The Great Swamp!

Step back in history approximately 75,000 years. An enormous glacier covers most of what is now Canada and a significant portion of the northern United States. The Wisconsin Glacial Period (named after the state where sedimentary evidence from the glacier was discovered) caused significant changes to the land beneath its mammoth ice sheet. As the glacier melted and retreated, it left behind an enormous lake in northern New Jersey, measuring approximately thirty miles in length and ten miles in width. The lake sat at a high elevation, and eventually drained into the Passaic River, leaving behind a 7,800-acre swamp.

Fast forward in time to the mid-1950s. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey wants to turn the area into an airport to handle the increased aviation traffic of the New York metropolitan area. Local residents oppose the plan, and to fight the airport proposal, they pool their resources to purchase as much of the land as possible. The residents then donate the territory in its entirety to the Federal government. It becomes the first federal wilderness area, and helps to establish the National Wildlife Refuge System, part of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (via Wikipedia).

Today, Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge is a 12-square mile park that is home to numerous permanent and migratory birds. The park is open to the public, with over 11 miles of trails offering numerous opportunities to observe wildlife in their natural habitat. On a beautiful Sunday morning in early July, my wife and I set our GPS for the town of Basking Ridge, New Jersey, to spend some quality time outdoors.

Let’s begin:

Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge

Map of New Jersey, with red pin in location of Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge.
Located a little less than an hour west of Manhattan, Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge is nestled among the Watchung Mountains in northern New Jersey.
Menu of The Sterling House on metal picnic table, with garden in background.
Adventurers can’t run on empty stomachs! First things first… my wife and I stopped at The Stirling House Restaurant and Diner for breakfast. As the diner offers seating in their small but picturesque garden, we opted to dine outdoors.
Belgian waffle with two sausages on white plate, with glass of orange juice and mug of coffee on picnic table.
While my wife ordered the far more sensible grilled veggie and egg white frittata, I opted to go for pure carbohydrates: a Belgian waffle. Both of our meals were tasty, and once we had eaten, we were ready to tackle our outdoor hiking adventure.
Entrance to Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, with two cars in gravel driveway.
A little less than ten minutes from the diner, we arrived at our destination: Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge.
Small information cabin, with picnic tables set up for displays by Friends of Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge.
A small information booth sits at the end of the parking lot. On this day, the site was also staffed with greeters from Friends of Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. Friends of Great Swamp is a volunteer organization that helps the Fish and Wildlife Service maintain the park.
Boardwalk trail over swamp.
Numerous hiking trails criss-cross Great Swamp, and several miles of them are on elevated boardwalks. Indeed, two miles of these trails are wheelchair accessible, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service includes Great Swamp on its list of Wheelchair Accessible Trails of the Northeast.
Boardwalk path through woods.
As we followed the trail, it felt like we were in a fairy tale forest… or on the forest moon of Endor.
Yellow tag with number 26 on it hanging from a bush.
Many species of trees and shrubbery had tags with numbers on them. A guide at the visitor center lists the plant names associated with each tag.
Swampy area in Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge.
The eastern half of Great Swamp is deliberately left almost completely undeveloped, so plants and wildlife are able to fully make the land their home with a minimum of human interference.
Bird blind on hiking trail.
Several blinds are stationed throughout the park to allow you to observe wildlife without disturbing them.
Goldfinch on branch.
More than 200 species of birds call Great Swamp their home. This female goldfinch perched near me and allowed me to snap a photo before she flitted away.
Red-winged blackbird.
For such a small creature, this red-winged blackbird sure was loud. When I first heard its call, I was scanning the tree-line for a much larger bird, until I realized that this little guy was making all the noise.
Gray catbird clinging to branch.
I’m always amazed by the lightness of birds – how they can perch on thin branches or reeds without the plant bending or buckling beneath it.
Woodpecker in tree.
We saw this downy woodpecker in a tree above our heads, happily tapping away at a branch.
Great heron wading in shallow water.
No birding trip for me in New Jersey is complete without encountering some kind of waterfowl, and I captured this great blue heron wading in a shallow pond as it hunted for its next meal.
Dragonfly on leaf.
For much of our hike, we were swatting away bugs as they constantly buzzed past us. Walking through a wetland, we realized that there were no gnats, flies, or mosquitos bothering us… and then we saw numerous dragonflies and damselflies zipping around the swamp. Fifty-eight species of dragonfly and damselfly call Great Swamp their home, and we were grateful for the relief offered by these tiny carnivores.
Turtle on log.
My wife spotted this turtle sunning itself on a log in the swamp. It’s one of 29 species of reptiles and amphibians that live in the park (via The Armchair Explorer).
Flowers in bloom.
As we crossed a meadow, my wife spotted these flowers… any ideas what they are? Feel free to send your guesses my way.
Barred owl in tree.
We came across two photographers with their cameras on tripods, their lenses aimed upward at a nearby tree. I asked what they had spotted, and one of the photographers smiled and pointed… a barred owl was sitting silently above our heads.
Barred owl in tree.
With a habitat that encompasses most of the eastern half of the United States, as well as much of northwestern Canada, the barred owl is one of the most numerous owl species in North America. It is estimated that over three million of them live in the wild (via Wikipedia). 
Close-up view of talons of barred owl.
Barred owls are considered “opportunistic predators,” meaning that they’ll eat anything they can catch – rodents, birds, snakes, frogs, lizards… if a barred owl can catch it, it’ll eat it. And catch things, it does… look at the size of those talons!
Barred owl in tree.
Was the owl upset by our photography? Nah. He didn’t give a hoot.
2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee parked at entrance to Great Swamp.
After a fun morning hiking through Great Swamp, it was time to head home. We departed just as the park began to get busier (and temperatures got hotter). Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge was an amazing natural treasure to visit, and we will definitely return!
Car odometer reading 86000 miles.
Along the way, our Jeep Grand Cherokee crossed another milestone – 86,000 miles is now in the books! That 90,000 mile mark is getting closer and closer. Onward!

Automotive Updates

Before closing, I wanted to share some updates on the status of the two vehicles in our fleet – my wife’s Jeep Grand Cherokee and, of course, my 2012 Honda Accord coupe.

2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee parked beneath covered solar panels.
After several weeks of driving, including spending two weeks at the shore, the Jeep was in desperate need of a cleaning. Every good car deserves a bit of shine and polish… and the Jeep came out looking great.
Interior of 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee.
Armed with auto cleaning products from Meguiars and 3M, I got to work, restoring that “fresh from the showroom floor” look that I try to give both of our cars. The Jeep also went in for maintenance a few days ago. After an oil change, a tire rotation, and new fluid in the differentials (part of the all-wheel drive system), Grace should be good to go to cross 90,000 miles.
2012 Honda Accord coupe in NJ inspection station.
Meanwhile, my 2012 Honda Accord, now with 201,600 miles on the odometer, was due for its biennial New Jersey state vehicle inspection. How did my decade-old car fare? It passed with flying colors, of course!
Write-up of Blackstone Laboratories Oil Report.
“We haven’t run out of good news for this Accord.” When I had the oil changed in my car last month, I sent a sample of used oil to Blackstone Laboratories, a business in Indiana that will analyze motor oil to determine the overall health of an engine. The heart of my car continues to beat strongly, despite all the years and miles. I can see that 300,000 mile mark in the distance.
Car odometer reading 1000 miles.
I wanted to end with a major milestone that brings a smile to my face – my Mom’s 2021 Honda HR-V recently crossed the 1,000 mile mark. Good going, Mom! Onward!

Wrapping Up

Every time my wife and I drive north along I-287 in New Jersey, we have seen signs for Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, and have passed it without a second thought. Receiving little fanfare and attention, Great Swamp is truly a hidden gem in New Jersey, and a worthwhile spot for wildlife and birding enthusiasts. The park is open during daylight hours, and the visitor center is open Tuesday and Saturday from 11:00 am – 3:00 pm, and Thursday, Friday, and Sunday from 10:00 am – 4:00 pm. Best of all, the park is free of charge. One note: many rules are in place to to avoid disturbing the wildlife in the park, so drones are forbidden, and pets are not allowed on the trails.

Thanks, as always, for coming along on another journey down the open road ahead!

‘Til next time.

4 thoughts on “The Great Swamp!

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