For an easy day hike with the kids, New Jersey’s local “reservations,” essentially mini state forests and parks, are my family’s go-to. The 2,110-acre South Mountain Reservation in Essex County is one of our favorites. The recreation complex includes hiking trails, but also a zoo, fairy trail, paddle boats, mini golf, and a fantastic playground.
Read on for our best family bets for this Jersey green space, or check out some of our other favorite NJ reservations like nearby Watchung, or day trip ideas.
The reservation spreads across several NJ towns: Maplewood, Millburn, and West Orange, and borders South Orange. There are multiple entry points and trailheads at nearly every parking lot, but the bulk of the activities can be found by parking at the Cherry Lane lot. Here you’ll see the playground, paddle boats, BBQ grills, Picnic Pavilion, a seasonal concession stand, and the paved jogging and walking loop around the Orange Reservoir. You can also find a few wooded hikes straight off the parking lot. This is also where the best bathrooms are, as in not a porta-potties. The recently installed bathrooms include baby changing stations.
Another main entry point to the reservation is on Crest Drive off of West South Orange Ave. Here you’ll find flat wooded walks, the dog parks, BBQ grills, and the Wildflower Sculpture Garden.
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The reservation's "pirate ship" playground is destination worthy with dozens of different play structures.
1. Climb, swing, slide, and scale the rock walls and faux mountains at the Regatta Playground, known as the “pirate ship” by locals. There are three main sections, including a massive pirate ship-shaped playground with slides, a rock wall and more for older kids—though tell that to my toddlers—plus a smaller section just for tots, and a third portion of the park dedicated to rows of swings and another climbing structure. Pull up an Adirondack chair and watch the kids go. I only wish there were a bit more shade in the summer, but the reservoir often provides a cool breeze.
2. Walk, scooter, or stroll the paved 1.7-mile loop around the reservoir. (Adult bikes and roller blades are not allowed, but kids are often seen on their tricycles or mini scooters.)
3. Take a hike. Every time I think about visiting another reservation, I realize there’s one more trail in South Mountain that we should try. Most of them are easy enough for little legs, too; I particularly like those off of the Tulip Springs parking area, but pop into any trailhead visible from Brookside Drive and you’re likely to find a new favorite. The Rahway River runs through it, so there are plenty of sections where kids can toss in a stick to watch it float, skip a few pebbles, and or climb across a bridge.
The Turtle Back Zoo includes a number of interactive exhibits like the budgie aviary. Photo courtesy of Fox Totorus.
4. Hit the Turtle Back Zoo, one of the best in the state, which is housed in the South Mountain recreation complex. See everything from little budgies and rays in the touch tank to big cats, wolves and the just arrived giraffes. Ride the train through the woods for a view of the reservoir, get the kids' face painted, or hop on the carousel or even a real pony ride.
5. Enjoy outdoor art at the Wildflower Sculpture Garden, plus local blooms, and an easy walking path dubbed the "Lavender Loop." (Park near the dog run.)
Paddle boats are available for rent with either two-seater or four-seater options. Kids under 12 ride with an adult.
6. Paddle around the reservoir in a swan boat (seasonal), counting the real-life ducks and fish as you go. Life jackets are provided to all.
7. Gawk at canines, or tote your own along, as they play at the reservation's two nicely outfitted dog runs.
8. Picnic, or even BBQ, at the many tables and grills scattered throughout the reservation including at the Essex County Picnic Pavilion, adjacent to the playground and paddle boats. Just remember that it’s often booked for parties and other special events, so have another option in mind.
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Find handmade fairy decor along a portion of the Rahway Trail now dubbed the Fairy Trail. Kids will enjoy racing from one miniature home to the next.
9. Peer into the miniature houses, hammocks, and other whimsical creations for the wee folk along the Fairy Trail. (Park at Locust Grove across from the backlot of the Millburn Library and look for the small sign that marks the Fairy Trail at the entrance to part of the Rahway Trail.) The trail starts out flat, but gets knotty and a bit hilly as you go on. We spent about an hour on it with my toddler and preschooler who had a blast, but we certainly didn’t walk its length. They loved pointing out each house and continue to ask when they'll get to see the real fairies.
10. Kids ages six and up can tackle the 40-foot-long zip line and junior obstacle course at TreeTop Adventure Course, adjacent to the zoo.
11. Learn to ice skate or drop in for open skating sessions at the Codey Arena.
12. Play putt-putt at the 19-course MiniGolf Safari, one of our favorites in the state.
The walk to Hemlock Falls is manageable for even preschoolers.
13. Hear the roar of Hemlock Falls. OK, it's not a huge waterfall but after a rain it can be pretty impressive and peaceful. There are multiple hikes that will get you to the falls, including this 5-mile hike that starts in Millburn and is accessible via NJ transit. However, the way that we do this with our young kids is by parking in the Tulip Springs-Boy Scouts lot off of Brookside Drive and following the trail into the woods (toward the direction of the reservoir; it starts up a little set of stairs), staying on the trail to the right (passing by the Boy Scout teepee, which is always fun to peek into), heading back over South Orange Ave via a walking bridge, and then veering down the hill to the left. Those directions will seem clearer when you arrive, but don't hesitate to ask another hiker on the trail to confirm you're going the right way. Starting at this point, the walk takes an adult maybe 15 minutes each way, but with two kids under the age of four, I budget an hour round-trip. They can both walk it themselves, though I'll admit to some carrying here and there.
All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.