J.J. Lemon paused for a moment, sweat dripping off of his face, before ascending an embankment on his mountain bike on a hot and humid Monday morning.
The steep climb at the Egg Harbor Township Nature Reserve in Atlantic County fit in perfectly for the amateur mountain bike racer during his 21 miles of training.
“It’s like my little paradise here,” said Lemon.
The 220-acre park off Zion Road in the Atlantic County town has been a favorite for local residents for more than seven years but Marc Friedman, chairman of the nature reserve, wants to spread the word about this little slice of paradise.
“I just want to get us on the map,” Friedman said, as he walked along a sandy trail with park board of trustee member Ray Goldstein.
“There are people, even in the township, that don’t necessarily know the existence of this park.”
Located in a residential area, the park was once a mining pit that provided gravel for the construction of Atlantic City High School during the late ’80s and early ’90s. According to Friedman, the owner of the pit began to illegally mine the adjacent property, that he also owned, when addition gravel was required during the construction of the school.
When even more gravel was needed he then began digging deeper, disregarding the allowed approvals of the Department of Environmental Protection.
“He ended up puncturing a hole in the aquifer,” said Friedman. “The water started bubbling out.”
Friedman, who is also the Egg Harbor Township solicitor, explained that in the fall of 1991 the township sued the owner over the illegal mining, and the owner ultimately was required to rehabilitate the land but never did. The township eventually acquired the property to satisfy the debt after it went up for sheriff’s sale, he said.
The vision of a park came about when Friedman discovered the closed operation in 1991 when his law firm started the lawsuit to stop further mining and close down the pit because of its illegal mining operations.
Friedman knew the township owned the adjacent properties and brought his idea of combining them into a 220-acre municipal park to the township committee. He told the mayor if a park committee was created he wanted to be on it.
“I was so excited about the prospect of making something positive, out of something negative.”
Once inside they found cranes, tractors and buried trucks all left behind from the once active mining operation. An already established trail system was in place from years of people trespassing with trucks and motorized bikes which helped form the lower 1.25-mile perimeter trail around the lake, an upper 1.5-mile trail and a 3-mile wooded trail that winds through the 125-acre oak-pine forest. When the park opened in 2013 there were close to eight miles of trails, some of which are not marked.
Goldstein said that the trails are perfect for mountain bikers looking for a formidable ride.
“Depending on the elements and the weather it’s never the same,” he said.
It’s not uncommon to have a clear trail one day and have a tree in your path the next day, Goldstein explained. Add to that the mud, sand and steep pitches, it all makes for a challenging calorie-burning ride.
As Friedman and Goldstein continued to make their way along the upper trail during a tour with an NJ Advance Media photojournalist, they stopped at the edge of a cliff which offers one of the best views of the park.
“It’s stunning,” said Goldstein.
Below them, a family walked along the lower trail past a family fishing while another couple walked their two dogs closer to the water’s edge. A kayaker gracefully pierced the reflection of the clouds and blue sky as he made his way across the still 45-acre lake.
The plan is to keep the park as a passive environment free from baseball fields, swing sets and even volleyball, Friedman explained, adding that they talked about allowing these things but decided against it.
“As I said nothing that will generate laughter,” he said with a hearty laugh.
They want people to be around nature, he said, whether it’s wildlife or the vegetation and be able to get close to it but not disturb it.
“Be here as an observer.”
During the height of the pandemic, the township committee decided that it was in the best interest of the public to keep the park open since most everything else would be shut down. Friedman explained that being a municipal park it did not fall under Gov. Phil Murphy’s edict.
“We have about 220 acres. People can socially distance and need to get out of the house, need to be able to experience nature, and just enjoy themselves and so they decided to keep it open.”
Posing for pictures by concrete conduits covered in colorful graffiti was Kelsey Peters and her friend Rachel Stippick, both of Pine Hill. For Stippick, it was her first time visiting the park, unlike Peters who made the discovery during the height of the pandemic and has been coming back ever since. Peters said she fell in love with the peacefulness of the park and always looks forward to meeting all of the cute dogs, that like her, visit frequently.
For Smuggs, a 6-year-old yellow lab, and Hannah, an 11-year-old chocolate lab, it’s a place where they can walk with their human, Cheryl Lees of Egg Harbor Township, and fetch sticks in the lake.
Lees, who lives within walking distance of the park, remembers when the area was abandoned — when trespassers had the run of the place, a far cry from the quiet paradise it is now.
“It was like the Wild West, having target practice with guns. It was crazy down here.”
Lees said she likes that the township kept the park more in its natural state and didn’t build it up. “They turned it into a passive park and it’s fabulous.”
Egg Harbor Township committeeman and park board member Joe Cafero, who also played an important role in the development of the park, said the goal all along was to have “low impact activities.”
“The emphasis from the very beginning was for us to have open space for wildlife to propagate and for people to enjoy that experience.”
As the fall season begins, visitors can take in the color of the changing foliage and observe wildlife such as egrets, ibises, American kestrels and hawks.
“You’ll see a lot of monarch butterflies moving through the area. They’re starting now,” said Cafero. “We do have plenty of milkweed in our three-acre meadow.”
The future plans for the park include a walkway over low lying areas, scenic overlooks, retention walls to help stop erosion on the cliffs and a classroom by the arboretum, where there is a pavilion with a large open deck area.
“But at the end of the day, it’s still a piece of property that’s been scarred by mining operations that nature has found a way to bring itself back and we are just as I see it, the stewards of that development to make sure that we don’t disturb it, but we make it accessible to the public so that they can enjoy it,” Friedman said.
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Tim Hawk may be reached at [email protected]. Follow Tim on Instagram @photog_hawk.