Apr 29 2013

Beauty in Our Own Backyard: A Family Hike Through the Frenchtown Preserve

The trail at the Frenchtown Preserve: ideal for hiking, biking and horseback riding.

The trail at the Frenchtown Preserve: ideal for hiking, biking and horseback riding.

As we pull into the new parking area for the Frenchtown Preserve, my five-year-old daughter sounds startled, “I thought we were going for ice cream?”

“Yes,” I reply, “but remember we said we were going for ice cream after we went for a walk in the woods. Don’t you want to go on a creature adventure?”

She nods. “Yes, but I want to do it with ice cream in my belly.”

Still, we get to the starting point of the trail just off Route 12, one beagle clamoring to ascend the trail, the second beagle lurking in the rear snuffling the shadow of a critter that scampered across the path oh, I don’t know, maybe a month ago. My daughter asks to be “our team leader,” so with a map of the preserve in hand and a pair of black binoculars as big as her head dangling from her neck, we plunge ahead.

Signs of spring.

Signs of spring.

Signs of spring abound in the lush green grass: in the wild purple violets that stretch eagerly toward the warm sun, and in the birds that trill merrily as they dart from tree to tree. My wife points out a patch of fiddleheads ready to unfurl along the clearly marked trail, and patches of bushes that look sturdy enough to produce hundreds of wild berries this summer.

My wife and I often think little of hopping in the car and driving several hours until we reach a state forest in Pennsylvania or Vermont. It wasn’t until I starting leafing through an array of brochures on my desk at the Hunterdon Land Trust that I realized I could save on travel time and gas: Some truly magnificent trails were right in my own backyard, including the Frenchtown Preserve, 150 acres of open fields and cedar and hardwood forests. The land had been zoned for high-density housing, but in 2006 the Hunterdon Land Trust — recognizing the importance of this land as a buffer to protect drinking water and the local wildlife habitat — purchased the property for all to enjoy.

Passing a ravine to our right, we reach the top of the incline. The trail branches off in two directions, and our “team leader” veers to the right. We follow this path until we reach an open, verdant field with a stunning view of mountains hovering in the distance.

Stunning views at the Frenchtown Preserve

Stunning views at the Frenchtown Preserve.

We break for water and to enjoy the scenery before retracing our steps to where the trail loops around the preserve.

My daughter wants to pretend we’re exploring in Africa. She searches the ground until she finds two flat red rocks, and hands one to me. “Pretend these are walkie-talkies, OK?” I hold the rock up toward my mouth, “Roger. Over and out.” We creep along the path, stopping to watch a cluster of ants busy at work, when something sprints across the trail just ahead. My daughter thinks it might be a rhinoceros, so we search for it with the binoculars. We find an elephant and a lion instead.

Intrepid explorer.

Intrepid explorer.

We follow the looping trail for another hour, marveling at the hardwoods and relishing the peace that these surroundings bring. As we bounce down the trail to our car, my daughter spies a lone dandelion stretching toward the warm spring sun and plucks it from the soft earth. She closes her eyes, makes a wish and blows on the seeds which parachute gently down the embankment. “Now, don’t tell anyone what you wished for,” her mother advises.

My daughter, who cannot keep a secret, waits beside me until her mother wanders farther along on the trail. “I want to tell you what I wished for,” she confides.

But she doesn’t have to. After an afternoon on a creature adventure, armed with our red-rock walkie-talkies, having explored everything from ants to elephants in a perfect setting on a perfect day, I know what she wants: To come back tomorrow; to go for another walk, to perhaps spot a woodpecker, or maybe to trek through the South American rain forests in search of spider monkeys.

I lean down and my daughter cups her hand against my ear. “I wished for ice cream.”

Hey, my daughter has her priorities.

But as I watch her scurry to catch her mom, singing a nursery rhyme she learned in Kindergarten earlier in the week, I listen as its melody mixes with the chorus of birdsong joyfully announcing the arrival of warmer weather. I feel grateful that such a charming trail and such a beautiful landscape have been preserved so my family and many others for generations to come can enjoy it. And I am grateful to the organizations and individuals who had the foresight to protect this green treasure.

If you’re going: The Frenchtown Preserve is located off Route 12 in Frenchtown. Park in the gravel area on Horseshoe Bend Road and walk alongside the road to the preserve’s entrance. Wear comfortable walking shoes, and bring water. And your imagination.

Dave Harding, director of outreach.

Two thirsty beagles enjoy a cold drink of water after hiking through the Frenchtown Preserve.

Two thirsty beagles enjoy a cool drink of water after hiking through the Frenchtown Preserve.

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