Backpacking New Jersey:The Batona Trail and Wharton State Forest

Our 15-mile loop in Wharton State Forest.
I went backpacking in New Jersey this weekend. Believe it or not, the same state that brought us The Jersey Shore TV show is also home to beautiful forests, meandering streams and plenty of opportunities to explore them. This weekend's adventure took my partner in crime and I to the Wharton State Forest and a portion of the Batona Trail.

The Batona Trail, short for (BAck TO NAture), is a flat, meandering 49.5 mile hiking path winding through three New Jersey state forests. It was built in 1961 by the Philadelphia-based Back To Nature Hiking Club to connect Brendan T. Byrne (formerly Lebanon) and Wharton State Forests.(Visit Wikipedia and for more history.)

With only two of us in one car on this trip, we didn't hike the trail end to end as a shuttle trip, but came up with a low key 15 mile loop, pictured left. Our itinerary also involved an overnight at the only primitive campsite without any other registered campers.

We started from Batsto Village after picking up a $4 camping permit for Lower Forge. They're required if you want to spend the night in a state forest. The forest sees numerous boy scout troops and other groups during warmer months, and we were told we'd picked a great time to come. Batona Camp, our original destination, had over 40 registered campers while Lower Forge didn't have any.

Dan at the Batsto Batona Trail sign.

The Batona Trail and most of the trails in Wharton State Forest are flat and easy, which was part of the appeal for this weekend. If you're looking for spectacular vistas and elevation change, this area isn't for you. But my goal was to drive less than an hour and spend the weekend walking around a beautiful place I'd never explored before. I wanted to stretch my legs, warm up for backpacking season, and just get out there.

Most of our hike looked like this.

The Pinelands are a pretty amazing place in general, another reason for our choice of trail this weekend. The area is nicknamed the Pine Barrens because of the barren soil; crops are difficult to grow there. The soil is so full of minerals, particularly iron ore, that some of the water appears rust colored. (Though some will tell you the rivers run red with the blood of the Jersey Devil's victims! We escaped unscathed, thank goodness.)

Red water near Quaker Bridge on the Batona Trail. (D. Herscovitch)

We reached Quaker Bridge around lunch time. I knew the trail would be flat and the scenery wouldn't change much, but it was still great to have a break from the sand and pine trees! We stopped for a snack, then continued on to Lower Forge Camp.

Happy after a snack at Quaker Bridge! (D. Herscovitch)

We arrived at Lower Forge after crisscrossing dirt roads and found the connector trail to Lower Forge Camp. Thankfully, no motor vehicles are allowed within 1/4 mile of camp. A group of boy scouts had stopped for lunch, but after they moved on, we had the entire giant site to ourselves! We'd talked about dropping our packs and hiking up to Batona Camp (six miles away) for fun, but we'd both tired of the flat trail and spent the afternoon relaxing at camp. One of my favorite things in the world is taking the tent out on my first trip of the season.

Evening descends on our camp at Lower Forge.

Dan got a great fire going after he took care to rake pine needles and other debris from around our little fire pit. The Pinelands are particularly susceptible to forest fires, and taking caution is important. We brought along some of my favorite backpacking foods, including a few Kielbasa sausages. Extra time at camp meant extra time to eat!

Dan's hands-free sausage roasting setup. Ingenious!

Thanks to REI's blog, we knew we were in for a treat that night - the largest full moon in 20 years. But I fell asleep long before the moon rose high enough for photos and snapped this one of the Batsto River, which looked more like a swamp, at dusk.

Sun sets on the Batsto River.

We set out the next morning back down the Batona Trail from Lower Forge to Quaker Bridge. After crossing Quaker Bridge, we picked up a green blazed connector trail. We decided green blazes should be prohibited on hiking trails in forests. And if they're allowed, they should be a different shade of green than the forest! As the trail wound through the woods, we came to an area with an above average collection of living underbrush. Most of the area was devoid of small plants and shrubs. It looked like the forest had burned and was beginning to recover.

Dan moving into a burned section of forest.

The green blazed connector trail led us to the Mullica River Trail, which would take us back to Batsto Village and our car. The yellow blazes were definitely easier to see than green!

Presenting... a brand new looking trail sign!

Most of the Mullica River Trail looked like the shot below...wide and a little boring! It was nice to walk side by side along the river, though. Normally, you'll spend miles just staring at the heels of your hiking companions. The highlight was passing Mullica River Camp and the canoe/kayak launches. The trail crosses over roads used by Jeep clubs and off road vehicles, and we ran into a long line of Jeeps not far from Batsto.

We finally made it back to Batsto mid afternoon. The Historic Village is a neat place, and I'd highly recommend making it part of any Wharton State Forest trip. All in all, the trip was exactly what I expected. The trail was flat with little change in scenery, and I'm not sure I'd go back for another trip unless it was to hike the Batona Trail end to end!

Batsto Historic Village

What are some of your favorite easy, low key backpacking trips? Have you been on the Batona Trail?


krysia said…
Sounds wonderful! Not every trip has to be an "epic adventure", sometimes it is nice to simplify and get away even if it is just a close drive away from home. Also lucky you got to sleep underneath the Super Moon.
Katie said…
agreed! it was nice to have a low key trip, just to be out there.
Anonymous said…
Stumbled upon your blog today. Nice post! I'm still scratching my head about the super moon thing. I was out on the Pacific Ocean Sat night and saw a full moon, but no big deal (more than normal).
Anonymous said…
You've inspired me! Next time I'm home to visit family, my husband and I are going to take a night away to do this loop. Salty air and pine forest are powerful scents of "home" to me - I can sense them from your photos!

(side note: Snooki is actually not from NJ, I'm proud to say...)
Katie said…
I stand corrected about Snooki! I'm looking forward to hearing what your trip is like on this trail :)
Anonymous said…
Beautiful! I need to come out to the NE and do some hiking. It looks amazing.
socalsalty said…
Stumbled upon your blog today. Nice post! I'm still scratching my head about the super moon thing. I was out on the Pacific Ocean Sat night and saw a full moon, but no big deal (more than normal).
Lamar Wilson said…
Look at that trail ruined by all those hikers. Soil compaction, erosion, litter, posted signs, fire residue, and bridges that create barriers for wildlife. That eyesore of a trail should be closed, or at very least controlled like the PPA is trying to impose on other groups like off-road clubs.
Katie said…
There were a number of posted signs and bridges, definitely, and that part of the Wharton State Forest definitely had a number of multi-use roads, including Jeep trails, that were well used when we were there. It wasn't the quietest experience...we could hear Jeep caravans on most of the hike out. What are the off-road club restrictions the PPA is trying to impose? I'm not familiar.
Katie said…
Also, as a note, most of the wide paths you're seeing are Forest Service access roads, not hiking trails.
Peter Parker said…
The PPA is trying to completely close all existing trails that have been designated as off road trails, and limit them to firecuts and plow lines (stuffing all ORV activity into a tiny fraction of the forest) as well as cresting a 90 day review period for maps, and limiting the number of people that use the trails. Their philosophy is exclusion, not conservation. The Enduro clubs carefully manage the trails as not to over use them, and typically use them just once a year, for about 90 minutes. The PPA also spews tons of misinformation about alleged damage that is done by motorcycles, when in fact most of it is done by illegal use. One of their favorite mantras is that 300,000 acres of land has been destroyed every year - - that's nearly one third of the entire pinelands reserve! That's more than 60% of the entire warton forest. I call Bullshlt on that one. The PPA pushed for legislation that created one tiny ORV park in Cape May County, and prevented any one under 14 from even entering the property. They claim that Enduro riders used 950 miles of trail. There has not been any trails approved in decades. THe problem is that the PPA spews this garbage statistics, and people (legislators) listen to them without checking the real facts. They paint the picture that New Jersey's responsible, organized off-road riders are a bunch of hooligans intent on ripping up the earth, destroying landscapes, and burning down villages.
Joe said…
If you are a supporter of the PPA or the NJCF and want to believe these "statements", please call the Wharton State Forest and ask for Superintendent Robert Auermuller at (609) 561-0024 and ask him how many miles of new trail have been approved for enduro use since he has been Superintendent of Wharton State Forest for that matter ask him how many miles of existing trail, besides fire cuts, existing roads and existing plowlines have been authorized for enduro use since he has been there.

Don't take the word of these people wanting your money, learn the truth from someone whom supports their agenda.
NJ Save the Trails! said…
Stop Forest Damage Now!

Every year, thousands of people descend on portions of the Brendan Byrne, Wharton, and Batsto forests, causing massive amounts of erosion,damaging rare plants, and bothering wildlife. For years, people have been hiking along the Batona Trail, with absolutely no oversight. Thousands of acres are literally destroyed as people and groups trample plants and flowers,compact the soil, and leave litter and trash. This has been happening for many years, and without some intervention,the damage will continue unchecked.

The only remedy that makes sense is the complete closure of the Batona Trail, and let it return to its natural state. This is a blight upon our landscape that must me corrected. We do realize that there is a need for research and observation of our most sacred outdoor resources. Therefore, anyone wishing to observe these species can apply to the DEP 90 days in advance, with a specific agenda for observation. Any group or individual venturing into the former Batona Trail area must be accompanied by a DEP recognized expert with at least a Masters Degree in Horticulture, (but Doctorate level is preferred). Casual nature observers could utilize one of the many city parks, such as the one located in Camden, at Admiral Wilson Boulevard.

The damage must be stopped. In fact, other responsible user groups, such as enduro and Jeep clubs have removed thousands of pounds of trash and litter, and restored acres of trampled plants and flowers. The unabated usage of the Batona Trail must be immediately stopped, or there will be nothing left for our children.
Dan said…
In my experience, backpackers tend to follow leave no trace principles. It is the recreational day hikers and drive-in campers that do the most damage because they don't understand how to enjoy the forests responsibly. When we were on this trail, it appeared well maintained and nearly litter free. What little trash we found we packed out with us. We also ran into a kayaker who had stopped to fish trash out of the riverside bushes. Perhaps because it was still a little cold, we did not see a large number of hikers. There were very few sidecuts and we saw no evidence of illegal campsites. The official "primitive" campsites were well maintained with established fire pits. There was a fair bit of erosion, which is to be expected given that most of the park is sand.

There were a fair number of Jeep caravans roaming around, but they were always slow moving and on established ORV trails. As a backpacker, I would have preferred not to hear to all the engine noise, but when you enter a multi-use area you have to accept that fact. I am also a mountain biker, and as such I support multi-use trails, and multi-use areas with different trails designated for different uses. White Clay Creek State Park in Delaware is a good example of a well maintained trail system that is shared between hikers, mountain bikers, and equestrians.

Any well used area will experience some wear and tear, but unless it is in very bad shape, the solution is not to close it off. The only way to get people excited about conservation is to get them outside, and places like the Pine Barrens are excellent for that because they are so accessible.
Gabriel Lewis said…
Wow... I can't believe you would even suggest that people should need special government permission just to go on a trail. This sounds like something out of Communist China and Nazi Germany.

There's a reason why people are leaving NJ in droves.. Because fascist control freaks like you are ruining this state. Keep your control freak BS to yourself, or move to NYC where control freaks like Bloomberg live!

You seriously want to denial access to nature to the public, just because the trail doesn't look good enough for you?? It's a trail for crying about loud! Of course the soil is going to get compacted and of course it's going to show signs of use. You're acting like people are torching the place, dumping gallons of toxic waste and building condos on the trail.

Control freak, big government types like you are killing this state and sucking the life out it. We hardly have any freedom in this state, since people like you have regulated everything, to the point people and businesses no longer want to live here. You want to denial access to nature, one of the few spots in this over-crowded, over urbanized and over-regulated state that people can go to appreciate nature?
The people here have it bad enough with the highest car insurance and corruption in the nation, and you want them to get government permission to go on a trail?? How will anyone even appreciate nature in this state if control freaks like you want to make going to a state park or trail a complicated producer?

People like you only care about preserving "nature" because you just want a clean habit, a clean trail space just for special people like you, because you know, you're special. I bet you're a typical rich NJ Liberal.

I guess you're special because for everyone else, they should just utilize crummy, dangerous city parks such as one in one of the most dangerous cities in the US to experience nature??? Yeah experience nature in a place where people will get mugged, raped and murdered. City parks are not nature! You cannot expect people to experience nature in some crappy urban park in a ghetto!

Control freaks like you also always bring up cliche phrase such as, "think of the children", or "for our children's future".. Every fascist in history used this too.

You said "unabated use of the Batona Trail must be immediately stopped, or they will be nothing left for our children". First of all, if people need to get special government permission to go to visit a state park or to just go on a trail, how are the children of the future you speak about going to even know the trail or even nature exists in this State? They won't even be able to see it!

Please get out of NJ and take your control freak cronies with you! NYC, China, North Korea and the UK welcome you! You'll feel right at home!
jason bladzinski said…
I don't have any problem with the state putting people in to effect the kind of exclusion the riders are complaining about here. Those forests are not your sandbox to play around in. I camp often in Wharton, I love the atmosphere of the pines, there is no place in the world like it. It is truly one of the rarest forest types on the planet, and New Jersey by far has the largest and most complete complex of Pitch Pine Barrens on the planet. When I visit there I often camp for a full week, it just has this amazing sense of place. Perhaps most offroaders follow the rules and try their hardest to prevent damage and destruction around them, but when it comes down to it, they create noise pollution and disrupt the natural experience backpackers such as myself are there to have. In New Jersey this is the only forest area in which we have true primitive backpacking campsites that can only be accessed by hiking or canoeing. Leave it to us, we want the serenity! You can create your gravel pits and ride loud in places where your presense won't disturb anything but the ground you drive on, no matter your good intentions you cannot claim that when you ride in Wharton.
john said…
Would like to hike in to the mulica primitive campground. My boy is 11 and would like to know the shortest hike in and how many miles it would be. Thank you!