If you itching to get out of New York City or are close by in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Connecticut or upstate New York, try a day road trip to Ringwood State Park, home of the New Jersey State Botanical Gardens. New Jersey is called the “Garden State” and the more you explore it, the more you will find the small farms and beautiful gardens of this state. The formal gardens of the NJSBG and hiking trails of Ringwood are hidden gems tucked away in the northern reaches of NJ. Open 8 am to 8 pm, daily, year-round, it is easily accessible via Route 208 in NJ or the N.Y. Thruway and Route 17 from New York.
Parking at Sklyands is located in three lots. Your best bet is Parking A, located at the front of the park near the entrance. If this is unavailable, Parking lot B is the next convenient, located at the far end of the lilac garden. Parking C is waaaaaay out there on the opposite side of the botanical garden. If you up for a hike, it’s fine. If you are up for a light stroll…try to avoid this lot.
Be sure to stop by the Visitor Center at the start of your walk to pick up a map. Then stick it in your pocket or your purse. The garden features a lot of happy surprises and you’ll want to know what you are stumbling upon! To the right of the Visitor Center is the manicured Annual Garden.
If you are visiting in the spring, you might want to pause under the swaying pink trees of the Perennial Garden. We found many people sitting on blankets reading books and playing cards under the tree canopy.
Proceeding down the lawn of Crabapple Vista look off to the left at the rolling Ramapo Mountains. You’ll feel sheltered in the giant “secret garden” of the NJBG. A the far end of the vista, beneath a row of towering pines, you’ll find the Four Continents Statues. These are life-size statues representing four continents: Asia, America, Africa, and Europe (you’ll see them left to right).
You can use your cell phone to punch in an audio tour, including a discussion about the Four Continents statues. Look to the right of the statue group for the phone code. I did not do this. Instead, I sat under the trees thinking about Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers in Rome, and any similarities I could find between the two groupings of statues. I also thought about how the elements have not been kind to these figures and I investigated the “treasures” sculpted into the base of each statue relating to the rich resources of each continent.
On your way back towards the Visitor Center, pass by Swan Pond. Walk throughout the Dry Meadow to the gated garden. You can undo the latch, but be sure to close the gate behind you. Here you will find the Hosta Garden and Rhododendron Garden. In early May, we hit the timing just right to see the bright purple Rhododendrons bursting onto the scene.
Perhaps the most unique garden at Skylands is the Moraine Garden. Located just past the Rhododendrons, it is a reminder of just how ancient the Appalachian Mountains are. A moraine is a glacial deposit left behind by the melting of the glaciers at the end of the Ice Age. Low plants thrive around the rocks deposited by glaciers on this gently sloping hill. You can search closely for gentians, dwarf conifers, and heather, plants that are indigenous to the region, or sit on the bench located beneath the tree canopy and marvel at this unusual garden.
Leave these enclosed gardens and make your way over to Skylands Manor. The country estate on which the gardens stand was originally called “Skylands Farms” and was owned by Francis Lynde Stetson a lawyer who entertained Grover Cleveland, the Carnegies, and J.P. Morgan at the farms. He was also a trustee of the New York Botanical Garden and chose Samuel Parsons Jr., a student of Frederick Law Olmstead, to design the grounds you are standing on.
The Tudor Mansion that stands on Skylands today is not that of Stetson, but a later wonder, Clarence McKenzie Lewis, a New York banker, also a trustee of the New York Botanical Garden.
Incidently, the Ramapo Mountains were home in the early 20th century to the most illustrious barons of Gilded Age society. Down the road sits Ringwood Manor, the summer home of the Cooper-Hewitt families. You can also see the vacation home of sugar magnate Theodore Havemeyer not far away in Mahwah, NJ, across the street from Ramapo College and the home of copper magnate Stephen Birch, whose mansion is now an administrative building on campus. Havemeyer’s brother, H.O. Havemeyer bequeathed a massive collection of over 4,500 works of art to the Metropolitan Museum in New York City including paintings, sculptures, and decorative arts.
Created in the style favored by America’s wealthiest patrons at the time, the Tudor Revival Skylands Manor features native granite excavated from Pierson Ridge on the estate, as well as oak interior paneling from from Lyme Regis, England. The construction firm, Elliot C. Brown Co. of New York City built Skylands manor, in addition to the Hyde Park mansion of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Most of the gardens are the brainchild of Lewis. A meticulous botanist by hobby, Lewis collected plants and curated the Sklyands grounds, recording each acquisition and employing up to fifty gardeners at any given time. The 96 acres bordering the manor house are the State’s official botanical gardens.
The backyard of the manor features a highly organized, symmetrical series of groomed gardens, including the fragrant Magnolia Walk, the Azalea Garden, Summer Garden, Tree Peony Garden featuring flowering plants from China, and the Lilac Garden, a heady riot of violet which peaks around Mother’s Day in mid-May. The twelve main beds of lilacs are a haven for everyone to linger by.
Whether you are visiting during the spring, or the peak of fall, there is always something to see at this gem tucked away in Ringwood, NJ.
Skylands NJ State Botanical Garden in Ringwood, NJ is open daily. For more information call 973-962-9534.