This week’s installment of our destination overviews features a trip to Duke Island Park, located within the purvey of the Somerset County Park Commission. A gem of an outdoor recreation area, this park comprises approximately 340 acres of beautiful terrain that includes picnic and play areas as well as a wonderful section of footpaths that spend a great deal of time meandering along the Raritan River, just downstream of the junction of the North and South branches.
You should have no problem finding Duke Island Park, as the entrance from Old York Rd is very well delineated with signage. Furthermore, once you arrive within the park boundaries, parking is ample with four very large paved lots. Given the convenient location in the middle of suburban New Jersey as well as the ample opportunities for all manner of outdoor recreation, one could easily see how this park may still fill up on a beautiful weekend day. However, I visited on beautiful Wednesday, and as such had no issues with parking.
Duke Island is a very nicely maintained park with a welcoming layout. There are several large picnic areas that can be reserved, many BBQ grilling areas next to picnic tables, a large playground (this would be an excellent destination to the bring the kids), and several open fields in addition to the forested areas and paths.
Admittedly, this was the first time that I have visited this park, and I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. One of my objectives with this online blog series is to highlight not only the more popular trails and trips that Rec offers regularly, but also to feature other locations throughout the region that are well worth visiting. Duke Island has a lot to offer, and it’s a destination that I’ll certainly be revisiting in the future.
There’s plenty to see here, and the close proximity to the river provides more opportunity to see interesting suburban wildlife than I would have expected at such a popular place. On this early afternoon in May, I was treated to various wildflowers scattered through the landscape as well as a veritable cornucopia of songbirds and waterfowl.
On the subject of the fauna and particularly the flora here, be advised that there is copious amounts of poison ivy all around the paths and especially near the riverside areas. If you are allergic, take the necessary precautions including avoiding going off-trail and being mindful of contacting the plants with your shoes/clothing as well, which can transfer the toxin to your skin through secondary exposure. Pets, too, should be kept leashed and out of the vegetation in order to avoid transferring the poison ivy’s irritants back onto their owners.
With respect to the hiking trails – I would firmly place these in the realm of footpaths. They’re flat and paved walkways; not really what I think of when I hear the term “trail” and in truth not what I typically associate with a “real hike”.
In fact, I found myself slipping into my own unconscious bias in dismissing this as a hiking location, in part due to the paved paths and lack of rocky trails during my trek. The going was easy, the paths were paved, and there were plenty of other folks out and about enjoying the day such that there was really no sense of remoteness, which is something that I often seek when I go outdoors. Of course, this is not only highly subjective, but also needlessly dismissive of so many wonderful natural areas, and in fact it was due in no small part to the sense of peace that I was experiencing simply from enjoying being outside that I took some time to ruminate on these thoughts. The old adage that we “hike our own hike” came to mind, and the reality is that engaging with the natural world on whatever terms we choose, provided that we’re good stewards of our environment in the process, has enormous value…an outdoor adventure does not necessarily have to challenge us in some way to have merit. Sometimes it’s appropriate to be able to stop and smell the flowers.
With my improved outlook and the exceedingly fantastic weather fueling the rest of my walk, I set off to explore the trail section near the river in greater earnest. Along the walkway, one finds no shortage of small cut-through paths of well-worn dirt that access the river. I chose to follow one of these in order to take a short break near the water’s edge.
Here, I was rewarded with my own temporary section of private waterfront where I could set down my pack and take in the scenery. The Raritan River here in Duke Park is lovely – the waterway flows swiftly with small riffles over a mostly rocky bottom; a stark contrast to the broader and slightly more urbanized version that we see only several miles downstream along campus where the water slows and mixes with the tidal influences of the bay.
It was here where I spotted a female Hooded Merganser with eighteen ducklings in tow, navigating the smoothly flowing emerald water, and it was here that I decided that it would not be long before I return to Duke Island Park.
I continued to follow the trail loop up and away from the river, through a small wooded section that was absolutely rife with songbirds (and more poison ivy). The loop hooks up and back around through the parking areas, and also constitutes a very well-kept and smooth biking route that’s plenty wide enough for opposing bike traffic and pedestrians alike.
In summary, Duke Island Park is a fantastic example of what a well design county park can offer here in the Garden State, with a layout that provides so many ways to engage with the outdoors on whatever terms one may choose on a given day. The open areas are excellent for picnics, games, exercise, or just getting some sun. The trail system is friendly for walking, biking, or jogging. A birder could easily spend hours or days here logging sightings, and the river offers stocked trout fishing as well as being a pleasant place to stop and meditate on what it is to commune with nature.