You know it's autumn in New Jersey when the mercury starts dropping, the air gets crisper, and every walk down the street is accompanied by an orchestra of crunching leaves. If you're itching to make some amazing memories of Autumn 2016, look no further than this hit list of fun and budget-friendly outings.
1. See gorgeous fall foliage at the New Jersey Botanical Garden in Ringwood State Park. With 13 beautifully manicured gardens, visitors both young and old will enjoy the sights and sounds of abundant wildlife. Stop in at the Carriage House Visitor Center for a checklist of birds and other local inhabitants to spot. Try making your own scavenger hunt to occupy younger children; think targets like a statue, a bench, crab apple trees, squirrels, or the planet Jupiter. On Sundays through October, take older children on free, guided tours, which meet at 2 p.m. at the Carriage House Visitor Center. Admission to the park is free, and so is parking in non-summer months. But leave the picnic basket at home, since picnicking is prohibited.
Hunt the ghosts of Asbury Park boardwalk. Photo by FriedmanPhotography via Flickr.
2. Take a ghost tour. Up for a hair-raising evening with some uninvited guests? Grab a flashlight and satisfy your curiosity about the paranormal with a walking ghost tour, if you dare! Ghost hunts are abundant in the Garden State. Try Princeton Ghost Tours, which guides visitors to sites where unexplained apparitions have appeared, and actually lets groups hunt down their own spooks with provided EMF meters, dowsing rods, and night-vision tools. South Jerseyans will get chills over Asbury Park’s Ghosts and Legends Downtown Tour, the Ghosts of the Boardwalks tour, and the Ghost Tour of Ocean City, as groups visit ghastly sites and learn some local history along the way. Some tours are not for the faint of heart, so talk to the tour guides to discuss the age appropriateness of theirs.
3. Plant spring bulbs. Head out to your own backyard and teach the kids a new fun way to get their hands dirty. Before the first frost hits, let the kids pick their favorite spring-blooming bulbs like tulips, daffodils, and crocuses, or make it a surprise. Have kids guess what will sprout from mystery bulbs, draw pictures of their predictions, and see what pops up in April.
4. Pick your own. For many families, autumn isn’t complete without a pick-your-own apple trip and a stop at a pumpkin patch. And for the full fall-fun experience, you should check out the corn mazes, hayrides and harvest festivals that take place throughout the state.
5. Play a round or two of FootGolf. In this soccer-golf combination sport, players kick #5 soccer balls through a golf course, hoping to land their balls in a hole with the fewest number of kicks. The Monmouth County Park System has a nine-hole course at Bel-Aire Golf Course (Wall) and an 18-hole course at Pine Brook Golf Course (Manalapan), with discounts for players younger than 13.
Dan Siskind’s USS Missouri showcased at BrickFair. Photo courtesy of the fair.
6. Connect with all things LEGO at BrickFair 2016. The annual event – held October 29-30 at the Garden State Expo Center (Somerset) – is a 58,000-square-foot LEGO wonderland that includes vendors and incredible displays of LEGO scenes. Tickets are $12 at the door (children 3 and under are free), but are cheaper in advance. Strollers are not permitted in the expo hall.
7. Hit the horse trail or take a pony ride at Lord Stirling Stable (Basking Ridge). Kids of all ages can experience the joy of saddling up and trotting down a trail. And parents or guardians of little ones can rent a small horse or pony ($11–$14, depending on county residency) and lead their child around the pony ring. Or, try the “Pony Pals” program, which includes a pony story, ride and activity, held on various days through December. The 30-minute program for ages 2-4 costs $5 per parent/child pair, while the 60-minute program for ages 5-7 costs $10 per parent/child pair. Discounts are offered for siblings, and programs for older kids are available. Call for scheduling information.
8. Enjoy fun and rides in Halloween fashion at iPlay America's Spooky Family Fun (Freehold). The family-friendly event takes place from September 30 – October 31 and features magic shows, a trick-or-treat trail, pumpkin-decorating, and more. Pay by the ride or buy a day pass.
9. Take part in free, hands-on astronomy activities at Raritan Valley Community College’s Astronomy Day (Branchburg). Kids can look though the telescope, check out the planetarium exhibits, and partake in some out-of-this-world learning activities in this event, which takes place on October 15 in two shifts – 2-5 p.m. and 6-9 p.m. (Recommended for children ages 6 and older.) You can also catch a planetarium show or laser concert for $8 per show. The center isn’t large, but the potential for fun is huge. For other astronomy fun, check out the NJ State Museum (Trenton), the Newark Museum, Ocean County College (Toms River), and the County College of Morris (Randolph).
Up your pumpkin-picking game this year by taking a steam train to the pumpkin patch. Photo courtesy of Delaware River Railroad.
10. Ride the pumpkin and corn maze train. If you visit the pumpkin patch every year, raise the bar in 2016 by arriving in an old-fashioned steam engine. Every weekend in October, The Delaware River Railroad Excursions will depart from Phillipsburg and take passengers on The Great Pumpkin Train to a pumpkin patch in front of the Carpentersville Lime Kilns. Every child can take home a pumpkin (included in the ticket price). Add on a corn maze for a full fall experience, or take the Corn Maze Train. Depending on the day, mazes can be hot and take some time to solve, so plan accordingly if you have small children. Heavy-duty strollers are not recommended. Also, check out the out the Black River Western Railroad pumpkin trains to Everitt Farms leaving from Flemington.
11. Attend a high school football game. Don your local high school colors and cheer on your neighborhood football players. Don’t forget the blankets and snacks!
12. Celebrate Halloween animal-style at ZooBoo 2016. Head over to the Bergen County Zoo (Paramus) October 21-22 for a day of trick-or-treating, ghost stories, magic shows, and the Eerie Express train ride around the zoo. This is a popular ticketed event that often sells out, so contact the zoo early for availability. Families can also reserve tickets to the Spooky Zoo event at Turtle Back Zoo for special arts and crafts, presentations, and more.
13. Take a walk through the Haunted Woods of Oldbridge. Goblins and ghouls are ready to jump out when you least expect it! Lights, displays, and spooky sounds set the stage for the live actors (who are Scouts from Pack 67, Troop 167, and their families). The event is free in exchange for a food donation to be given to the Oldbridge Food Bank. Hours are Friday and Saturdays 7-10 p.m. and Sundays 7-9:30 p.m. Little ones can enjoy the displays without actors on weekends from 3:30-6 p.m.
See pumpkins in a whole new light at Rise of the Jack O'Lanterns. Photo courtesy of the event.
14. See the RISE of the Jack O’Lanterns. Check out one of the area's most “electrifying” events, which is coming to NJ for the first time in 2016. Head to the Meadowlands Exposition Center October 27-30 to see more than 5,000 hand-carved jack-o-lanterns arranged along a walking trail with a Halloween musical score in the background. Children 2 and younger are free. Here's a Mommy Poppins review with a link to a special promotions for readers.
15. Go on a Jersey devil hunt. Teach the kids some local lore about the Jersey devil, and then bring them to the Pine Barrens for a look. One possible kid-friendly destination is the Woodford Cedar Run Wildlife Refuge (Medford), where kids can scope out the resident wildlife.
16. Make apple cider. Got an apple juice or cider lover at home? The Tenafly Nature Center is holding apple cider-making sessions every Sunday throughout October.
17. Celebrate Diwali. Diwali, the Indian festival of lights, takes place on October 30 this year, and communities around the state are celebrating with festivals throughout October. This joyous time of giving and sharing is often enjoyed with music, dancing, sweets, and more. Local events are slated for Overpeck County Park (Leonia) on October 23, Exchange Place and Grundy Pier (Jersey City) on October 16, and NJ Expo Center (Edison) on October 16. Some events are ticketed.
Learn about daily life in the 1920's at Fosterfields Living Historical Farm. Photo by Emily Wiley via Instagram.
18. Decorate a pumpkin at Fosterfields Living Historical Farm (Morris Township). The farm is an interesting destination on any given day, as visitors can experience daily life here exactly how it was in the 1920s. On October 22, the park gets even more interesting as visitors can use natural materials to make a unique decorative pumpkin for $6 per adult, $4 per child (ages 4-16), and $2 per toddler (ages 2-3).
19. Go on a photo scavenger hunt at The Frelinghuysen Arboretum (Morris Township). Nearly every weekend, for $10 per family, groups can search for targets, take photos of items, and receive a prize for completion. New themes and prizes are offered each month. If you prefer something a bit more free-form, rent a backpack ($5/family) filled with learning materials, games, and activities for the gardens at the Haggery Education Reception Desk.
20. Bid farewell to your jack-o-lantern at The Great Pumpkin Sail. The day after Halloween, head over to Echo Lake Park (Mountainside/Westfield) and send off your jack-o-lantern in style. Just bring your carved masterpiece (must weigh less than eight pounds); the Trailside Nature & Science Center will provide candles, pumpkin floats, hot chocolate, marshmallows, and entertainment around the campfire as the pumpkins illuminate Echo Lake. Tickets ($12-16 per six-person family) must be bought in advance and three sessions are available.
Top image: Little leaf-peepers enjoy the foliage at Fosterfields Living Historical Farm. Photo courtesy of Mostly Maplewood.