Deep within New Jersey’s fabled Pine Barrens, the Batona Trail provides backpackers and hikers with a sampling of the state’s most wild, remote, and unique ecosystem. Finalized in 1961, the trail was built with the intent to give New Jerseyites an opportunity to get back to nature. I hiked the trail 61 years after its inception with my friends Brandon and Pete, eager to explore an underappreciated and massive portion of our home state.
The Batona Trails runs 53 miles from Ong’s Hat near Chatsworth to Bass River State Forest, through an extremely flat run of sandy soil and dense pinelands. While several campsites are located on the trail, spacing can be challenging. We ended up following South Jersey Trails’ Four Day Plan to the tee, starting in Bass River and ending at Ong’s Hat.
One thing to note about the current state of the trail is that the state’s maps do not currently account for the two re-routes – one at the southern terminus and one just south of Brendan Byrne State Forest – and the mileage is off. I recommend familiarizing with the re-routes before hiking.
The trail itself is well blazed and has accurate physical mileage markers every half mile, spanning from Mile 0 to Mile 52.7 in Ong’s Hat.
Day 1 - Bass River to Buttonwood Hill Camp - 16.1 miles
Having driven down the night before and spent a night at Bass River’s campground, we were eager to kick off our trip. After checking in at the ranger station, we parked one of our cars at the southern terminus near Pilgrim Lake and began our trek.
This section of the trail has been rerouted, adding roughly a mile on top of the original route’s distance. Travelling north through the state forest, it avoids the older roadwalk along Stage Road. The trail meanders through old cranberry bogs and dykes, along dusty roads, and between sprawling, flat pinelands.
We learned very quickly on day 1 what the local pollen situation was going to be: foglike. Within our first hour of walking, we all had a significant coating of neon yellow pitch pine pollen all over our hiking clothing. It was so dense in the air, it could be confused for smoke.
After a few hours on trail, we stopped for lunch along an old firebreak deep within the pines.
Our first stream crossing, over the Oswego River at Martha’s Bridge, provided a preview of the kind of water found in the Barrens. Due to the high iron content in the water, as well as the leeching effect of the cedar trees, the rivers all have a deep translucent brown gradation, reminiscent of iodine.
After a short roadwalk along route 563, the trail traverses an old wildfire area. Fires are a natural and important part of the ecosystem here, clearing undergrowth and allow resinous pinecones to burst and reseed the area. Hiking through, the charred trees and desolate landscape lends an eerie tone to the area.
After 17 miles on trail, we turned off for Buttonwood Camp. Note that the map distances are incorrect – the turnoff is about a mile after the mileage marking on the state’s map. The spur trail runs about 3/4 of a mile to the camp, located on Route 542 and the Mullica River. We sparked up a quick fire, enjoyed a hearty dinner, and made camp for the night.
Day 2 - Buttonwood Hill Camp to Lower Forge - 14 miles
Day two began with the pitter patter of light rain on our tents. Luckily, the weather cleared by 8 in the morning and we were able to pack up in dry conditions. We took our time on the second day, with only about 14 miles of hiking ahead of us.
One of the more interesting elements of the Batona Trail is how much of trail is old dirt paths still marked as official vehicular roads. The downside of this is how vehicles can get stuck deep in the muddy backcountry – we passed one such situation early on our second day.
After a few miles of sandy tracks, we came into the glassmaking and furnace village of Batsto. Operated as a “living history” site, the state park preserves the original nature of the town, dating back to 1766. We stopped into the visitor center for a few liters of fresh water and some snacks, then took a long lunch at the picnic area.
After lunch, we continued north on the Batona. This section of the trail, between Batsto Lake and Quaker Bridge, provides an archetypal example of fresh forest growth after a wildfire. Green shoots press upward from an ashen bed of black bark and boiled resin.
Before long we reached the turnoff for Lower Forge, the only true wilderness campsite along the trail. Nestled along a swimming hole on the Batsto River, the site is peaceful and quiet, save for the nonstop whippoorwhill calls after dusk.
We settled in for dinner and made camp in a flat spot above the watering hole, relaxing ahead of day 3’s long stretch.
Day 3 - Lower Forge to Brendan Byrne - 21 miles
We began day three bright and early, skipping breakfast and opting to get mileage in early. Within out first two miles, we passed the official halfway point of the trail, located at 26.4 miles in.
One of the downsides of such a long day was that we didn’t have as much time to stop and enjoy the sites, which there were plenty of. One of the many features of day three was the abandoned Jersey Central line, dating back to 1862 and used to transport troops and materiel during the Civil War as the Raritan and Delaware Bay Railroad.
Just after the railroad, we came across the Emilio Carranza Memorial, located at the junction of the trail and Carranza Road. The memorial, funded by Mexican schoolchildren and erected and maintained by American Legion Post 11, recognizes the site that aviator Emilio Carranza tragically crashed on July 12, 1928 en route back to Mexico City after his successful goodwill flight to New York City.
It’s a strange and unique monument, with indigenous Mexican art designs on a monolith in the middle of the empty Pine Barrens. We chose to stop for breakfast at the site, 7 miles into our third day.
Just north of the Carranza memorial, we passed through Batona Camp, with its beautiful potable water pump tapped into the Kirkwood–Cohansey aquifer. After a few days of filtered brown stream water, we were glad to find a pump that provided, clear, clean water.
A few miles after Batona, we came across Apple Pie Hill, the highpoint of the Batona Trail (at a whopping 205 feet). The firetower there was unfortunately closed for climbing, although we weren’t particularly eager to add extra steps to our long day. We took half an hour for some lunch and a stretch break in the shade, then continued northeast towards Chatsworth.
North of Wharton State Forest, the trail enters its newest portion, through Franklin Parker Preserve. This includes a reroute that adds about two miles to the trail, although it brings hikers away from the previous roadwalk. A quickmoving thunderstorm kicked up as we entered the Preserve, so I stowed my camera for most of our walk into Brendan Byrne State Forest.
We made camp at Brendan Byrne as the sun set, happy to have our longest day behind us, and dining on our favorite chili backcountry meal.
Day 4 - Brendan Byrne State Forest to Ong's Hat - 9 miles
Day four: our last leg! After an early and full night’s sleep, we were ready to wrap up the Batona. The only thing that stood in front of our last day was sweltering heat, with temps reaching 97* and humidity at a weighty 99%. We opted for a light breakfast, filled our canteens at the pump, and got an early start to avoid the peak heat.
The final leg of the trail wraps around Pakim Pond, which was filled with both beaver dams and kayakers out on day trips. Northwest of the pond, the trail tracks along Route 72 towards Four Mile Circle. This is probably the hilliest portion of the trail, far from the sandy flats near the beach, with mixed conifers and deciduous trees.
We quickly made our way past the Lebanon Fire Tower and north across Route 70 and past Deep Hollow Pond. The air was dense and humid, allowing us to hear distant machine gun fire from Joint Base MDL.
The last few miles were frankly difficult, with nearly sixty miles behind us and with the heat approaching its peak for the day. We were thrilled to see the terminus at Ong’s Hat and our car parked there, and even more thrilled at the opportunity to grab a bite to eat.
After packing up and cleaning ourselves up a bit, we headed to Sweetwater Riverdeck, right on the Mullica River and ironically a few thousand feet from where we had slept a few nights prior at Buttonwood Hill.
After 60 miles in 3 and a half days, cold beer and a hot sandwich was a welcome respite.
The Batona Trail is a New Jersey gem. It doesn’t have all the best sights, and it isn’t the world’s most dynamic trail, but it’s the quintessential way to experience an underappreciated, complicated, and unique slice of the state.
Go hike it!