Coastal Heritage Trail

A TRIP DOWN NEW JERSEY'S

Beyond the Beach

Cover Story

September 09, 2001|By Jill Schensul | Jill Schensul,Special to the Sun

The Jersey shore is more than just another pretty beach.

For those who are allergic to crowds or can't stand getting sand in their hair, there is an alternate reality at the shore -- a world of history, ecology and inspiration, requiring neither sunny days nor planting so much as a foot in the ocean.

The New Jersey Coastal Heritage Trail, established in 1988 by the federal government, is designed to highlight often-overlooked aspects of 300 miles of coastline, from Perth Amboy near New York to Cape May and the Delaware Memorial Bridge.

The trail, proposed by then-Sen. Bill Bradley, was established "to provide for appreciation, education, understanding and enjoyment" of significant natural and cultural sites. It is organized in five themes to define different aspects of coastal life: maritime history, coastal habitats, wildlife migration, historic settlements and relaxation and inspiration. The latter two themes are still being developed.

The trail covers five regions: Sandy Hook, Barnegat Bay, Absecon, Cape May and Delsea. Each will have its own visitor center when the trail is completed in 2004; so far those in Cape May and Delsea are up and running.

"Trail" is something of a misnomer -- this isn't a literal path you walk from one end to the other.

"Sometimes people don't want to travel to visit just one thing," says Philip Correll, trail manager. "The trail can link a series of destinations in a region."

Many sites are well known -- attractions such as the Sandy Hook Lighthouse, for example. But many more will come as surprises to even longtime New Jersey residents: places such as the Greenwich Tea Burning Monument, which commemorates a Revolutionary gesture in Cumberland County; and Cattus Island County Park, near Toms River, offering an amazing range of New Jersey habitats.

Fort Mott State Park, which had about 40,000 visitors a year before it was included on the trail, had 130,000 visitors four years later.

That might not all be because of the affiliation with the trail, Correll says, "but I think there is some influence."

The project involves communities and agencies that do the actual staffing, sprucing up and overseeing of sites on the trail. The New Jersey Division of Parks and Forestry, the Office of Travel and Tourism and the Pinelands Commission are the major partners; the federal government will spend as much as $4 million, which must be matched by other sources. The Coastal Heritage Trail program provides interpretive signs, brochures and maps for the overall route.

Here's a look at the regions along the trail:

Sandy Hook region

Sandy Hook, part of the federal Gateway National Recreation Area, is included on the trail for its maritime history -- Fort Hancock, Sandy Hook Lighthouse -- and its habitat: a 1,665-acre barrier beach peninsula, including seven miles of ocean beaches, salt marsh, dunes, a maritime forest and habitat for migratory shorebirds. Rangers offer seasonal nature and history walks and programs.

Also along the waterfront, across the bay from Sandy Hook and a little to the north, is the recently developed Perth Amboy Harbor Walk, taking in the 1904 ferry slip, 1929 armory, 1880 Raritan Yacht Club headquarters and 1780 Kearny Cottage. The 1880 Great Beds Lighthouse sits offshore, in the bay.

More about maritime history is stashed away at the Steamboat Dock Museum, a project of the Keyport Historical Society.

Keyport, first settled as a private plantation in 1714 by the Kearny family, had become a major port on the way to New York City by the 1830s. Unfortunately the museum is open for only limited hours.

Two wonderful state parks in this region are well worth checking out: the memorably named Cheesequake, at Exit 120 of the Garden State Parkway, with several well-marked nature trails; and 3,000-acre Allaire State Park farther south, off parkway Exit 98 in Farmingdale, with its historic old iron mining village, little Pine Creek Railroad steam train, sports fields and hiking trails.

Barnegat Bay region

This region includes one of the state's best-known lighthouses, 165-foot-tall Barnegat Light. The state park in which it sits offers barrier island habitats and one of the last remaining maritime forests on Long Beach Island.

Across the inlet, Island Beach State Park is pristine shore, an oasis of peace and wildlife in this stretch of coastline. Another standout state park is Double Trouble, its specialty being quintessential Pine Barrens landscapes, complete with cranberry bogs. Take out a canoe there and you'll be in the midst of the barrens' famous tea-colored waters.

Two lesser-known, county-run treasures there are Cattus Island and Eno's Pond county parks. The 497-acre Cattus Island offers a memorable day's experience hiking through salt marshes, pine-oak forest, white cedar swamps, freshwater bogs and maple gum swamps.

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