By Peter Dabbene

When I was a kid, hiking might have been the last thing on my preferred activities list. As I’ve gotten older, and life becomes increasingly dominated by “screen time,” I’ve learned to better appreciate time outdoors—especially hiking, which provides scenic views and exercise, as well as proven mental and emotional health benefits.

Years ago, and quite accidentally, I found Clayton Park (in Imlaystown, off Exit 11 on I-195), which offers several hiking trails, and woods deep enough that it’s possible to forget that you’re only a mile or two from civilization. Clayton Park became a regular stop, especially in the spring and fall, when it became a way to break out of winter hibernation or indulge in one final dose of color before the snow season.

After awhile, craving a change of vista, I explored other spots in Mercer County—Mercer County Park, Washington Crossing State Park and Baldpate Mountain. Widening the search, and with some difficulty, I found Mountain Lakes Preserve in Princeton, and, to the south, Rancocas State Park, which, if you can find it, has a great nature trail.

Finding out about and actually getting to these places is often more of a challenge than the hikes themselves. Since there’s no commercial interest involved, and because park rangers and environmental types presumably have other things on their minds than assuring user-friendly technology, the websites for nature areas can be a bit lacking. But there’s an increasing number of hikers who post information on their own sites, telling newcomers where to park, even giving step by step checkpoints to help follow the marked, color-coded trails. Baldpate Mountain, for example, offers a trail starting at a “parking lot” that consists of an unmarked area at the back of the driveway of an abandoned house. Without a guide it would be almost impossible to find, but luckily, hiddentrenton.com has instructions to help you get started—the view from the top of the mountain is worth the trouble.

The idea of walking, or even biking, from Bordentown to Trenton probably sounds crazy, with visions of dodging traffic on Route 206 or other connecting roads. But, acting on a tip and after a few false starts, I managed to locate the scenic path that leads from just outside the Bordentown Yacht Club, near the light rail tracks, all the way through Hamilton and up to Waterfront Park.

Although these places are all within half an hour’s drive, I’d occasionally bemoan the fact that there were no closer places to explore. We’d done Veterans Park too many times to count; plus, part of the fun of hiking is experiencing the unknown, that feeling of discovery, of being in an unfamiliar environment, almost “lost.” It’s hard to get that when there’s a steady stream of passers-by, walking paved sidewalks and discussing the mundane details of their day.

Now that I realized there were ways to penetrate those big, green blotches on overhead maps where no roads seemed to go, I continued my search for hiking trails with renewed vigor. In the ongoing quest to find roads (or, more accurately, trails) less-traveled, I again took to the internet, and found a place called Roebling Park.

Roebling Park is easy to miss—in 15 years living in Hamilton, I had never heard mention of it, yet it’s only 10 minutes from my home, and its main entrance (along with the new Tulpehaking Nature Center) is just a few blocks behind Independence Mall at South Broad Street. The area encompasses Spring Lake (which I’d never heard of) and links to the Abbott Marshlands (which I’d heard of, but without any real sense of where they were located). Exploring the trails at Roebling Park, not only did I finally realize what I was passing on I-195 every time I drove from Hamilton to Trenton, there was also some great hidden history in the form of an old, Gatsby-like abandoned double staircase that once led up to a mansion overlooking the grounds. (The mansion is still there, and new owners have begun a restoration project, which can be followed at whitecitymansion.blogspot.com.) A nearby sign details the history of the White City Amusement Park that once existed on the site—roller coaster, merry-go-round, boats, and a trolley connection, right in Hamilton.

Hamilton is a big space, more thn 40 square miles containing more than 88,000 people, and all sorts of surprises. Still, my favorite discoveries haven’t been a new restaurant or entertainment spot, or any of the ephemeral stuff that we suburbanites often get worked up about.

They’ve been places like Roebling Park, that have been here long before I came, and that, with luck and dedicated conversation efforts, will survive long after I’m gone.

For more info on places to hike in Central and Southern New Jersey, check out southjerseytrails.wordpress.com or the recently improved mercercountyparks.org.

Peter Dabbene lives and writes in Hamilton. His website is peterdabbene.com. His graphic novels ARK and Robin Hood, and his newest book, More Spamming the Spammers (with Dieter P. Bieny) are available through amazon.com.