When you think of Cape May, you probably think of its iconic lighthouse, white sandy beaches, boardwalks and quaint Victorian homes. You may even think of the wide variety of migrating birds that use our flyways each season. What most people don’t associate Cape May with is a quiet walk in the woods; but that’s what you can get on the Woodcock Trail, one of five short hiking trails within Cape May National Wildlife Refuge.
We went because honestly, I had to just get out of the house. Our Central New Jersey weather forecast was high 50s, not bad for early March. Two and a half hours south along the shore, it was a lot cooler. The perfect day for several short hikes in different areas which gave us time in between to warm up in the car.
Over 30 years ago, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service established three separate areas as the Cape May Wildlife Refuge. The divisions of the park enable hikers to enjoy the diverse habitats of this unique area. There are salt marshes, hardwood swamps, bogs, grasslands and forested uplands to wander here. The divisions are:
Great Cedar Swamp Division
- Cedar Swamp Trail – 1-mile loop
Delaware Bay Division
- Songbird Trail – 1.1-mile loop
- Woodcock Trail – 1.2-mile loop
Two Mile Beach Division
- Dune Trail – 0.8 miles out and back
- Marsh Trail – 0.2 miles out and back
We started our day on the Cedar Swamp Trail in the northernmost division of the refuge near Dennis Township. The trail begins as a mowed grass path. Slowly we wandered through this new growth forest. As named, the trail was both swampy with lots of bogs and contained plenty of beautiful cedars with their rippling multicolored bark. The area felt new to reforestation and there aren’t a lot of tall trees or much of an overstory here. It was perfectly silent along this loop with lots of open sky. A great place to begin a walk in the woods.
Our next stop was along the Delaware Bay in Middle Township, the Songbird Trail. This had more of a deciduous forest feel. The trees are taller in this section and lots of holly and oak line the leaf-strewn trail. The first native we encountered was a red-bellied woodpecker flitting from tree to tree. Shortly after that, we came upon a tufted titmouse. The Songbird Trail winds through the woods and the trees change from Loblolly Pines to Pitch Pines. We heard so many birds along this trail, it seems certain that they knew the trail was named for them.
Back in the car for another short drive over to the Woodcock Trail also along the Delaware Bay. This section felt like a stroll through a park. Lots of very tall trees, vernal pools on both sides of the trail. The fallen leaves on the path make our footsteps nearly silent. In this part of Cape May, you feel like you could be deep in the woods anywhere in North America.
The stillness was broken by the rustle of wings. When we looked up, we saw two great blue herons circling in the trees next to us. They must have been a nesting pair because as we walked along the trail they continued to circle and land in the treetops, but they never left the general area. This was pretty exciting for us. As we were leaving the Woodcock Trail, we were lucky enough to spot a pine warbler off in the brush bidding us goodbye.
Our last stop was the beach because it is Cape May and we can’t come all this way and not see the Atlantic Ocean. The Dune Trail is a short out-and-back. It used to be a longer walk along the beach but has been closed for several years now to preserve habitat for the piping plovers and oystercatchers that now breed here. This little walk is lovely. We’re always amazed when we see the prickly pear cacti along our New Jersey beaches. This area along the beach is referred to as an underdeveloped maritime forest. There’s something kind of magical about the concept.
The last trail we visited in this Preserve was the Marsh Trail. The boardwalk leads you through the salt marsh to an observation area for a tidal pond. The day we visited, a flock of American Black Ducks was sharing the lake with Northern Pintails. There’s a bird blind perfect for viewing the antics of the waterfowl without disturbing them.
This isn’t your typical Cape May getaway filled with sandy beaches, cute shops and quaint Victorian bed and breakfast establishments. The woods are swampy, the marshes have tall grasses and there’s that sweet smell of cedar off in the distance. This is a wilder Cape May, and it’s equally magical.
Currently, the refuge is 11,000 total acres. There are plans to more than double this in the near future. Since Cape May is one of the top 10 birding areas in the United States—and home to at least 317 bird species, 42 species of mammals and 55 different types of reptiles—preserving this area for future generations seems like a worthy idea.