We love to walk, and over the years we’ve written about many great walks in the central NJ area which we define as Mercer County (notionally centered on the Trenton-Princeton axis) and its adjacent counties: Hunterdon, Somerset, Middlesex, Monmouth, and Burlington Counties in NJ, plus Bucks and Northampton Counties in PA.  We also write about outstanding hikes less than a 2 hour drive from our “core” area, which are mostly north or west, plus a very few “sampler” hikes in key regional centers like the Gunks and the Catskills (both areas we adore and have hiked extensively).

To help you find the perfect walk, we list them by:

  1. Gravitas – overall, how much we love the hike.  In the final analysis, it comes down to how often we find ourselves returning.  In practice, it means the requirements for “5 hearts” on a local hike are lower than for one 90 minutes way.
  2. Challenge – how difficult is the walk? And then by…
  3. Proximity –  Local (within 30 minutes of Trenton or Princeton), Nearby (30 to 60  minutes away), Under 2 hours (but more than an hour), Over 2 hours.

Keep in mind that most listed walks we list are fairly short.  If you’re reasonably fit, most can be completed in 90 minutes or less.  Often, this reflects the fact that local parks are fairly small, and trails, by necessity, are short.  However, in some locations you will have the option to extend the walks in various ways, so that total hiking times can be 2-3 hours (or even longer), particularly as you travel further away.

We rate hiking challenge on a common sense scale: Beginner, Intermediate, Advanced.  This is our judgement, based on a combination of factors we’ll describe below, and written from a decidedly middle-aged perspective.  If you’re in your 30s or younger, feel free to adjust the ratings at your own risk.  Note that physical challenge is only part of this rating.  Highly fit individuals may be tempted to go directly to the “Experienced” hikes.  Be careful:  some hikes are rated for Experienced hikers because the trails are poorly marked making it easy to get lost.

Here are the factors we consider when rating “Challenge”:

  • Elevation Gain – This is the single most important determinant.  In the body of the review, we’ll usually describe the number of cumulative “vertical feet” associated with a walk where, of course, the greater gain, the harder the hike and the better fitness that’s required.  Beginner hikes of 60-90 minutes generally have less than 150 vertical feet, often accumulated over several grades.  Intermediate hikes are under 400 vertical feet.  Any hike over 400 vertical feet (and most over 300) we’ll tag for Experienced hikers.  If the hike is particularly steep, we may bump up the challenge level even for relatively modest gains.
  • Footing – Some hikes have rocky or otherwise difficult footing (e.g. caused by wetness).  A few hikes have particularly easy paths to follow, with smooth surfaces and easy gradients.  Particularly easy or difficult footing may cause us to adjust the rating one level plus or minus, compared to the Elevation Gain alone.
  • Blazing – on most hikes, unless the path is completely obvious, you’ll be following trail markers called blazes, which are colored plastic markers nailed to trees, or paint marks on bark.  Blazes need to be maintained over time (trees fall down; disks fall off; paint fades).  On obscure or rarely used trails, however, trail maintenance isn’t always what it should be.  If we think you might have difficulty following the trail we’ll bump up the challenge level.