By Michele S. Byers
Back in the heyday of New Jersey’s railroads in the 1800s, train lines transported everything from iron ore to peaches to oysters.
The era of motor vehicles and highways eventually doomed many rail enterprises in this state we’re in. Fortunately, many old rail lines have been repurposed as pedestrian and bicycle paths. They are known as “rail trails.”
Rail trails are not unique to New Jersey; they are found all over the country. In 1965, the Elroy-Sparta State Trail in Wisconsin became the first abandoned rail corridor in the United States to be converted into a trail.
Today the United States has more than 2,000 rail trails stretching across nearly 25,000 miles. The longest, at 240 miles, is the Katy Trail in Missouri. The most famous may be the High Line Trail in New York City.
According to the Rails to Trails Conservancy, a nonprofit group working to create a national network of rail trails, New Jersey has 52 rail trails totaling 329 miles. There are 20 projects in the works to create another 175 miles of rail trails.
Here are some of New Jersey’s top rail trails:
• Henry Hudson Trail, Monmouth County – Using old rights-of-way from the Monmouth County Agricultural Railroad and the Atlantic Highlands Railroad, the Henry Hudson Trail stretches 22.5 miles in two sections. The north section runs from Matawan to Atlantic Highlands, while the south section goes from Matawan to Freehold. Some trail sections are wooded and shady, while others pass through open fields and across brooks and streams.
• Sandy Hook Multi-Use Pathway, Monmouth County – Not far from the Henry Hudson Trail is the multi-use pathway, which spans the length of the Sandy Hook peninsula. The trail offers scenic views of the ocean, as well as shady sections through maritime forest. A bird observatory and wildlife observation decks along the way allow you to take in the natural surroundings.
• Edgar Felix Memorial Bikeway, Monmouth County – Built on the former roadbed of the Farmingdale & Squan Village Railroad and the Freehold & Jamesburg Agricultural Railroad, the 5.4-mile Edgar Felix Bikeway connects the beach town of Manasquan with Allaire State Park in Wall Township. In 2006, the trail became the first dedicated segment of the 55-mile Capital to Coast multi-use trail that will span New Jersey.
• Barnegat Branch Trail, Ocean County – Now 11.7 miles in length, this trail will eventually travel 16 miles from Barnegat Township to Toms River along the rail bed of the Central Railroad of New Jersey’s Barnegat Branch Line, which ran for almost a century starting in 1879. Currently, three disconnected segments of trail have been completed through the sandy soils of the Pine Barrens.
• Middlesex Greenway Trail, Middlesex County – The Middlesex Greenway is a 3.5-mile rail trail following the route of the Lehigh Valley Railroad. Connected to several parks in the area, the trail weaves through Woodbridge, Metuchen and Edison and helps tie the communities together. Plans call for extending the trail to Somerset County in one direction and the Perth Amboy waterfront in the other. The trail is a link in the East Coast Greenway, which runs from Maine to Florida.
• D&R Canal State Park Trail, Hunterdon, Mercer and Somerset counties – Often referred to as the D&R Canal, this trail follows the route of the former Belvidere Delaware Railroad. Bicyclists and hikers enjoy the towpath of the canal, which was built in the early 1830s as a transportation corridor between Philadelphia and New York. Along the 68-mile route you will find 19th century bridges, remnants of locks and cobblestone spillways.
• Paulinskill Valley Trail, Sussex and Warren counties – This 27-mile trail is built on the route of the former New York, Susquehanna & Western Railway and has scenic views of northwestern New Jersey. Depending on the season, visitors may share the Paulinskill Valley Trail with hikers, equestrians, bicyclists, cross-country skiers or even dog sled teams.
• Sussex Branch Trail, Sussex County – The 20-mile Sussex Branch Trail got its start in the late 1840s as the narrow-gauge, mule-drawn Sussex Mine Railroad whose primary purpose was hauling iron ore from the mines to the Morris Canal. The trail mostly crosses woodlands, but also travels through the outskirts of Newton and along a stretch of road.
• Columbia Trail, Hunterdon and Morris counties – This 15-mile trail follows the route of the old Jersey Central Railroad line from High Bridge to Washington Township. The trail features magnificent scenery, including the Ken Lockwood Gorge, a boulder-strewn ravine where the South Branch of the Raritan River flows between steep, wooded hills.
• Middle Township Bike Path, Cape May County – This trail runs for nearly 9 miles between Cape May County Park and the community of Whitesboro, following the former route of the Cape May Seashore Line. Along the way, hikers and bikers can stop at the park’s zoo, Atlantic Cape Community College, Davies Sports Complex and the 4-H Fairgrounds.
• Pleasantville to Somers Point Bike Path, Atlantic County – This 8.2-mile rail trail connects the towns of Somers Point, Linwood, Northfield and Pleasantville. Most of the trail travels through residential neighborhoods, with schools, parks and playing fields in between. A few short, wooded sections provide a change of scenery.
Enjoy hiking or biking on a rail trail! To find out more, go to https://www.railstotrails.org/ and click on New Jersey.
Michele S. Byers is the executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, Far Hills. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org