Belleplain State Forest
I find it fascinating how landscapes of my youth have had a profound influence on my preferences as an adult. For instance, some of my favorite places can be found within Florida’s Everglades National Park, where slight variations in elevation result in drastic changes in vegetation. As I sit at my campsite, over 1,200 miles from my hometown of Miami I am reminded of these special places. The bald cypress “domes” of south Florida are mirrored in the white cedar swamps here along the Delaware Bayshore in Cape May County. The pine flatwoods of Florida can be seen in the structure of the pine forests just down the path from our campsite. Yes, the species differ, but the wind through Florida slash pines sounds quite similar when it passes through the pitch pines up here in Belleplain State Forest. Yes, Belleplain brings back memories for me of places far from here, but also exhibits so many wonderful features that make it special in its own right.
It amazes me how after several years of doing this with our family and our friends, everyone just falls into prep mode when we arrive. The first course of action is to find the perfect hammock trees, which the kids do as my wife and I unpack the car. Next is tents, camp chairs, and organizing our picnic bench for meal prep and consumption. When the kids were smaller, we had a three-person tent that never seemed like it could be too small, but as our family grew, we soon found ourselves searching for a larger option. Eventually we upgraded to a six-person tent, something that seemed unfathomable back in our everything-fits-on-your-back days.
For several years and camping seasons that tent served us well; the kids staying in the smaller half, and my wife and I in the larger half. It was, and still is, a beautiful tent. As of this year, though, the kids have moved out of the family tent, and in with their friends: two “littles” in the “littles tent” (our original three-person), and the two “bigs” in the “bigs tent” (a three-person of our family friends). Now my wife and I have a six-person tent to ourselves, which admittedly is a bit absurd…but it’s still a pretty sweet tent and I’m not ready to let it go. Regardless of my existential “empty tent” crisis, there are few places that I can present to my kids and not wonder whether they’ll be interested. Simply suggesting camping in Belleplain is met with “you better not be kidding, Dad!” followed by “YES, YES, YES!”
Belleplain State Forest, sitting just northwest of the Cape May Peninsula in the town of Woodbine, comprises roughly 23,000 acres of pine, oak, and white cedar forest, and boasts some of the highest habitat diversity in the state. The diversity is owing to where Belleplain sits geographically: in the transition between the maritime forests of the Delaware Bayshore and the beginning of the New Jersey Pine Barrens. This diversity of habitat is what allows for the high biodiversity of both flora and fauna found on the trails throughout the forest, from rare butterflies to abundant birds, and specialized plants adapted to fire and sandy soils. When we go camping there, we bring our bikes, as there are over 40 miles of trails for hiking, biking, and horseback riding throughout the forest, including a designated mountain bike trail with over nine miles of single-track through some beautiful landscapes. On a recent visit the park was so empty that I biked the trail one day, ran it and never saw another person the whole time we were out.
Camping in Belleplain is a treat, and the park offers options for every style. The original Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) campsites built in the 1930s offer power hookups for campers, while both the CCC and Meisle Field campgrounds allow dogs. The North Shore campground has several sites with access to Lake Nummy, so if you have a kayak or canoe you can put in directly from your campsite (these are our favorites!). Several nature trails originate near the campground and offer short (less than one mile) excursions, great for kids or those who just want to dip their toes in hiking. For the more adventurous, the East Creek Trail provides a very nice and easy seven-mile hike that crosses through a number of majestic white cedar forests before taking you around East Creek Lake which boasts some accessible stands of carnivorous plants such as Pitcher Plants and Sundews.
As I watch my kids swing in the hammock and gaze out over Lake Nummy or ask each other to go for a bike ride or hike together, I can’t help but wonder whether they too will be drawn to similar landscapes as they get older. Whether or not is unimportant, of course, but their passion for nature gives me faith that they’ll find comfort and familiarity in wild spaces long after they’ve grown out of their own sleeping bags, tents, and backpacks.