New Jersey is known for it’s shore and for being the gateway to New York City, for good reason. But it is also home to breathtaking mountains, beautiful rolling farmlands, and one-of-a-kind curiosities. Read on for a few of our favorite destinations in each region.
It’s no secret that the Jersey Shore is a popular and happening destination, but we have found everything from quiet, picturesque beaches to coastal education centers, peaceful little towns to bustling boardwalks and everything in between along the southern coast of New Jersey. We return there year after year and always find new, fun things to do, beyond the always-glorious experience of spending a day on the shore.
Cape May – The town of Cape May can get crowded during peek season, so if that bothers you, a better time to explore and till enjoy good weather is late May/early June, or even better (with warmer water) the month of September. It is filled with neat rows of Victorian homes that look like lacy, colorful gingerbread houses. The surf can get rough so stay near a lifeguard and keep an eye on the kids at all times. We have enjoyed staying at The Grand Hotel, right on the beach. It has an indoor and outdoor pool, with a nice little baby pool right next to the regular outdoor pool, so you can easily keep all the kids in view at the same time. It’s lovely to visit the lighthouse and ocean in the off-season.
If you need a break from the beach, you can visit the Aviation Museum at the Cape May Airport if you have a plane-lover. Or, take a day to visit the the Cape May County Zoo. Just note that we have seen giant tortoises mating (or as we like to tell the kids, “wrestling”) here every. single. summer.
Avalon/Stone Harbor – Our favorite beaches to visit are these, because they are almost never crowded. You won’t find a lot of hotels or fast food restaurants in the area, but if you rent a house you will enjoy a tranquil vacation. There are also nearby campgrounds. A large part of Avalon is a bird sanctuary, so you need to follow a path for a half a mile or so between shrub and cactus covered sand dunes to reach the ocean, and at times parts of the shore are roped off for bird nesting. If you like nature, this is really fun to see, but beware of flies! They are occasionally intolerable.
Stone Harbor has a tiny “boardwalk” with an ice cream shop and a small arcade, and they show movies on certain weekend evenings right on the beach. Another fun place to visit in the area is the Wetland Institute, which is a nature center with boardwalks through the salt marsh. You can see ospreys nesting on camera, the kids can climb into a life sized (enormous) osprey nest, you can climb overlooks to see over the sea of rippling green rushes and jewel blue salt water, and sometimes you will find the marsh absolutely teeming with crabs. (Again, the bugs can be an issue – bring your bug spray).
Ocean City – If you’re looking for a bit more excitement, the Ocean City boardwalk is definitely worth a visit, for the fries, the custard, the cotton candy, the games, the rides, and the beach as well.
Greater Atlantic City Region
The grownups in our family have enjoyed playing and seeing concerts at the Casinos in Atlantic City. The kids have enjoyed the Atlantic City Aquarium, which is small and perfect for the younger set, and includes touch tanks, the opportunity to feed baby rays from your hand, and talks and demonstrations with the animals by the staff.
At the north end of the boardwalk, a little past the Steel Pier, you’ll find a playground and next to it, the Absecon Lighthouse, which offers tours for a small fee. Though dwarfed by the giant hotels of Atlantic City, this is actually one of the tallest lighthouses in the USA, and it’s quite picturesque and includes interesting historic information about how lighthouses were kept in the past.
There are also some pretty natural areas near to Atlantic City, including Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge and Birch Grove Park, if you’d like to get away and enjoy some peace just outside of Atlantic City.
Finally, for a quainter stop along the way in or out of Atlantic City, Historic Smithville is an interesting retail area (not actually a historical town, though many of the buildings are restored historic buildings, and all of them are quite unique!) that hosts various events throughout the year.
They have Christmas lights and train rides in December, a visit from the Easter Bunny and Carousel rides in spring, car shows, antique shows and a pleasant lake and walkway. The shops and bed and breakfasts are very appealing and cute, and offer something quite different from what you find in Atlantic City. We think it’s worth a visit, and one of the reasons Atlantic City works as a fun, family getaway (even off season)!
There are lots of lovely beaches along the norther shore region, but there are also nice parks and museums throughout the area. We have greatly enjoyed exploring Monmouth County in this region.
If you’re looking for quiet and clean, Sea Girt is lovely. The surrounding area is really cute and nice. You won’t find a lot of chains or any high rises – everything looks really pristine and well cared-for. This is probably because they have so many rules! So, if you don’t like a lot of rules at the beach (like no tents, pets, or loud music, etc), this might not be your place. We liked it. Beach tags are $12 for adults between 9 and 5, and there is free parking, concessions, outside showers and restrooms.
If you like a little more action, the beach at Point Pleasant around Jenkinson’s Boardwalk is nice and wide and there is tons to do. It does get very crowded! The boardwalk is really cute and has rides and food and shops, but also an aquarium with seals and penguins! It can get crowded in season.
Seven Presidents can get crowded as well, but it has a really fun playground which we used one evening when the surf was super rough and we were tired of playing in the sand and catching sand crabs. Complete with little climbing walls, a pirate ship, and separate areas for younger and older kids, it entertained our kids for quite a while.
Road trip tip: If you drive from Sea Girt up to Seven Presidents you will pass through Belmar, and let me tell you: If you like ogling homes of the rich and famous, you will really enjoy this drive.
Another beautiful destination is Sandy Hook Gateway National Recreation Area. You can look through the quarters at the former Fort Hancock, built in defense of New York Harbor. You can also tour the Sandy Hook Lighthouse, built in 1764. It is the oldest operating lighthouse in America and a National Historic Landmark. It’s also a fun place to visit in the off-season, and if you go between November and April, you can sometimes spot seals on the rocks just off the beach.
If you’re near the shore in northern NJ and looking to spend a little time indoors (maybe a half hour to an hour), visit the National Guard Militia Museum of New Jersey. Our son is into weapons and military history at the moment so he enjoyed it, and there was actually a submarine called the Intelligent Whale that you could take a look inside – so that was really interesting. It is free, and right on the base, but you don’t actually have to enter the base to go in.
If you want a day off from the beach, there are also some lovely parks in the region. Allaire State Park is a pleasant place to walk a trail or learn some history. Our favorite part was the historic village, which features a museum set up in the row homes with information and displays about the workers who mined iron ore out of the bog – a pretty interesting process (if you’re a super-nerd like me). My kids like to know where stuff comes from so they enjoyed it.
But the best part was the train ride, which is on an original steam train from the 1840’s. Tickets were quite cheap, and it lasted less than a half hour, just doing a couple loops around the park. It leaves every half hour on weekends between 11 and 3:30.
For a shady walk, Manasquan Reservoir is a really beautiful place with a 5 mile trail (around the reservoir), ample free parking, a playground and a really nice environmental center, all for free. The environmental center is really big compared to most nature centers you find in state or county parks and included a “muskrat nest” your kids can tunnel through, and some great bird watching opportunities. (There were also plenty of chipmunks we could watch from our pleasantly air conditioned view). You can also rent a canoe or kayak for a fee. This was a beautiful place and we would definitely go back to see it in other seasons.
This region includes Newark, Edison, Jersey City, and other cities with easy access to New York City. We have visited a couple of nice concert venues in Newark, and it is easy to take a trip into NYC from there. It is also easy to access Ellis Island from here and you can actually get a closer view of Lady Liberty from Liberty State Park than anywhere else, though it is not a view of the front of the statue.
The world’s largest lightbulb is located in the Gateway Region near the intersection of I-95 and Rt 287, on top of a tower and next to a tiny but interesting museum at Menlo Park. The Center is open only Thursday to Saturday, but there is a nature trail at the park, and of course, it’s always fun to pose in front of a tower with a 13 foot lightbulb on top, even if you can’t go in.
If you’re in the region in the spring, there is an annual Cherry Blossom Festival in Long Branch Park in Essex County, NJ. The park is in the midst of the city of Newark, and often crowded, but it is very spacious with playgrounds and numerous attractions, in addition to tons of cherry trees.
The Skyland region is an absolutely beautiful collection of mountains and parks that can be enjoyed by anyone who loves the great outdoors. The Appalachian trail runs for 72 miles through the region and there is ample room to hike, fish, or ski.
Along the border with Pennsylvania runs the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, with many popular waterfalls and trails. The Tammany Red Dot trail is one such well loved hike. We only made it to the first overlook, but it was a beautiful hike and we enjoyed exploring the area. Not far from the trail is the Lakota Wolf Reserve, where you can see wolves in their natural habitat. They have a large area to roam, though they are separated from the visitors by a barrier. It is a treat to hear them howl together with the encouragement of their keepers. There is much more to explore in the Kittatinny Mountains in this region.
At the other end of the region, in the West, lies Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, where miles of woodland and boardwalk trails over swamp land can reveal an abundance of birds and other wildlife. There are several wildlife viewing platforms and a visitors center that doubles as a nature center. This showcases a different but equally important ecosystem from much of the Skyland Region.
Delaware River Region
This is where you will find beautiful Princeton University, and cities such as Camden and Burlington, with an abundance and variety of family-friendly activities. One of our favorites in Camden is The Adventure Aquarium, one of the best on the East Coast. It has touch tanks and lots of beautiful sea life, of course, but you will also find more unusual exhibits including penguins, hippos, and a walk-through shark tunnel.
In Mt Holly, visit the Burlington County Prison Museum for a taste of history with a dose of the paranormal. Located quite close to the New Jersey Turnpike, this historic prison (complete with gallows) is a good place to get your ghost hunting on, and also contains some interesting historic information and touching displays. Some of the original graffiti can be seen on the walls behind glass plates. Open Thursday through Sunday, $5 per adult.
There are many lovely lakes in New Jersey, and some of them are near the highway and have restrooms and playgrounds – the perfect combination if you need to stretch your legs and burn some energy while traveling through the state. Crystal Lake Park and Etra Lake Park are two good options near I-95 with nice little walking trails, and we were even able to spot a bald eagle at Etra Lake once.
In Pilesgrove you will find one of the most fun rodeos this far north at Cowtown. The rodeo happens every Saturday evening during the summer months, rain or shine. Barrel riding, calf-roping, bull riding, the ever-present possibility that someone will get seriously injured – it’s a blast! There’s also an outdoor flea market open daytime hours on Tuesdays and Saturdays where you can get all kinds of junk for a few dollars, and some tasty food.
Finally, Diggerland is a construction-themed amusement park located in West Berlin with plenty of great activities for littles, especially those who like to ride and practice operating tractors. Once you’re hot and sweaty from the construction side, you can head over to the waterpark side to cool down.