The Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge is located only 26 miles from the center of Times Square in New York City. Part of the suburbs near the town of Morristown, N.J., the refuge was formed when environmentalists and developers collided over the construction of a jetport in the 1950s. The Great Swamp Committee came to the rescue; it raised more than a million dollars to purchase the first 3,000 acres of land, which it then donated to the Department of the Interior. Over the course of many years, multiple tracts of land were added, eventually bringing the acreage to almost 7,500 acres of undisturbed wilderness and managed environment. There are three main areas to explore. On the western side of the swamp lies the Somerset County Park Commission Environmental Education Center. From this 18,000-square-foot building, you can access eight miles of hiking paths, two miles of boardwalk and 10 miles of horseback-riding trails. Located on the eastern side is the Great Swamp Outdoor Education Center. Here, there are two miles of trails, an observation blind and a boardwalk through swamp, fields and woods. In the middle of these two facilities is the refuge itself. This location holds a one-mile trail, multiple wildlife blinds and more boardwalks.
In the summer, the weather in New Jersey is hot and humid. Temperatures can reach the 90s with 100-percent humidity—not for the faint of heart. In addition, the mosquitoes, ticks and deer flies are capable of eating a person alive. Fall and spring bring moderate temperatures and low humidity, and the insects have yet to become overbearing.
The refuge encompasses swamp woodlands, hardwood ridges, cattail marshes and grasslands. There are many stands of large old-growth oak, beech and mountain laurel. The swamp water areas are covered in green, and fallen trees can be seen melting into the murk. New growth arises from all the decay.
There are more than 220 species of birds, 29 species of fish, 18 different amphibians and 21 varieties of reptiles. The 33 types of mammals found here include white-tailed deer, red fox, gray fox, woodchuck, raccoon, cottontail rabbit, beaver, muskrat, wild turkey, Eastern coyote and skunk. There also are blue-spotted salamanders, bog turtles and wood turtles, all of which are on the endangered species list. The Great Swamp is a birder's paradise, with one of the largest breeding populations of bluebirds in New Jersey.
Fall colors rival that of Vermont, and if you venture out onto the boardwalks, bright green-covered swamp water can be offset with the brilliant red and yellow leaves of the season. The early-morning temperatures of spring and autumn can create fog for added drama to one's images.
Fall and spring are definitely the best times to go, as temperatures and insects are moderate. Even though you're in the epicenter of the business world, the trails are relatively empty. Summer can be unique, too, with early-morning sun breaking through the heavy mist of humidity. Bring insect repellent!
Contact: Somerset County Park Commission Environmental Education Center, (908) 766-2489; Great Swamp Outdoor Education Center, (973) 635-6629; Great Swamp Watershed Association, www.greatswamp.org; National Wildlife Refuge System, http://refuges.fws.gov.
The summer months mean longer and warmer days, but it's also the season of ticks and mosquitoes. To protect yourself from Lyme disease and West Nile virus, use a long-lasting insect repellent. 3M Ultrathon is a DEET-based lotion that provides up to 12-hour protection against disease-carrying insects.