HIGHLANDS HIGHLIGHTS: More Than the Shore, The Garden State's Wild Places Offer Unexpected Opportunity
NJ HILLS MEDIA // July 1, 2023
What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of visiting New Jersey? For most people it’s probably Atlantic City and the Jersey Shore, including stale references to a certain decade-old reality TV show featuring a distinctive cast of New Jersey caricatures (who, ironically, were mostly from New York). Certainly, nothing in modern pop culture has done so much damage to the state’s reputation for attracting visitors as that trainwreck.
What might be surprising to out-of-staters who lambast New Jersey’s reputation as the “Armpit of America” is the surprising among of wildness and natural scenic beauty that remains largely undiscovered by all except those who live among it. New Jersey is home to over one million acres of preserved space, including state, county and municipal parks enjoyed by millions of people every year.
Indeed, New Jersey’s official nickname, “The Garden State”, is all but forgotten by those living in the two major metropolitan regions the state serves. Yet each year, residents of New York and Philadelphia flock to New Jersey by the millions to enjoy popular hiking, biking, paddling, and fishing destinations throughout the state. To get to these locations, one must drive along the highways, passing by the state’s small towns spaced between historic farmlands, small streams, and ponds, and parks whose names are hardly remembered.
These lesser-known wild places, though lacking the renown of more famous destinations like Mount Tammany or Pyramid Mountain whose parking lots are always full, are nonetheless enjoyed by the people who live among them not only for recreation, but for the numerous other services they provide. Undisturbed land stores and filters drinking water, providing defense against both drought and flood. They harbor the lion’s share of plant and wildlife diversity and uphold the food webs which form a cornerstone of the agricultural industry that makes our little state one of the top producers of fresh fruit and vegetables in the nation. These services and more are provided by wild places for free to their communities so long as they remain unprotected and undisturbed.
The concept of wildness might seem antithetical to the existence of the most densely populated state in the nation, but not only is preserving wild places consistent with development, but a necessity. Wildness is where we find it behind the apartment complex, in our yards or in our little parks: it’s a stream you can step over, a mushroom growing on a log, or a vernal pool that appears only when it rains. On its own, it may be small but taken as the sum of all its parts across all our communities, it makes New Jersey a patchwork of unique experiences visible only to those who get off the Turnpike.