We went in search of the Pygmy Pines
in a section of the pine barrens called the "Pine Plains"
where the trees average 5 feet tall and you can see over tree tops for acres.
We've never hiked Penn State Forest before and didn't know much about it, other than seeing a few pics of the pines, and they are mentioned in both an older (1998) "50 Hikes in NJ" book as well as a 2009 "Hiking in NJ" book and sounded intriguing - both as an interesting hiking destination and as a photography subject.
We parked at Oswego Lake
and followed the route in the "50 Hikes" book (8.7 miles) but were quite disappointed to never find trees less than 7 or 8 feet high - certainly too tall to see over. I re-read the trail descriptions after the hike, and sure enough, we were on the right paths. The books made it seem like you would be strolling right thru these awesome, unique short pines.
The hiking here is 100% on wide sand roads - not a favorite trail surface for us (hence our annoyance at hiking all day on less than favorable conditions and not seeing what we hoped for). It ranged from hard packed to the soft bright white "sugar" sand. There was still some avoidable snowpack on some trails, and it was quite wet on one road.
The roads are not marked. Get the trail map
from the park site, there are none at the trail kiosk, it's just an overview of the pine barrens. It's mostly easy to find your route but there are a couple extra unmarked roads along the way, so a GPS is nice insurance. On our GPS map, the roads were named which made it super easy.
Oswego Lake in the beginning is pleasant enough for brief views, then its non-stop straight sand roads and relentless pine. We "climbed" Bear Swamp Hill - which is probably nice when the abundant mountain laurel blooms... but was the "limited views" the book mentioned were so limited you basically could see nothing.
As we approached the pine plains, the trees did get gradually shorter and was interesting... but never low enough to see over. We passed a path on the left, then on the right and afterwards we wondered if we had needed to veer off the main road in order to see the short pines.
I searched when we got home and found this link talking about "Spring Hill"
as being the best place to see pygmy pines - so it looks like we needed to take a trail on the right in order to get to see any short pines. Neither book mentioned this, and if I'd known ahead, we could have checked it out. A lot of the area around this park in posted "private property" and I can't be sure these paths don't go into that.
We saw no other hikers but passed a gravel pit with a bunch of vehicles parked for dirtbikes, then some quads as well. A couple of trucks passed us, and McGuire AFB is nearby so planes go overhead. So we can't even give this park a thumbs-up for solitude.To get there....
take Rt 206 south to 536 S thru Chatsworth and turn left on Oswego Lake Rd. Just over a small bridge, turn right into the parking lot. There was a composting toilet that was not locked. Make sure you have TP with you. You can also come via the Parkway. It was about 1 hrs 20 min from central NJ via 206.
It's important to note that all the roads are sand/dirt but google maps and our GPS showed them as just roads. If you have a car and are looking at driving thru the park to get to either the lake or Bear Swamp Hill (there is parking there, sort of)... just be aware none are paved.Our route...
From parking at Oswego Lake and using the online map: take Jenkins Rd, left onto Cabin Rd, right onto Sooy, right up to Bear Swamp Hill, come back down, right back onto Sooy, right on Chatsworth, left on Stave (not marked on park map) thru plains, left onto Lost Lanes to it's end, then left again, follow back to lot.Oswego Lake
Pines getting shorter...
...but this is as short as they got.