area.



Within these woods lie tales of the Jersey Devil, hauntings from ghosts of the past, and the never ending feeling that someone is watching you. If you’re looking for excitement, say less. Double Trouble takes the nature wanderer back in time to a quaint little village that was notorious for lumber and cranberry production and then pushes them into an ecosystem as diverse and unique as DNA.

Bridges and side trails are seemingly everywhere, inviting you to explore further and deeper. One thing you won’t find here is elevation, so if you’re looking for an introduction to the Pine Barrens, this is a great place to start. It is suitable for all ages and all activities including hunting, fishing, biking, horseback riding, kayaking, and more. 


Island Beach State Park 

We call it "going down the shore," while others say "going to the beach." Whatever you call it, our beaches and boardwalks are no hidden secret, and in the summer let’s just say that traffic is brutal on the Parkway. Among our 130-mile coastline, there are a few beaches that stand out, but they aren’t state parks. That’s what sets Island Beach State Park apart.

The Ocean meets nature and then kisses the bay, creating two distinctive ecosystems that make this park one to gawk at. On one side beyond the rolling dunes, the moon runs the show creating 3 to 5-foot waves that crash and recede on the white sandy beach. While on the other side, the warmer Barnegat Bay rocks back and forth gently, creating the perfect waters for kayakers, paddle boarders, and canoers. 



Ospreys and Red Foxes are some of the many inhabitants of this park, seen wandering throughout the patches of woods, relaxing by the bay, and waiting for a scrap (please don’t feed the foxes!). Though mostly beaches, this island contains a few notable trails. The longest and most challenging of the trails runs along the coastline for seven miles, giving way to excellent views of the ocean. While those looking for something more shaded will find short hikes along maritime forests, the bay and the nature center.

The nature center is a phenomenal learning facility situated near the southern end of the park - great for nature lovers of all ages. Osprey cameras, butterfly gardens, and even a washed up jawbone of a whale all are open to explore here, while being immersed in white cedars, beach plum, goldenrod, and other native plants. Come here for the best of both worlds. 



New Jersey, the Garden State, my home, is a land of many wonders from High Point to Cape May, bursting with activities for everyone. Whether it's laying on the beach basking in the sun or strolling through the pine barrens, there’s many secrets here. The cities and smells may be a deterrent, but it's not wise to judge a book by its cover. Seeing my state through the eyes of nature has given me a new perspective: Jersey isn’t such a bad place to be.  


Shilletha "Dragonsky" Curtis is a professional hiker, Disney-published Author, and influencer from New Jersey. She is poised to become the first queer Black woman to Triple Crown: she recently completed the AT in 2021, CDT in 2023, and plans to hike the Camino and PCT in 2024. Her book, "Pack Light: A Journey to Find Myself," is now available here or wherever books are sold.


Christopher T.

Christopher T.

YES! New Jersey is a beautiful state! Thank you!!

GGG Moderator

GGG Moderator

@ Rascal Longstreet
Thanks for the correction, and we’ve updated the article. From some internet research, there looks to be both white and red cedars in New Jersey with white cedar being dominant in the Pine Barrens. Thanks for reading!



Love your homage to my home state!
While you singled out Worthington, really the whole Kitatinny ridge is spectacular, including Stokes and Highpoint state parks, as well.
I spent countless hours in Garrett watching my son compete in cross country races there, and still have it on “my list” to go back to hike or bike there!

Lee Thompson

Lee Thompson

Shilletha, I admit that prior to hiking the section of the AT in New Jersey I wondered what the trip would reveal. As you so accurately pointed out, I had some concern based on unfair and unwarranted preconceptions…of course, the fact that New Jersey is called the “Garden State” didn’t seem to occur to me, either! How wrong I was! Despite not having backpacked for several years at the time of my trip (this was back in the early 2000’s), the New Jersey section of the AT absolutely destroyed my baseless preconceptions in the greatest way possible both in beauty and a pastoral feel! As a bonus, a very gracious lady (and her mother), after asking if I was hiking on the AT, wished me a very genuine “God bless you”. Such a simple heartfelt expression was both unexpected and deeply appreciated. As far as I’m concerned, New Jersey contains a special place in my heart.

Rascal Longstreet

Rascal Longstreet

There’s a lot of mistakes in the pine Barrens section. First of all, they are eastern white cedars, not red cedars. It’s not red pine, it’s pitch pine. Those are two major mistakes.

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