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Gravitas: Hiking: MTB: Proximity:What’s the closest place to Trenton to get in a reasonable hike? The answer’s simple: Washington Crossing State Park (the NJ Park, not its counterpart on the PA side). It’s only about 8 miles from downtown, a straight shot up Rt. 29 (or you can cycle up the D&R canal, if you’re truly ambitious).
The park is over 3,000 acres, most of it woodland. The trails (and there are many miles of them) are pretty much all rated for”beginners”. There’s no serious elevation gain anywhere, but many of the trails dive in and out of two stream beds that cut through the park, giving you steep little climbs of 25-75 feet or so. Pick out a route that traverses 4 or 5 of those little climbs, and it can turn into reasonable exercise. (If you’re looking for something a little more challenging, check out the Ted Stiles Preserve at Baldpate Mountain, 5 minutes further up 29 North, or the Sourlands, which is in Somerset County). On the other hand, Washington Crossing stays open during hunting season when, say, Baldpate might be closed. Some sections of trail are as pretty as any in the county, and the relatively flat topography makes the park well suited to x-country skiing in winter.
Except for the trails right by the visitors center, you will see very few other people (a prerequisite for a “reasonable” hike in my book — Trail Map here).
Many of the trails are also used by mountain bikers as well. I’ve been asked by the park’s superintendent to put out the word that mountain biking is prohibited on the blazed hiking trails. On the ground, this prohibition is not posted (the only indication I can find is a footnote in the park brochure), and is widely ignored. Cycling is allowed on paved roads, and on multi-purpose trails which you’ll find mostly on the northern and eastern periphery of the park.
As for the history…well of course the crossing was a seminal event, the turning point of the American revolution. For such an important place, the park is a bit of an embarrassment. The tiny visitor’s center might interest you for a few minutes…but there’s really not much there. My favorite “history” spot in the park is to walk along “Continental Lane”. It’s a footpath between the trees (unfortunately paralleled by a paved park-drive for about half its length) that does evoke what the the 18th century “roads” might have been like. Keep walking until the lane enters the forest and starts to parallel a stream, to enjoy its full charms.
Every Christmas, there’s a re-enactment of the crossing (a part of Patriot’s week), which draws a pretty good crowd, and is much more engaging to kids. And it is fun to just look out at the river (of course there were no bridges back then), and the Continental Army had confiscated just about every small boat in the state and pushed it over to the PA side, making the river a real barrier.
There are additional history events scheduled throughout the year on weekends, so it pays to check the calendar. But the hiking is great year round (and if we get enough snow, a rarity in these global-warmed times, you can think about snow-shoeing or back-country skiing).
A note about access. If you drive into the park proper, they may hit you with a parking fee during peak season: Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day. The “directions” link here takes you to River Drive and Grant Street. Driving up from Trenton, when you make the right onto River Drive, watch for the parking lot on your right before you get to Grant. It’s part of the D&R Canal State Park system, and it’s FREE (though it gets crowded on a beautiful Sunday afternoon in peak season). You can walk into the park over a pedestrian bridge, and save yourself $5.