The river means nature for Highland Park. A chain of county and municipal parks and natural areas follows the Raritan River the full length of Highland Park as a loosely connected Highland Park Greenway. In spring, much of this land floods, as it is meant to. Kept natural, it absorbs the floodwaters like a sponge.
These natural areas open to the public provide outdoor experiences rare in today's urban communities. Starting on the northeast above the river, the first natural area is the largest and least tamed: the university-owned Rutgers Ecological Preserve (68 acres in Highland Park, the rest in Edison and Piscataway). Its fields, woods, and stream (Buell Brook) offer varied habitat to birders and hikers braving the rough, unmarked trails.
On the river itself is Middlesex County's Johnson Park (473 acres, Highland Park and Piscataway). Highland Park's portion includes a bikeway, playing fields, and wildlife-watching ponds. Buell Brook and Mill Brook enter the Raritan here. The Piscataway section offers a zoo, harness-racing track, and historical exhibits at East Jersey Olde Towne (plus Low and Metlar-Bodine Houses above River Road). There is hiking/biking access across the Landing Lane Bridge to the Delaware & Raritan (D & R) Canal State Park.
The East Coast Greenway offers new travels to Highland Park hikers and bikeriders. This national trail from Florida to Maine already reaches Highland Park via the D & R towpath and Johnson Park bikeway. An extension will soon be built along Cedar Lane, around the Ecological Preserve, and to the east.
The Highland Park Native Plant Reserve (3 acres) on the river downstream of Johnson Park is our compact but rich "arboretum" of native plants. Overseen by our Shade Tree Advisory Committee and volunteers (yes, you can help), its riverside woods, display plantings, and educational signage won an Environmental Quality Award (2000) from US EPA Region II. Entrance: River Road at Harrison.
The river's edge continues as natural habitat (but on private land) to the next public access at Valley Place Ravine (1.8 acres), where a trail drops down a wooded ravine to a fine river view. Beyond, Red's Marina (historically Ayres Beach) and a freshwater marsh are private lands Middlesex County is acquiring to preserve habitat at the sharp river bend and landmark cliff that early settlers dubbed the Devil's Elbow.
Donaldson Park (90 acres) is the park most used by residents, whether for sports, picnics, jogging, boating, or birdwatching. Planned renovations for this county park will increase its natural character.
Downstream of Donaldson is the final and wildest of our riverside natural areas, a tangle of fields, woods, and wetlands that old photos call The Meadows (16 acres). Currently difficult of access, this recovering nature refuge has our largest tidal marsh (different habitat from the freshwater marsh past the other end of Donaldson). Grants have been received to study its ecology and establish a trail.
Leaving the river, nature is more accessible just above The Meadows at the Southside Bikeway (Fifth and Valentine to Seventh and Donaldson), where wide paving leads toward Donaldson Park. Plantings of native trees and shrubs provide for both a pleasant stroll and an environmental education. Here, public land continues partway up the ravine known as Buck's Woods.
Highland Park's pocket parks offer trees, flowers, benches, or play areas. These are Karsey Street Park, Felton Avenue Tot Lot, Veterans' Park at the triangle of Raritan and Woodbridge Avenues, and one Northside garden triangle at Fourth Avenue and Madison Avenue (an angled street believed to follow the original colonial Mill Road and Native American Assunpink Trail). A proposed pocket park in the triangle between River Road and Lincoln Avenue would mark the borough entry with native plantings. Another minipark is on South Eighth Avenue. The High School/Middle School has a display garden with native plants, and one is planned at Irving School.
Street trees in Highland Park are themselves a linear arboretum of some 4,000 trees. The Shade Tree Advisory Committee suggests species for annual plantings to increase variety, especially of native species. Call the borough to 1) request a tree in a future round of plantings or 2) ask permission to plant your own in the municipal right of way along the street (quicker). Your site must be found suitable and the species must be approved to avoid such problems as tall trees under wires and species that prove brittle, invasive, or disease prone (Bradford pear, Norway maple). In addition to these two routes to your own street tree, you may 3) donate to the Tree Fund. This can be a graceful gesture to honor someone who has passed away, to mark the birth of a child, or to celebrate a birthday, special occasion, or tree-planting holiday such as Arbor Day, Earthday, or Tu'bi-shevat.
Ask the reference librarian at the public library for the Natural Resources Inventory (1992), Greenway Feasibility Study (1994), Street Tree Master Plan (1998), and environmental information file.
[Reprinted from Highland Park Residents' Handbook]