Top 6 Family Nature Destinations in Essex County, New Jersey

Essex County Environmental Center: Roseland, NJWalk the loop trail behind the center through a wooded wetland habitat.  Stop at the Lenape Learning Area to walk inside a Native American Wigwam, look for green and leopard frogs at the Frog Pond, walk the Passaic River Boardwalk, view the Honey Bee Hives from a distance and just unplug for a moment of rest and relaxation.  Inside you will find attractive and interactive, state-of-the art exhibits,educating youth and adults on themes of home energy conservation and renewable energy alternatives.

Essex County Turtle Back Zoo: The #1 zoo in New Jersey is sure to please both children and adults.  Located on 20 acres in the beautiful South Mountain Reservation, Turtle Back Zoo exhibits species from all 5 continents. Naturalistic exhibits located throughout the zoo’s landscaped grounds offer the perfect recreational and educational experience. Ride the zoo’s miniature train, play on the animal themed playground, take a spin on the carousel or catch an animal program, there is always adventure around every corner. Visitor amenities including free parking in the zoo lot, cafeteria, picnic area and a gift shop are available for your convenience. Every visit to the zoo is different and exciting.

Within the South Mountain Recreation Complex is 2,100+ acres of woodland forest and trails, McCloone’s Boat House Restaurant, Mini-Golf Safari and the Tree Top Adventure Course.

South Mountain Reservation: Hemlock Falls: Park in the Tulip Springs Area lot located on Cherry Lane near the intersection with South Orange Ave.  Review the trail map within the kiosk adjacent to the parking area. Opposite the parking area, look for the yellow blazed Lenape Trail up through the White Pine Grove and then over the bridge above So. Orange Avenue.  Follow the trail down to the kiosk/map and make a left towards the sixteen-foot falls. Return walk along the same path. Take two hours to enjoy.

Within the 2,100+ acre South Mountain Reservation is the South Mountain Recreation Complex including Turtle Back Zoo,  McCloone’s Boat House Restaurant, Mini-Golf Safari and the Tree Top Adventure Course.  There are also pavilions and grills for BBQ’s and campfires available via permit.

Verona Park: Verona, NJ: Take a walk around the 13 acre pond for some exercise and nature observation.  Cormorants, herons, egrets, ducks and geese often frequent the water.  Excellent opportunities for children to catch sunfish or experienced anglers to catch largemouth bass or state stocked trout.  There is a wonderful little children’s garden and standard playground area.

Hartshorn Arboretum and Bird Sanctuary: Short Hills, NJ: Visit this small stone house nature center perfect for young explorers to exercise their curiosity.  Inside view the honey bee hive, bird feeding station and various live-animal displays.  Walk the trails around the center to see a pollinator garden, native wildflowers and some of the largest trees in the state including a 275 year old tulip poplar and an understory of laurel.

Branch Brook Park: Belleville, NJ: Visit in April to view the United States largest collection of blooming Cherry Blossom Trees in what is locally known as Cherryblossomland. The park was designed by the firm of the famed landscape architect Fredrick Law Olmstead known for Central Park and the naturalistic look and feel of winding pathways through acres of forest and field.

Just Beyond Essex County, New Jersey

The Raptor Trust at Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge: Visitors are afforded a unique opportunity to view at close range the many hawks, eagles, falcons and owls that are permanent residents at the facility. There is no charge to visit, but a modest donation of $2.00 per person is encouraged. After your visit, drive a few minutes down the road to take a relaxed walk on the refuge Wildlife Observation Boardwalks. Look out for turtles, frogs, snakes and birds in this beautiful hardwood swamp.

Reeves Reed Arboretum: Summit, NJ: Beautiful landscaped garden that you can stroll through at your own pace.  Bring a picnic snack to relax and enjoy. Look for the giant European Beach Tree aka Elephant Tree and other interesting labeled plants.  Seasonal blooms abound but the site may be best known for the springtime daffodil bowl that includes hundreds of thousands of bulbs.

Trailside Nature Center – New Providence, NJ: Trailside Nature & Science Center is Union County’s Environmental Education Center, located in the Watchung Reservation, a 2,065-acre preserve containing woodlands, fields, lakes, streams and more than 13 miles of hiking trails.  This serene setting provides the perfect classroom to have fun while learning about the natural world. Renovated in September 2006, the Center houses 4,500 square feet of interactive, state-of-the art exhibits, including a towering 34-foot American beech tree exhibit that fills the building’s atrium. This jewel, secluded in the Watchungs, also features classrooms that look out on the Reservation, a multipurpose room, a library, children’s discovery room and a 250-seat auditorium.

David Alexander is a professional outdoor guide and conservation biologist.  He enjoys making nature more accessible to people and wildlife.  You can follow him at


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