woman hiking through forest

By Lizz Dinnigan, Preventionist

Since the Pandemic, it feels as if our collective baselines have shifted toward a consistent state of feeling overwhelmed, over-stimulated, and over-extended. This, in turn, can make us overreactive, over-emotional, and over-sensitive. 

Releasing some of that tension and pressure is essential to our well-being. It’s important to find an outlet to help blow off steam and seek relief in a healthy way. Being outdoors in nature and breathing in fresh mountain or sea air has never failed to lift my spirits. I am a nature junkie with an excessive amount of energy for a woman in her 50s. Hiking has become my savior.

For the last 10 years, I have worked with children ages 4 to 18. Although my career is tremendously rewarding and meaningful, it can also be exhausting and draining. My weekly Sunday hikes and walks help me clear my head and decompress at the end of a long week, as well as recharge for the upcoming week. 

Simply spending time in nature can boost mental health because it releases feel-good endorphins. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), there have been studies showing the positive effects of nature on depression, anxiety, and mood disorders. Access to nature has also been found to improve sleep and reduce stress, increase happiness and reduce negative emotions, promote positive social interactions, and even help generate a sense of meaning to life. In fact, “ecotherapy”—tapping into the therapeutic and healing properties of nature—is also gaining traction. 

With spring around the corner, it’s the perfect time to get out there and explore! Following are five local low-key places I like to go to unwind.

  1. Deep Cut Gardens (Middletown): This hidden gem features a vibrant display garden bursting with color, a bonsai display, a koi pond, a Parterre with 52 varieties of roses, and my personal favorite spot, The Rockery, with benches shaded by a collection of Sargent’s Weeping Hemlock trees, whose branches sprawl out above the terraced pools. Free.
  2. Happy Day Farm (Manalapan) and Holland Ridge Farms (Cream Ridge): Both of these properties have outstanding seasonal floral displays. Happy Day boasts lavender and sunflowers fields, with blueberry and raspberry picking, while Holland Ridge replicates the magnificent and expansive rainbow-striped tulip fields of Holland at Tulip Time. In the fall, Holland Ridge’s fields transform into rows of golden sunflowers. Admission charged.
  3. Plays In the Park, Roosevelt Park (Edison): Although this outdoor activity requires you to sit still, audience members get to enjoy al fresco Broadway-style musicals at the Stephen J. Capestro outdoor amphitheater. The 2024 calendar includes Beauty and the Beast (June 19-29), In the Heights (July 10-20), and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (July 31-Aug. 10). Ticket prices vary.
  4. Cheesequake State Park (Matawan): This spot is my go-to park when I don’t have time to drive upstate for my Sunday hike. Please note, though, that mosquitos make summer hiking here a challenge. I have hiked each of the trails numerous times, and I prefer to combine them to get a sampling of each ecosystem. Boardwalk trails through salt- and fresh-water marshes link up with hardwood forest trails. There is much diversity in the flora and fauna here because Cheesequake is the only park where the northern hardwood forest meets a southern pine barrens ecosystem at sea level. Gate fee Memorial Day to Labor Day.
  5. Sandy Hook at Gateway National Recreation Area (Highlands): Sandy Hook is one of my top spots because this barrier beach peninsula remains rugged and wild, with no Jersey Shore Boardwalk commercialism due to its National Park designation. There are trails for biking and walking through vegetated dune habitats, tidal mudflats, salt marshes, and maritime forests. Bayside kayak and canoe rentals are available. Wildlife such as osprey, bald eagles, red foxes, and a large population of deer call this park home. For birders, it’s a shorebird spring migration hot spot. Sandy Hook is equally rich in maritime and military history. Built in 1764, the Sandy Hook Lighthouse is the oldest operating lighthouse in the U.S. Parking fee Memorial Day to Labor Day.

Photo by Jake Melara

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