This story originally ran in October 2019.
It’s time to get out of the house and hit the road.
You need it — especially after the events of the past year — and you want it. What’s stopping you?
New Jersey is the nation’s most highway-intensive state — no surprise there — and most of our major roads and highways are a nonstop horror show. Route 80, the Turnpike, Parkway, Route 3 — need I go on? But still, this small, unglamorous state is packed with sensational stretches of asphalt, which make for perfect spring/summer road trips.
My 20 most scenic roads can be found all over New Jersey, from the wilds of Sussex and Passaic counties to the empty, beautiful corners of Cumberland and Salem counties. The Shore’s represented, too, and so is a 3.5 mile white-knuckle highway to hell that is many a Jerseyan’s least favorite road.
My roads offer scenic beauty, peace and quiet, three things we all could use right now. These aren’t necessarily the prettiest roads in New Jersey, just the most scenic and picturesque. There’s always something to see, and they reveal New Jersey in all its diversity and uniqueness.
No other Jersey road packs as much scenery as Route 519, which snakes its way from the top of the state all the way to Rosemont, just north of Stockton. The Land of Make Believe (re-opens Memorial Day weekend), just off 519 in Hope, is an apt metaphor for this highway, as it twists and turns through a Jersey you may have forgotten still exists. The town names are fun and fanciful — Alpha, Harmony, Plumbsock and Beemerville, home to roadside attraction Goliath, the world’s largest (and extremely well-preserved) bear. The highway’s winding route is road made for motorcycles and stick shifts.
The best drive Down the Shore (what, you thought it was the Parkway?), this local road winds through Strathmere (with that Jersey rarity, a free beach!), Sea Isle City, Avalon and Stone Harbor before ending at Nummy Island and Grassy Sound. The most picturesque sections of the road — much of it known as Ocean Drive — vault over marsh and water through a series of toll bridges. Which are blissfully free of traffic this time of year. Stop at Corson’s Inlet State Park between Ocean City and Strathmere, with the state’s least-known beach. Forget your GPS; just follow the gull — the bird appears on Ocean Drive signs. One fairly recent development: E-ZPass is now accepted on the Ocean Drive bridges.
Start at Washington Crossing State Park, with its leafy, lovely views along the Delaware, and then head north; you can pull over at several points and cross footbridges to the D&R Canal Towpath. You can even explore an island — Bulls Island Recreation Area, just north of Stockton. Two other charming small towns are along the way — Lambertville and Frenchtown. In all three towns, you can walk across the bridge into Pennsylvania.
One of the country’s oldest commercial roads, Old Mine Road was built in the mid-1600s, providing a vital conduit for area farmers to get their crops to market. Today, it’s a lovely and often lonely 40-mile stretch of woods, wilds and waterfalls through Warren and Sussex counties. Take a short side trip to Walpack Center, the town that time forgot.
Other roads take you deeper into the marvelous, mysterious Pine Barrens but no route is more pleasant than 542. Start in New Gretna and head west. Batsto Village, the historic site that should be on every Jerseyan’s bucket list is along the way (it’s okay to admit you’ve never been there), and so is Wading River, Leektown and Crowleytown. I’ve been down this road dozens of times and often have it to myself. It ends, somewhat abruptly, at Route 30 (the White Horse Pike), a jarring reminder you’ve passed from near-wilderness to “civilization.’’
Birders love State Line Lookout in Palisades Interstate Park, which offers jaw-dropping views over the Hudson River. Just south, at park headquarters, begins Henry Hudson Drive, a memorable, meandering and vertiginous roller coaster ride. Those afraid of heights, or who shudder at the thought of mere stone walls keeping you from plunging hundreds of feet into the river, would do well to stay away. You also need to watch out for bicyclists, hikers and falling rock. The road eventually levels off and ends just south of the George Washington Bridge.
This was once the “secret” back way to the shore; it’s a secret no more, not with the steady stream of traffic, especially in the summer. At the south end, you’ll drive through the deliciously desolate Pine Barrens; at the north end is Allentown, one of Jersey’s great small towns. In between are country churches, farms, one race track (New Egypt Speedway), one bombing range (Warren Grove), multiple Wawas and a great luncheonette (Lucille’s Country Cooking)
I know what you’re thinking: Are you crazy? The Skyway? Forget the detractors and doomsters who want it torn down; this is Jersey’s greatest thrill ride, several miles of pure charm or chaos, depending on how you look at it. It snakes and slithers over a shadowy world of warehouses, power lines, container ship depots, smokestacks, train tracks, truck stops, bars, a jail and a sewage treatment plant. It’s so Jersey, and not Jersey at all. Jimmy Hoffa may be buried down there, and I want to be. The view is breathtaking on either side; the Skyway is the state’s grittiest, most glorious sight. And quite a ride.
At the other extreme from the Skyway is this spare stretch of road to the end of Jersey. Start at humble Port Norris and Shellpile/Bivalve, home to a Rutgers shellfish research lab and the A.J. Meerwald, the state’s official tall ship, at the Bayshore Center at Bivalve. Follow 553 to Back Neck Road and make a left onto Sea Breeze Road, which dead-ends at Delaware Bay. It may be the state’s most desolate spot, about as far from “Jersey’’ as you can get — the lonely, moody end of the line.
Start at the NJ/NY state line and wind your way down to Hunterdon County, passing through a colorful cross-section of Jersey — woods, wilds, water, suburbia, small towns, farms and more. Newfoundland is home to an old train station, along 513, that’s featured in the movie “The Station Agent.’’
Don’t miss the “telephone pole farm’’ — a former AT&T testing area — in Chester, and that town’s specialty store-studded Main Street, which is 513.
Long Valley may be the state’s most splendidly situated town. There will always be a soft spot in my heart for Clinton; I once lived above a jewelry store on Main Street. The town, with its oft-photographed red mill and bridge over the south branch of the Raritan River, is worth a trip on its own.
Skyline Drive, a 5.8-mile drive from Route 287 to Route 511 in Oakland and Ringwood, offers good views from the car, but even better ones if you park and hike — not far — into the woods in Ramapo Mountain State Forest. A walk down any of the trails reveals many places of quiet beauty. One note: watch out for bears. Check out the abandoned water tower near the lower parking lot on Skyline Drive, just off exit 57 of Route 287.
It doesn’t offer the same verve and variety as nearby Route 519, but 521 may be the state’s loopiest road — up and down and around, like some motoring thrill ride. At its north end, it winds through a magic kingdom of state parks, lakes and streams. The Old Stillwater General Store (now Garriss General Store), just off 521, is the state’s oldest-running general store; it opened in 1876. For a great side trip, head over to Route 615 and Walpack Center, the town that time forgot.
Maybe no other road reveals the Pine Barrens better than Route 563, a long stretch of mostly lonesome that takes in state forests, cranberry bogs, campgrounds and hamlets. Start at Green Bank, on the Mullica River, and head north, though Wharton State Forest. A good eye will spot Jenkins Chapel (photo), probably the state’s smallest church. A little further on you’ll reach Chatsworth, the Pine Barrens’ unofficial capital. The road dead-ends at Route 72 and Brendan T. Byrne State Forest, formerly known as Lebanon State Forest.
It’s short and sweet, but the views of Manhattan from Port Imperial Boulevard are sensational. Several swanky apartment complexes are along the way, including The Landings at Port Imperial and RiversEdge at Port Imperial, and the Port Imperial Ferry Terminal provides ferries to midtown Manhattan. At the southern end is the fabulous Weehawkin Waterfront Park, with a track, three tennis courts and a riverfront walk.
This road is a long, straight slice of South Jersey. For a quick, unforgettable detour, follow Chestnut Street in the town of Salem four miles to its end — Delaware Bay. The Hope Creek Nuclear Generating Station is off to the left, and there’s a vest-pocket park at Elsinboro Point where you can watch the world — tankers mostly — go by.
From Atlantic Highlands, Ocean Boulevard climbs up, up, up, with boats, bay, ocean, the New York skyline and homes most of us can only ever dream about along the way. A must-visit is the Mt. Mitchill Scenic Overlook, which, at 266 feet above sea level, is the highest natural elevation on the Atlantic seaboard. It’s named after naturalist and botanist Samuel Mitchill. On a clear day from Mount Mitchill, you’re treated to a panoramic sweep of Sandy Hook Bay, the Atlantic Ocean, and the New York City skyline. The Monmouth County 9/11 Memorial is located here.
I love Route 40: from A.C. to the Delaware Memorial Bridge, it’s rural New Jersey as its most picturesque and representative, dotted with small towns, farms, roadside stands, a vintage car dealership (South Jersey Classics, in photo), the nation’s oldest continuously-operating rodeo (Cowtown, in Pilesgrove) and more. It’s a long, lazy drive. You want fast, get on the Atlantic City Expressway; you want scenic, meander down Route 40.
Little Egg Harbor — not to be confused with Egg Harbor City or Egg Harbor Township — is in southernmost Ocean County. It manages to be both a Shore town and Piney town, with bay views and deep pockets of woods. Just past Tuckerton Seaport and the Wawa in Tuckerton, head down Great Bay Boulevard, a long stretch of moody lonesome once you get past the scattering of homes. There’s marsh and bay and birds, LBI and Atlantic City in the distance, and an overwhelming sense you’re not in New Jersey anymore. The Rutgers University Marine Field Station, at the end of the road, is shown in the photo.
Route 206 is an under-appreciated Jersey road, a long, mostly straight stretch from Hammonton to Trenton, Princeton and Lawrenceville, then Pluckemin, Peapack, Chester, Andover and beyond. Above Newton, it’s especially picturesque, with markets, farms and woods. One must-stop: Gyp’s Tavern in Sandyston (photo), one of the state’s great dive bars.
Wait, what, the Parkway? Everyone’s most reviled highway? Hate to break it to you, but for nearly a third of its 172-mile length, the Garden State Parkway is scenic if not downright beautiful. It all starts at milepost 49 (photo), around New Gretna and Port Republic, where the road arcs over a breathtaking expanse of water, marsh and sky; more of the same is encountered, with a few exceptions, all the way to the highway’s end. This “other Parkway’’ is so far removed from the chaos and congestion up north that it’s surreal.
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Peter Genovese may be reached at [email protected].