Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge

A quiet morning in the swamp.
Great Swamp, conveniently located in the greater Metro area, does not offer any challenging hikes. In fact, you will find here some of the easiest trails ever. You will be surrounded by the sounds of civilization - cars, planes, work noises. And you will be swarmed by hordes of people and mosquitoes alike. Yet, I do highly recommend you visit the Great Swamp at least once.

Getting there
Great Swamp is rather hidden, forcing you to take lots of local roads. Take the I-78 and later Route 24. Near the Short Hills Mall, take the Summit - River Road exit and keep on River Road (warning - that section of the road is a favorite place for cops checking speed). After two sets of lights, River Road takes a right turn and changes its name to Shunpike Road. Stay on this road for another two miles or so, until you arrive on a shopping plaza. On the lights, take a left onto Southern Boulevard. After a mile or so, you will see the entrance to the right. Once you see two big churches on your left, you missed the entrance and will have to turn around.

Well, Great Swamp is not a good place of hiking. The two main trails - Orange and Red are each about one mile long, and the side trails don't offer too much extra. Great Swamp is known mainly for its bird watching opportunities. But since this site is mainly about hiking, I will try my best to describe the trails.

A boardwalk is built over the swampy areas.
Orange Trail. The trail starts behind the visitor center and very quickly turns right. Almost immediately, it enters a long boardwalk, which will carry you through the swampy area. You will come across a few resting places with benches facing the swamp - a great place to sit down and watch the birds. Once off the boardwalk, the trail splits - Orange goes left and Blue slightly to the right. Blue trail later turns and runs parallel to the Orange trail, with which it later reconnects. I'd recommend you take this trail, as it leads through a slightly uneven terrain across something that resembles a forest. It is also much less frequented by other visitors. Once you reconnect to the Orange trail, you will be led through a series of boardwalks back to the visitor center.

Red Trail. Even though as long as the Orange trail, it offers even less to see. After a short boardwalk, you will get into an open area underneath a power line. Turn left and keep walking along the power lines for about a third of a mile, before you turn back left and re-enter the swamp. Another short boardwalk will bring you back to the visitor center. This trail does not offer as many bird watching opportunities, and is frequented by people with dogs.

Other Activities
Great Swamp is well known as a bird watcher's paradise. Dozens of different kind of birds populate this area. In addition, the surrounding woodlands are full of deer and an occasional raccoon. Finally, the visitor center has been pretty busy organizing lectures and nature walks.

When to go
I do not recommend you to go there in summer. It is usually very hot and humid, and you will run into every biting and blood-sucking insect in the East Coast. Spring and Fall seem to be the best times to go, especially early fall when all birds are still there, but the air turned dry and a bit colder to keep the mosquitoes on a livable level. I personally love to walk there after at least one foot of fresh snow has fallen (easy for me - it's within a walking distance from where I live). AT this time of the year, the nature is very serene and I tend to be the only person in the park.

Special precautions

An original way to tell you the park rules.
Please be aware that the Great Swamp features hordes of deer ticks. I have had two friends of mine already infected by lime disease after getting a tick in this park. SO take every possible precaution - from anti-insect spray to a throughout body examination to a possible visit to the doctor if you plan to come here during the tick season.

Trail update (August 26, 2002)
The trail signs were repainted, and new (much more fitting) signs, denoting points of interest were installed. Don't forget to pick up the trail guide. In addition, I'd like to stress out that summer is not the time you want to go here, unless you have a mosquito fetish.

Difficulty: 1 out of 10; very even terrain, no trail exceeding one mile.
Orientation: 7 out of 10; the markings on the Red Trail are sometimes confusing.
Beauty: 6 out of 10; bird watchers add two points, people who like to hike to escape civilization subtract two.

Final words
Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge offers very easy trails, suitable for families with children or people looking for a relaxing walk. If you are not a bird watcher and don't live in the surrounding area, you may find this park alone not worth a trip. However, if you like to watch birds or want to take part on a lecture, you should check this park out.

Other links
Hike profile at Morris County Park Commission - includes hi-res printable map and driving directions.
Great Swamp @ Skylands Visitor Guide - Another great article about this area.
Friendly NJ - Great Swamp - A short article with some pictures.
Great Swamp Outdoor Education Center - Additional information on other activities.

Summer 2002 pictures

© Jozef Purdes, 2001

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