POV: Spring classes have just started. You’re finally out of arrival quarantine, so you have unlocked the ability to take your daily walks off campus. But you don’t. Sure, there’s the occasional trek up to Nassau Street for a stop at Small World or Tico’s, or sometimes you stroll around the neighborhood behind McCarter Theatre for some scenic variety. More often, you stick to the well-worn footpaths through Prospect Garden, wander among the Rocky courtyards, or perhaps trek all the way down to Poe Field to reminisce or wonder about what campus used to look like without all this new-fangled construction.
If you’re starting to go a little stir-crazy in the Orange Bubble, then try opting for a more natural setting for your walks, runs, or bike rides. Although Princeton may not be the most topographically interesting town – and I say that as a proud resident of the Midwest – there are many forest preserves within walking distance of campus that offer a refreshing visual alternative to the imposing architecture of academia. As we approach one full year of online classes, taking regular breaks to care for our mental and physical health becomes increasingly crucial. Here I recommend, ordered by distance from campus, some of the parks that have given me a much-needed refuge from Princeton’s often overwhelming and fast-paced lifestyle.
Most Princeton students are familiar with the towpath. This easy, unpaved walking trail is officially part of the D&R Canal State Park, which runs uninterrupted all the way from Trenton to New Brunswick. From Princeton’s campus, you can most easily access the towpath either by crossing Lake Carnegie on Washington Road – which affords an expansive view of the lake and the iconic boathouse – or by heading south on Alexander Road. This spring, the canoe and kayak rental facility on Alexander will again open for business, offering hourly and daily rates through the non-winter months. Even now, when canoes are out of season, the towpath is a great location for jogging, biking, or strolling along the ever-changing water’s edge.
The Charles H. Rogers Wildlife Refuge
This lesser-known preserve is adjacent to the towpath west of Alexander Road. This is a great spot for birdwatchers, as the refuge is home to many winged species who dwell in its marshes, trees, and tall grasses. A list of these species, as well as identifying photographs, is provided at the trailhead. The trails loop around the large and small marshes and offer viewing platforms from which you can watch birds sweep through the sky and descend upon the feeding posts. A couple paths also join up with trails in the nearby Institute Woods. This is one way to access the refuge, but you can also turn right on West Drive while heading south on Alexander Road; it may look a little sketchy and back-alley-ish, but trust me, you’re going in the right direction. A fair warning: many of the refuge’s trails are narrow, and they become quite muddy after rainfall, so it may not be terribly advisable to bring your bicycle – especially since it might scare away any ground nesting birds.
The Institute Woods
In a faraway land, west of both the Graduate College and the Springdale Golf Course, lies the illustrious Institute for Advanced Study. Although the doors of this world-renowned research institution are closed to us mere mortals, its 589-acre grounds have been available for public use since 1997. Walkers, bikers, and joggers are all welcome to explore its 13 miles of wide trails with incredibly cute names like Trolley Tracks Trail and Founders’ Walk. These paths lead through dense forests, grassy clearings, marshy wetlands, and adorable bridges, including the Swinging Bridge over Stony Brook that just begs to be jumped on. From the Institute Woods, you can also access the Rogers Refuge to the south and the Princeton Battlefield State Park to the north. There are many ways to enter the woods, but personally, I find it easiest to head along the far side of the Golf Course and turn right on any of the cross streets. The Institute Woods are almost never crowded, so they offer a beautiful, quiet space for personal reflection and an escape from the heavy stress cloud that hangs over Princeton’s campus.
Mountain Lakes Nature Preserve
This location is a bit further from campus, about a mile north on Bayard Lane. However, its 71 acres of trails provide a lot of variety, with both paved and unpaved trails, elevated plank walkways, designated bicycle routes, picnic tables, wooden benches, an outdoor amphitheater, and several water features. Most paths converge at an artificial lake that was created in the 19th century to facilitate large-scale ice harvesting. On a hill overlooking the lake stands a mid-century residence that can be rented out for private events. I have crossed paths with many more locals at Mountain Lakes than at any of the other preserves on this list, but it is still by no means crowded. Plus, the park is a popular dog walking destination, so if you love dogs as much as I do, the chance of petting these canine companions is incentive enough to adventure this far beyond Princeton’s gates.