Hiking with small children can be fun for the whole family, if you choose the right trails, pack enough snacks, and build in some break time for little legs. Autumn in New Jersey may be the ideal time to get the family outdoors for a nature walk or easy hike, when trees are ablaze with fall colors and temperatures are just right.
Read on for our list of short, family-friendly hikes with scenic vistas and shady picnic spots. As for the snacks, try letting kids make their own trail mix before a nature walk: set out some bowls of nuts, pretzel sticks, dried fruits, and chocolate chips or M&Ms, and let the kids fill a plastic baggie with their favorite fuel. Before setting out, make sure everyone dresses in layers and wears comfortable shoes, and don't forget to pack sunscreen, bug spray, and plenty of water.
For more outdoor adventures, check out one of the state's many nature centers, which offer a host of family-friendly activities as well as hiking trails. Happy hiking!
Experience the famous Appalachian Trail on the Pochuck Boardwalk. Photo by fernjelen via Instagram.
Appalachian Trail Pochuck Boardwalk – Vernon
Why not start the kids off with a hike on part of America's quintessential trails—the Appalachian? Head to this handmade boardwalk trail connecting Pochuck Mountain and Wawayanda Mountain. It's an easy, two-mile loop through breathtaking scenery and a spectacular suspension bridge.
Cattus Island – Toms River
Smooth trails and boardwalks through 530 acres of marshes and forests make this shore-area hike a win for families and birdwatchers. Seven miles of trails, including one to the beach, offer scenic views of Barnegat Bay and osprey nesting areas. Don't miss the butterfly garden or exhibits at the recently renovated Cooper Environmental Center, featuring a live osprey camera, bird-watching area, live reptiles, and fish. The park also offers crabbing, fishing, and picnic areas.
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Enjoy views of Hooks Creek Lake along the beginner trail at Cheesequake State Park. Photo by Tom Simpson
Cheesequake State Park – Matawan
With saltwater marshes, freshwater swamps, open fields, and a hardwood forest, this state park boasts five well-marked trails that range from easy to moderate. The beginner yellow trail is a shaded loop with boardwalks, stairs, and views of Hooks Creek Lake. The more moderate red, green, and blue paths include some inclines and wooden plank bridges over streams and marshes. Cheesequake also features biking, boating, camping, and playgrounds.
Colonial Park – Somerset
This sprawling, 685-acre park offers a ton of attractions, including an amazing playground, picnic areas, paddle boats, mini-golf, and a couple of short, easy trails, both under a mile long. The Lois Howe Nature Trail features nine stations that identify animal tracks, birds, insects, and other creatures you might see along the way. The Powder Mill Pond Trail circles the pond includes some small hills along with views of a duck nesting place, a heron's cove, and other natural wonders.
Duke Farms – Hillsborough
This outdoor wonderland features 18 miles of picturesque trails, some paved and some gravel, leading through woodlands and gardens, around lakes and lagoons, and alongside fountains, sculptures, and a waterfall. The property, formerly owned by heiress Doris Duke, features family scavenger hunts, a tram ride, an orchid greenhouse, and an organic cafe.
Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge – Harding
The Wildlife Observation Center off of Long Hill Road in Harding offers an easy loop that runs about a mile through the woods and includes some bridges, marshy sections, and water. There are a few benches along the way, too, and wildlife to spot. The refuge, though, offers multiple entry points and paths. Check out our full guide to the area.
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See picture-perfect foliage at Hacklebarney State Park. Photo by William Doyle/CC BY-ND 2.0
Hacklebarney State Park – Chester
This sprawling park has both wooded and and paved trails, so you can bring a stroller—though you may have to carry it over some spots of rough terrain. Picnic benches are scattered throughout the park. A winding river, climbing rocks, and gorgeous foliage make this a rewarding family walking spot.
Jockey Hollow – Morristown
Known for its Revolutionary War reenactments, Jockey Hollow is also home to meandering, wooded hiking trails along babbling brooks and rolling hills. The main trail is a loop that runs more than five miles, but when your little troops are tired out, you can turn around and head back. Older kids will love that the houses on the property are relics of another era. Eager for more Revolutionary War history? Take your budding historians to another New Jersey Revolutionary War site.
Loantaka Brook Reservation – Morristown
This park is a great choice for young bikers, scooters, and strollers because its trails are mostly paved. The reservation is divided into four areas: Seaton Hackney Stables, South Street Recreation Area, Loantaka Brook Park, and the Loantaka Way trail, all totaling about 570 acres and five miles of trails. Step into this reservation a short way from the bustle of downtown Morristown, and you're immersed in the sights and sounds of nature.
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Follow the Fairy Trail at South Mountain Reservation. Photo by Rose Gordon Sala.
South Mountain Reservation – West Orange
An oasis in the middle of densely populated Essex County, South Mountain is loaded with hiking trails, including a "fairy trail" and waterfall hike. But it also includes a zoo, paddle boats, mini golf, and playground. Enter at the Cherry Lane lot to be near the playground and picnic pavilion, restrooms, and the paved walking loop around the Orange Reservoir. More details here.
Watchung Reservation – Mountainside
Head out for a leisurely fall afternoon in the lower Watchung Mountains, strolling along scenic Lake Surprise and the Blue Brook. With 13 miles of trails ranging from easy to moderate, Watchung Reservation also features a playground, restrooms, and plenty of parking. The historic abandoned village is another draw for young explorers. Trailside Nature Center houses exhibits on wildlife and habitats found in the reservation and often hosts activities for young children.
Wharton State Forest – Hammonton
In the heart of the pinelands, about 30 miles from Atlantic City, Wharton is the largest state forest in New Jersey. The Batsto Lake trail will take you through historic Batsto Village with beautiful views of the lake. Three different beginner trails, each under five miles, pass through the wonders of this state forest, which is home to bald eagles, hawks, herons, swans, owls, river otters, fox, deer, and many birds. A nature center on the banks of Batsto Lake offers a variety of programs and exhibits on Pinelands wildlife and botany.
For even more family-friendly hikes, visit the New York - New Jersey Trail Conference.
This article was first published in 2013 and was updated for 2017.
Top photo of Cheesequake by Tom Simpson.