Our week-long visit to New Jersey ended up being a fun opportunity to “play tourist” in the state where Ryan grew up! In addition to showing me some of his favorite spots, we also planned to check out the national park sites, just like we do in every other state we visit.
Thoughtful consultation of the National Park Passport — my constant travel companion — showed four national park sites in New Jersey: Morristown National Historical Park, Gateway National Recreation Area, Paterson Great Falls National Historic Park, and Thomas Edison National Historical Park.
Ever the greedy park collector, my heart sang when a quick Google search revealed all four were in northern New Jersey, and laid out in a convenient, scenic four-hour round trip loop.
Tragically, my hopes of visiting all four would soon be dashed by New Jersey traffic, although it would have been possible if we’d gotten an earlier start and reversed the direction we drove the loop. (Read through to the end of my post for my tips on how to collect all four New Jersey national park passport stamps in one day!)
Morristown National Historical Park was our first stop of the day, and rewarded us with a dose of American Revolution-era history and plenty of gorgeous fall foliage.
I thought it was just a battlefield, but Morristown is actually an expansive national park that encompasses three sites commemorating General Washington and the Continental army’s encampment of December 1779 to June 1780, where they survived the coldest winter in recorded history.
We started our visit to Morristown at the Jockey Hollow Visitor Center. We watched a short video about Jockey Hollow, its role in the American Revolution, and the frigid, snowy winter George Washington’s men spent there.
The visitor’s center also had a staged, cross-cut reproduction of one of the huts the soldiers built to survive the snow and cold. George Washington ordered the building of a “log-house city” and somewhere between 1,000-1,200 of these huts were built in the rolling hills.
After touring the visitor’s center we proceeded to the Cemetery Road driving loop to see the encampment site. The burnished fall colors were out in full force, and I couldn’t help but think the Continental Army soldiers might have had a very different opinion of New Jersey if they’d been there in the fall instead of winter!
On the side of the hill were more cabin reproductions, which we also wandered through.
After driving through Jockey Hollow we considered visiting the Ford Mansion, also part of Morristown, which served as Washington’s Headquarters during the encampment. Unfortunately we had just missed a scheduled tour, and didn’t want to wait another hour to catch the next one. But if we’re in the area again I’d love to visit the Ford Mansion and Fort Nonsense, the other two sites in Morristown National Park.
Our next stop, after grabbing some hot chocolate for the drive, was Paterson Great Falls National Park. We had no idea what to expect, but were decidedly underwhelmed when we arrived a small “park” at the top of the falls. (I put “park” in quotes because, while there was a sign announcing “Mary Ellen Kramer Park,” it seemed to be just a parking lot surrounded by abandoned buildings.) While Ryan locked the doors and forbade me from getting out of the car, I double-checked my Google directions. It turned out they’d brought us to the top of the falls, while the visitor’s center was across the street at the bottom of the falls.
A half-mile spin around the block brought us to the visitor’s center and a much-improved neighborhood. (If you decide to visit, you’re looking for the The Great Falls Historic District Visitors & Cultural Center at 65 McBride Ave, Paterson, NJ 07501.)
A trip into the small visitor’s center yielded a display about the history of the falls, an orientation video set to music from Hamilton, and a staff member who seemed to know just about everything about the history of Paterson.
The short version is that Paterson was founded in 1791 — heavily influenced by Alexander Hamilton — around the Great Falls, which plunge 77 feet over a basalt shelf. Industry powered by the falls earned the town the nickname “Silk City,” and Samuel Colt even began his firearms production in the small town. But in more recent years drugs, crime, and unemployment have plagued the city, and the falls have been something of a well-kept secret — even after the national park site was established in 2009.
The park service is working hard to make improvements to the area, including this colorful mural below the steps leading to the falls view.
A few flights of stairs took us from the visitor’s center to a prime viewing location. Northern New Jersey is currently in a mild drought, so the falls weren’t running heavily, but the fall colors more than made up for the diminished water levels. The view was stunning, and it was hard to believe we were standing in the heart of the third largest city in New Jersey!
After visiting Great Falls, we made a detour on a suggestion from the staff member we’d chatted with in the visitor’s center. A ten-minute drive brought us to the Lambert Castle Observation Tower.
Built in 1892, the castle itself was the home of Catholina Lambert, the owner of a prominent silk mill in the City of Paterson. The observation tower sits on the hill above the castle, and offers a panoramic view of New York and New Jersey. It was a cloudy day, but we could still see the outline of the Manhattan skyline in the distance.
By this time traffic was starting to pick up, but we were determined to make one more stop: Thomas Edison National Historical Park.
I’d been excited for this stop all day, but sadly it was not to be. We arrived half an hour before the site closed (what’s up with national parks that close at 4:00pm, by the way?) and didn’t want to rush through it. It has been added to the list for another day, because seriously, this place — which includes Thomas Edison’s home and laboratories — looks awesome.
Tips for Collecting All Four New Jersey National Park Passport Stamps in One Day
As promised, I have a few tips for collecting all four New Jersey national park passport stamps in one day — learned from experience after I was unable to do it myself!
- Start with Gateway NRA and travel counter-clockwise. My understanding is that passport stamps are available at the Sandy Hook Lighthouse Keepers Visitor Center, which opens at 9:00am. Don’t save Gateway for last or you’ll never get through NYC traffic in time to make all four stops!
- Start your day early. We didn’t leave the house until after 10:00am. I just figured we’d have enough time because the stops were so close to each other. I didn’t account for traffic, and I definitely underestimated how much there was to do at each of these “small” parks.
- Plan around tour times. While you could just tour all these parks on your own (like we did), a little planning will allow you to experience everything the parks have to offer. Ford Mansion at Morristown offers regular tours; Paterson Great Falls offers guided walking tours, and at Thomas Edison there are tours of his home and programs in the laboratory complex.
- Don’t try to do it in one day. Okay, this tip is totally cheating! But we could easily have spent at least 3-4 hours at each of these spots, and if you can extend your trip you definitely should. We stayed with friends so I can’t personally vouch for any area campgrounds, but Stephens State Park would be a pleasant drive from Morristown or Paterson.
As always, I’d recommend using your America the Beautiful national parks pass. But if you don’t have a pass, you’re in luck on this trip: many of these stops are free! As of October 2016, Gateway is free (there’s a beach parking fee from Memorial Day to Labor Day). There’s a $7/person fee at Morristown, but if you skip Washington’s Headquarters (like we did) it’s free. Paterson Great Falls is free. Thomas Edison is $10/person.