(12/P91) OLD BRIDGE –A light breeze rustles tall saltmarsh grasses on Cheesequake Creek as kayakers peer at marsh wrens through binoculars. Diamondback terrapins sun themselves on logs and rocks, while tiny fiddler crabs peek out from the muddy banks.
This bucolic scene may seem like a distant destination from the beaten path. But in reality, the subtle and natural wonders of Cheesequake State Park are just a stone’s throw from the Garden State Parkway.
And while the serenity of Cheesequake Creek kayak ecotours are certainly a highlight of this 1,274-acre park in Old Bridge, Middlesex County, the added fishing, hiking and camping available among the coastal wetlands and forests also make for quality and sometimes surprising getaways in the well-developed Raritan Bay region.
“Cheesequake State Park is another jewel in the state’s incredible park system, offering our residents a wealth of affordable recreational opportunities and not far from home,’’ said Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Bob Martin. “We urge residents from all parts of the state to take a drive, spend a day and explore this terrific venue.’’
The Christie Administration, which recognizes the importance of keeping all of New Jersey’s state parks open, affordable and even more accessible during tough economic times, last year launched a long-term strategy for keeping parks sustainable for future generations by improving visitor services, amenities and activities, such as those offered at Cheesequake.
“Cheesequake State Park is unique in many ways and provides a welcome escape from the hectic routine of daily life,” said Rich Boornazian, Assistant Commissioner for Natural and Historic Resources. “There are so many ways to enjoy this park. Whether it’s swimming, camping, hiking, fishing, crabbing, or canoeing and kayaking, there is no shortage of options to help you get away from it all.”
Derived from the Lenape word Cheseh-oh-ke, meaning upland or "upland village,” Cheesequake is distinctive in that it encompasses hilly northeastern hardwood forests, open fields and even an isolated section of the Pine Barrens that drops down to saltwater marshes and freshwater marshes along Cheesequake Creek.
From the water or land, more than 160 species of birds can be found within a rainbow of tree specimens, including Atlantic white cedars, red maples, black birches and Sweetbay magnolias.
The park started as a good buy for New Jersey. In 1937, the state Legislature set aside $100,000 for the purchase of the property. A year later, the first portion of what would become the park - a 250-acre tract of farmland and a Civil War-era mansion - was sold to the state by the Favier brothers. The land went for just $30 an acre, according to an old copy of the Matawan Journal.
Parcels were added and the Civil Conservation Corps helped develop the park. It opened in June 1940, just months before America’s entry into World War II. Today, it is operated and maintained by the New Jersey Division of Parks and Forestry and is part of the New Jersey Coastal Heritage Trail Route.
Some of the park’s history, as well as its diverse mix of flora and fauna from both northern and southern ecosystems, can be found at Cheesequake’s nature center.
“It’s a great place to start your tour, to learn what the park has to offer,” said David Donnelly, superintendent of Cheesequake State Park.
Of course, observing the natural treasures via Cheesequake State Park’s kayak ecotour is what draws many visitors.
Created by a grant from the National Trails Program and guided by naturalist Jim Faczak and his wife, April Lippet-Faczak, the ecotour includes natural resource education, maritime history and kayak safety and skills.