I’ve been wanting to write this entry for over a year. As a runner and living in Central NJ I’ve grown accustomed to having so much so close to me. I’m located in Mercer County, just outside of Trenton, the State’s Capitol. I’m lucky to have so many great places to train for the races that I participate in. Whether it’s fast flat trails, rugged trails, hilly trails, flat road or hilly road; there’s something for every type of run that I need to do to become a better runner. Here are my regular places that I run in the Mercer County (and beyond) area:
Veteran’s Park (Hamilton NJ)
This is my local park. It’s a small but beautiful and well maintained township park. I mainly use the paved trails as short recovery runs, short speed runs or shorter runs under 8 miles when there is a time constraint. It’s possible to use area around the park itself to extend your mileage. The trails, though short, are beautiful. Flooding is common along the trails by the lake. Park tends to get crowded on the nicer days, mostly on the main path and around the playground. Generally parkgoers use proper etiquette and are very friendly but the nicer days bring out folks who don’t always pay attention to their surroundings. There is plenty of parking with 4 different entrances, 2 permanent bathroom facilities open year round but water fountains are turned off during the winter.
Clayton Park (Imlaystown NJ)
My most run trail. 100% off road. Usually pretty quiet. On the busier days it’s still uncommon to run into others. You’ll mostly encounter cyclists, whom are very vocal and use proper etiquette, and dog walkers who mostly are well aware of their surroundings. You’ll occasionally come across a dog walker with their dog off leash. The trails themselves can be tricky depending on leaf coverage and the time of day. The sunlight and leaves tend to hide the roots that are common throughout the park. The main perimeter loop in the park is 4.2 miles long and contains some rolling hills that bring total elevation climb to about 400ft. There are about 2 more miles located within the perimeter loop. Add in the perimeter of the farmland that shares the same grounds as the park for an additional 2 miles. The perimeter around the farmland is generally well kept by the farmers but sometimes there is tall grass so watch for ticks. Bring DEET and be sure to check yourself. The dirt parking lot is the only lot available, holds just over 20 cars, a porta potty is next to the parking lot.
Tyler State Park (Newtown PA)
It’s almost a half hour drive from the Hamilton area but worth it. One of my favorite places to run. You’ll find a lot of long, seemingly endless hills. You can find close to 15 miles worth of paved paths throughout this huge park. There are also another 10 miles of unpaved trails that you can run. Like my local park, Veteran’s Park, you’ll find Tyler State Park very well maintained. On snowy days you’ll find the main paths always plowed, this may have to do with the historic homes that are located on the park grounds. It’s a great park for long runs and the elevation really adds up. You run here all the time you’ll do well. My biggest problem with Tyler are the people that go there. This park gets VERY VERY crowded on nice days, especially on weekends when almost every lot is full, especially around the boat house. Runners and cyclists use proper trail etiquette. Signs are posted entering the park about proper trail etiquette but for some reason most walkers ignore those signs. I’ve never had this big of a problem at any other park I’ve ever visited. The paved paths are wide but you’ll still have groups of people 4 or 5 wide across a path and despite attempts of notifying them, they don’t always move over. Most walkers there are generally unaware of their surroundings and sometimes completely ignore runners. You’ll sometimes find dogs off leash or dogs on leash on one side of the path while their owner is on the other creating a leash tripwire in the middle. It is such a problem where if the weather is nice I avoid going there altogether. I often get frustrated at walkers when I run in this park, I often voice my disgust with them and they become argumentative with me when I do that. If you want to go there during the summer I suggest early AM just after sunrise is your best bet. I tend to go at busier times so I may be asking for trouble. There are many entrances to the park and many parking lots as well. The most popular parking lot is by the boathouse. It’s the first to fill up on the nice days. There are also other big lots close to the boathouse that will fill up as well. Other large parking lots are also scattered nearby as well as at other entrances. There are 5 or 6 permanent restrooms on the boathouse side of the park but none on the other side (Neshaminy Creek separates the 2 sides). I think all restrooms have water fountains but may be turned off in the winter, there are also 2 other water fountains on the ‘other side’ but also are turned off during the winter.
Manasquan Reservoir (Howell NJ)
This “park” can also get crowded. You’ll sometimes find walkers or runners on their left rather than their right, this can be a problem when taking a blind turn at race pace and running into someone coming from the opposite direction; trail etiquette signs are also posted there. For the most part the path is wide enough so any issues are most avoidable. The perimeter loop is just over 5 miles long and is a soft cinder that’s very forgiving on your feet and knees. There is an additional trail off the perimeter loop that adds about a mile. What I like about here is that I can do a lot of miles by running additional loops; I reverse the course to make it a little bit more interesting. Runners who run additional loops leave a drop bag at the start with water or nutrition in it. Go there early on a Saturday morning and you’ll come across a lot of runners; both high school athletes and more experienced runners. I find the running here to be similar to a typical race, so it’s a popular place to prepare to train. It’s mostly flat with slight elevation changes. There is a massive parking lot by the visitor’s center, as well as large clean permanent restrooms and water fountains (which may be turned off during the winter), the visitor’s center is actually a great place for literature and to warm up in the winter months. There are also 2 other lots along the trail, a large one is at the environmental center (which includes nearly the same facilities located at the visitor’s center). There are also 3 or 4 porta potties every mile or so.
Baldpate Mountain (Titusville NJ)
With about 400ft elevation from it’s lowest point to it’s highest point it’s the closest my area has to replicating some of the mountain races that I do. The terrain is rocky, there are rolling hills, some steeper climbs and some faster running sections. If you know the park well you can get in over 15 tough miles there and really rack up the elevation! Some paths are singletrack and if there are other hikers/runners on the trail it may be difficult to get around them, it can be a popular place to hike. When you get back to your vehicle be sure to check for ticks. The park isn’t the best maintained and foliage tends to overgrow certain trails there so be sure to check for ticks and bring your DEET! There are a few places to park to gain entrance including 2 large lots located on Fidler’s Creek Road and Pleasant Valley Road. There are also bathroom facilities including a water fountain found at the visitor’s center near the summit.
Delaware and Raritan Canal Towpath (Titusville/Princeton NJ)
I’m not a fan of out and backs and if you don’t have transportation waiting for you further down the towpath then an out and back is the only way. The portion from Trenton to Bulls Island I find to be nicer and better maintained than the section from Trenton to New Brunswick. But there are many sections along the New Brunswick portion that are beautiful. Both sections go through many historic buildings and villages. Running along the Delaware River is gorgeous in the fall. It’s hard to find a flatter terrain than the towpath and it’s the cinder/crushed gravel so it feels great on your legs. It’s great for speed runs or LSD (long slow distance). The out and back isn’t so boring along the Trenton portion because it’s somewhat popular so you’ll often find other runners and cyclists to say high to. There are many trailheads along the towpath. I have yet to do it but many runners will start at Washington Crossing and instead of doing an out and back will run the 7 miles or so to Lambertville, cross over into New Hope, run down the PA portion of the towpath and then cross over again back into Washington’s Crossing. A nice alternative to what could possibly be a boring out and back. There are dozens of entrances to the towpath. Some of the access points may have a porta potty. There is a permanent restroom at the Washington’s Crossing entrance that I know of for sure, I think they have a water fountain as well. If you plan on running a lot of miles there be prepared! Luckily there are many shops along the way that will have water/food for purchase.
Washington’s Crossing State Park (Titusville NJ)
A well maintained and historic state park. The paved portions are hilly but only come out to be about 5 miles, the trails is where the real secrets are. It’s easy to get lost because the trail markings aren’t too obvious and often intersect with each other but you can get in a lot of miles of slightly rolling hills here. Want to add more mileage, you can take the footbridge over Rt. 29 onto the towpath. Want to add even more TOUGHER mileage, you can cross into Baldpate Mountain. There is an entry fee to the park on weekends between Memorial Day and Labor Day, however, parking at the towpath and crossing over from the footbridge will get around that. Just like it’s neighbor, Baldpate Mountain, you’d want to check for ticks. There are many large lots located within the park as well as a few permanent restrooms and water fountains. Notably at the playground and visitor’s center.
Union Transportation Trail (Cream Ridge NJ)
The recently completed Union Transportation Trail has quickly become one of my favorite places. Like the towpath it’s just a flat easy out and back, the only elevation changes are in a small section by Cream Ridge golf course. Just like the towpath it is composed of cinder/crushed gravel so it feels great on your body. The entire trail is only 9 miles long so an out and back is really the only option. However, there are multiple parking lots/trailheads along the trail and I found that started closer towards the middle makes the out and back less brutal. What I love about this trail is that it’s relatively quiet. Even on nice weekends you won’t find many folks. It might be due to it’s relative young age but I like it. The are a bunch of road crossings, most have little to no traffic but there are a couple, mainly Rt. 539, that will cause you do lose your pace or momentum. There are 3 or 4 parking lots along the trail. Two porta potties are available, one at the start and one near the mile 3 marker. No water fountains available, so if you are planning on a long out and back it’s best to be prepared. There is a great take out spot near the mile 6 marker that has water/food for purchase.
Belle Mountain (Titusville NJ)
There are more trails here than I know about, mostly on the “other side” of the mountain. But when I come here I just run up and down the main ‘hill’. The main hill, up and down, is a third of a mile long with 170ft elevation, so basically 3 times up and down will equal a mile totalling about 510ft of total elevation climb. I’ll do multiple “loops”. Sometimes when I need a breather I’ll take one of the longer gentler side slopes up or down. It’s also pretty quiet out here so chances are you’ll be alone. Leave a drop bag at the bottom to give yourself some hydration. Bring your DEET because it is often unmowed and ticks are very common. Even though this is a Mercer County property it’s not maintained by the parks department. There is a large gravel lot at the base but no facilities of any kind are available.
Lawrence Hopewell Trail (Lawrenceville/Pennington NJ)
Still relatively new and in the process of being completed. When complete the trail will be 22 miles long and incorporate many other parks, trails, businesses, schools and more. The trail is mostly asphalt with some nice cinder/crushed gravel sections. I’m unsure how long the trail currently is and there are some pieces being added in the coming months but it currently includes 2 of my favorite parks (parks that I decided to include within this entry than create separate ones); Rosedale Park (Pennington) and Mercer Meadows (Pennington). Each of those parks offer about 7 or 8 miles each and can be linked together through the LHT. What’s great about the LHT is its diversity. You can run trails through Rosedale and Mercer Meadows and then run through a Bristol Myers Squibb campus and the historic Lawrenceville School, not to mention though the Pennington Equestrian Center and an old converted trolley line. It also links to the D&R towpath. There are many road crossings, some could be busy roads. Depending on the day some of the parks along the LHT could be crowded too. There are many trailheads that you could park at to avoid crowds. I’m looking forward to the entire 22 mile loop to finish. As it is now you’d have to do an out and back but the diversity helps a bit. There are many parking locations along the trail. Most of those locations have permanent restroom facilities and some off water fountains as well. If you are planning on running large portions of this trail at once it’s still recommend to carry water but you can rest assured knowing that you can always fill up within a few miles.
Steinert High School (Hamilton NJ)
It’s my local high school track. I added it because I do sprints here. It’s also the location of my Uptown Gentlefriends 12 Hour Track Attack in the spring. Generally a pretty good, well maintained facility. You’ll find an occasional walker that uses the inside of the track but it’s rare. Jump in and train with the track team. They love friendly competition. The school’s parking lot is massive. Don’t count on a porta potty by the track but sometimes there is one. No luck on a water fountain either.
Other places in the area that I run on less common occasions:
Mercer County Park (West Windsor NJ)
It’s more local than many places on my list but it’s one that I frequent the least. If I do run here it’s usually just the 2.5 mile road that intersects the though the park. I’m not sure why I’m not really crazy about this park. If you include the trails and paved paths you can get some decent mileage in but it’s not the most exciting mileage. I’m just underwhelmed by the paths and trails here. However, when most parks are snow covered I’ll run the main road here because it’s almost always clear. Plenty of parking throughout the park. Many permanent restrooms that also provide water fountains that may be turned off during the winter.
Sourland Mountain (Hopewell NJ)
A great place to train for some of the mountain races I do. It might not have the total elevation you could get from Baldpate but the initial climb is tough and beautiful. Great rock outcroppings to run by and a steep climb to get to another great boulder field. However, once you’re at the top the trails flatten out and it turns into rolling hills. I don’t run here too much mainly due to it being about 40 minutes from Hamilton. If it was closer i’m sure I’d be there more often. There is a porta potty near the parking lot but nothing else.
Rancocas State Park (Westampton NJ)
The trails around the nature center are gorgeous. Very well maintained and beautiful. Very short though. You’ll have to add some miles in the neighboring Indian reservation to make the run more worthwhile. Still only gives you 5 or 6 miles at the most. The nature center trails are so beautiful that it makes it worth the trip. Bring your DEET, especially for the trails on the Indian reservation side, they are overgrown and seemingly filled with ticks. There is a small lot at the nature center. Permanent restrooms are in the nature center itself but I am unsure if there is water available. Take your time while you’re in the nature center, it’s a great place with some great people working there.