The New Jersey Pinelands, also known as the Pine Barrens, is the largest remaining Atlantic coastal pine barrens ecosystem in the United States. It stretches across more than seven counties of New Jersey.
The pinelands range from northern Ocean County south into Cape May County, with areas in Burlington, Camden, Cumberland, Gloucester, and Atlantic Counties.
Nearly 45 percent of the 1.1 million acres of the Pinelands National Reserve is publicly owned. There are numerous state parks and forests, including Brendan T. Byrne (featured in our best hiking in NJ article), Wharton, Bass River, Belleplain, Island Beach, and Colliers Mills.
The Difference Between The Pine Barrens and The Pinelands
The difference between the Pine Barrens and the Pinelands is simple: New Jersey’s Pinelands is a political area, and the Pine Barrens is the geographic region within the Pinelands.
Formally, the latter is the Pinelands National Reserve.
Meanwhile, the Pine Barrens is an area of sandy, acidic soil where pines, oaks, cedars, blueberries, cranberries, and other acid-based plants thrive.
Early settlers called this type of soil “barren” places because traditional crops did not grow well there.
History of the Pine Barrens
John McPhee’s 1967 best-selling book The Pine Barrens ignited the public campaign to save the Pinelands – a sentiment you will hear repeated today. His accounts of the Pinelands’ natural resources and the effects of water and fire on this region are still remarkably accurate.
The Pinelands National Reserve (PNR)
Congress created the Pinelands National Reserve in 1978 with the passage of the National Parks and Recreation Act; it was the first national reserve in the country.
The PNR includes 1.1 million acres and covers portions of seven countries and all or part of 56 municipalities in central and southern New Jersey.
In 1979, the New Jersey Pinelands Commission was created to help protect the Pinelands from development and manage growth. The commission includes representatives from state, county, and federal agencies.
Today, the Pinelands Commission, the National Park Service, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, the Division of Parks and Forestry, and nonprofit groups all over NJ work together to protect the PNR.
In 1988, UNESCO designated the reserve as an International Biosphere Reserve.
Industries in the Pinelands
The Pine Barrens were home to several industries throughout its history, including a thriving cranberry and blueberry business that has helped shape the state.
Elizabeth C. Whites, daughter of the largest cranberry grower in the Pine Barrens, was the first to grow and harvest a cultivated blueberry bush. You can explore White’s work and story at Historic Whitesbog Village and Farm near Brendan T. Byrne State Forest.
In 2020, the USDA valued New Jersey’s blueberry production value at $85 million, placing it in the top six states in the US to produce blueberries. The blueberry business is so prominent here in NJ that it is officially the state’s fruit!
The Barrens were also home to charcoal making, glass making (the first Mason jar was made here), woodcutting, and cabinetry.
The Pine Barrens Ecosystem
Sandy underground layers of earth filter the water of the shallow, slow-moving surface streams in the Pine Barrens. Within these layers, separated by silt and clay, lies a vast natural reservoir: the Kirkwood-Cohansey aquifer system, extending more than 3,000 square miles.
The aquifer holds an estimated 17 trillion gallons of water and could cover the entire state of New Jersey in a lake 10 feet deep. It is the Pinelands region’s primary source of drinking water and provides approximately 90 percent of all the water to streams, wetlands, and rivers in the Pinelands region.
The honey brewed-tea color of the surface water stems from a high iron content and natural vegetative dyes, such as tannin. The water holds a high acidity which helps produce some of the distinctive flora, such as carnivorous sundews and pitcher plants, orchids, and Pine Barrens gentians.
The water helped support New Jersey’s industries as far back as the 1700s, from shipbuilding, paper mills, sawmills, charcoal kilns, and bog iron smelters to glassmaking.
Hidden in the pinelands are 20 to 30-foot-wide circles that are remnants of charcoal kilns. Abandoned sand quarries hold pristine lakes (like the blue hole) and ponds, with beaches of quartz sand and miles of surrounding sugar-sand trails.
35 percent of the Pinelands National Reserve is water.
Despite all the water in the PNR, wildfires are common due to the seasonally dry ecosystem. Local fire companies have taken to control burns that help prevent wildfires from spreading throughout the Pinelands.
Believe it or not, fires are good for the survival of pine trees. The intense heat causes the pine cones to “pop,” allowing the seeds to sprout and new trees to grow.
“Pygmy” pines, relatively unique to the Pine Barrens, are a stunted variety of pitch pine. These trees are irregular in shape and don’t grow nearly as tall as their “normal” counterparts – which can grow upwards of 98 feet.
Pitch pines are highly durable, with trunks covered in large, thick, irregular bark plates. They have a high regenerative ability that helps when the tree is damaged by fire.
Fire has helped the tree to adapt over time, including:
- the ability to re-sprout using epicormic shoots
- thicker than normal bark
- rapid growth when young (gaining around one foot of height per year until 50-60 years old)
Pines are not the only tree you’ll find in the Pinelands. They live alongside different varieties of oak and cedar (including valuable red cedars).
Native cranberries and blueberries, like those grown at Historic Whitesbog Village and Farm, continue to adapt to the Pine Barrens’ conditions and are a significant contributor to New Jersey’s agricultural industry.
Camping in the Pine Barrens
BRENDAN T BYRNE STATE FOREST
PO Box 215
New Lisbon, New Jersey 08064
P: (609) 726-1191
Brendan T. Byrne offers some of the best hiking in New Jersey, long stretches to bike, and includes access to “forgotten towns” like Mount Misery and Ong’s Hat. Check out nearby Whitesbog Village for blueberry festivals and to see the birthplace of the first cultivated blueberry bush. The forest is also home to the cedar swamp natural area.
There are a variety of campsites in the park:
- Tent and trailer sites
- Group campsites
- Pet-friendly campsites
WHARTON STATE FOREST
31 Batsto Rd
Hammonton, New Jersey 08037
P: (609) 561-0024
Wharton State Forest is the largest State Forest in New Jersey and has over 125,000 acres. There are tons of things to do, including hiking, biking, horseback riding, and canoeing. Check out Historic Batsto Village, a former bog iron and glassmaking industrial center from 1766 to 1867.
There are a variety of campsites in the park:
- Atsion campsites
- Godfrey bridge
- Pet-friendly campsites
- Primitive campsites
Frequently Asked Questions
Living in New Jersey for most of my life, here are some of the most frequently asked questions.
What is the Pine Barrens known for?
The Pine Barrens are well known for their unspoiled nature and abundant and diverse wildlife. It also covers a massive 1.1 million acres, or 25 percent of New Jersey’s land area.
Despite it not being filmed in the Pine Barrens, there is a well-regarded episode of HBO’s The Sopranos. The filming took place in Harriman State Park in New York.
John McPhee’s book The Pine Barrens brought national attention to this long-forgotten part of New Jersey. His book led to the reappraisal of the ecological role of pine barrens.
The Jersey Devil is rumored to live in the Pine Barrens, with some believing it resides in Wharton State Forest.
How many bodies have been found in the Pine Barrens?
It’s hard to say how many bodies have been buried in the Pine Barrens. The land was initially inhabited by the Lenni Lenape tribe, who buried their dead throughout the land.
In the 1960s, the Pinelands became notorious as the dumping ground for mobsters looking to get rid of the bodies of their victims.
As of 1967, the Asbury Park Press claimed: “one body a year has been found deep in the woods in sparsely settled areas.”
In Ocean County alone, reported since 1966, almost half of the 50 murder cases connect the Pine Barrens to victims, their killers, or both. Ten of which are unsolved.
Does anyone live in the Pine Barrens?
According to the Pinelands Alliance, over 400,000 people currently live inside the Pinelands boundary, with more than 20 million people living within 60 miles of the Pinelands.
It wasn’t always this popular, though; in the 1920s, housing lots in the Pine Barrens were given away as gifts to new subscribers of a Philadelphia newspaper. During the depression, deeds were given out as door prizes at movie theaters.
There are many “forgotten towns” scattered throughout the region. A drive through state forests can go right by the ruins and foundations of towns that were once bustling with activity.
Hiking through Brendan T. Byrnes’ State Forest, you’ll pass two of these towns: Mount Misery and Ong’s Hat.
What do you think of the Pine Barrens? Do you have any tips for first-time visitors? Let us know in the comments below.