The Great Swamp Outdoor Education Center (GSOEC) consists of a 44 acre portion of the Great Swamp managed since 1963 by the Morris County Parks Department. The GSOEC hosts guided nature walks, school, scout and public educational programs.
The GSOEC hosts periodic studies of the flora and fauna to determine the overall health of the Great Swamp.
The estimated 7,768 acre Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge (GSNWR) abuts the GSOEC to the west. The GSNWR is one of 553 refuges administered by the Department of the Interior’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Lands comprising a National Wildlife Refuge are managed for the protection of wildlife and its habitat.
History of the Great Swamp
The origin of the Great Swamp begins with the melting and subsequent retreat of the Wisconsin Glacier around 25,000 years ago. Debris from the glacier blocked the passage of an ancient river creating an enormous lake known as Lake Passaic. Lake Passaic is thought to have been 30 miles long and 10 miles wide. Over time, an outlet was formed near Little Falls NJ draining the lake via the Passaic River. This drainage is still occurring today. Today the Great Swamp forms a remnant component of the once great Lake Passaic.
In the late 1950’s the area now known as the Great Swamp was identified by the NYNJ Port Authority as an ideal location for a new jetport. The Great Swamp Conservation Foundation mobilized volunteers to protect the Great Swamp. The result was the establishment of the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. The Great Swamp Conservation Foundation later became the North Jersey Conservation Foundation and then finally known as New Jersey Conservation Foundation.
GSOEC features five short loop trails. Two of the four trails (Orange & Red) are interpretive and follow 16 markers listed in a self guided trail booklet available at the education center.
The total length of the trails is 1.4 miles.
Ready to take a virtual tour of the Great Swamp Outdoor Education Center? Let’s Go!
Stop by the kiosk near the parking lot to pick up a trail map. From the kiosk, head to the education center to view the exhibits on the flora and fauna of the Great Swamp.
After checking out the exhibits inside, it’s time to start our hike.
Let’s begin our virtual hike by taking the Orange Blazed trail located to the south of the education center. The Orange Trail at .61 Miles is the longest trail present in the GSOEC. It contains Markers 1-10 from the self guided trail.
The first marker, regarding the Red Maple tree, appears shortly after the beginning of the orange trail. Red Maple is the most common tree in the Great Swamp as well as the eastern deciduous forest.
Red Maple’s flowers are red in the spring and the leaves turn a brilliant red in the fall. Though the Sugar Maple may come to mind when it comes to maple syrup, Red Maple can be tapped for syrup as well. Red Maple should be tapped before budding occurs as the buds change the chemical makeup of the syrup.
Continuing on the orange trail, marker #2 comes into view on the right where a large depression may be found.
The large depression is known as a vernal pond. Vernal ponds do not support fish and may be dry or filled with water. Due to the lack of predators (i.e. fish) the vernal pond provides a safe haven for amphibians such as Wood Frogs, Spring Peepers and Blue-Spotted Salamanders among other species to breed and lay eggs. Continuing past the vernal pond, two fenced areas appear shortly after on the left.
Marker # 3 explains that these sections of the GSOEC were fenced in 2009 to study how plant communities recover from the damage caused by an overpopulation of white tail deer.
Marker #4 describes an Ecotone. An Ecotone is anywhere two habitats meet and create an edge. The Ecotone present here was created by the Power line right of way. The positive aspects of this man-made Ecotone is the creation of suitable nesting habitat for the local turtle population in addition to providing a valuable hunting ground for birds of prey. On the flipside, the disturbed ground caused by the creation of the power lines have provided ideal habitat for invasive plants as Autumn Olive, Multiflora Rose, Garlic Mustard, Wineberry & Japanese Barberry.
Continuing in a southwest direction, the dirt path changes to a boardwalk as the trail traverses the wetland area.
A short boardwalk appears to the right of the main boardwalk which leads to the Pond which is marker #5.
Ponds are usually less than 18 feet deep. Eventually as plant matter and other organic material decays, the pond will begin to become a marsh, progress to a forested wetland and finally upland habitat after many years.
The Pond at GSOEC is manmade and provides habitat for Eastern Painted Turtles, Snapping Turtles, Wood Ducks, Mallards, Belted Kingfisher and River Otters among others. Flora of the Pond includes Yellow Flowered Spatterdock & Duckweed.
Continuing on the trail leads to Marker #6 which describes Poison Ivy which is seen here growing as a hairy vine. Poison ivy contains a clear liquid known as urushiol which causing a burning itching rash in many people. In addition to a hairy vine Poison Ivy can be found as a shrub reaching over three feet tall or as a trailing vine on the ground.
Several rhymes exist warning of the dangers of Poison Ivy:
“Leaves of three, let them be”
“Hairy rope, don’t be a dope”
“Hairy vine, no friend of mine”
Despite the negative publicity this native plant receives, Poison Ivy has tremendous value for wildlife. Native birds such as Eastern Bluebird, Gray Catbird, Dark Eyed Junco and Northern Flicker eat Poison Ivy’s white berries. Mammals such as White-Tail Deer and Eastern Cottontail consume Poison Ivy’s leaves.
At this point of the hike you may notice abundant Mountain Laurel. Marker # 7 appears here.
Its purpose is to briefly touch upon “the browse line”. The over abundant white- tail deer have stripped all leaves of vegetation from six feet down. If the current trend continues, there may not be a forest here in the future.
From this area, the trail head of the .23 of a mile Blue trail loop appears.
Let’s take a brief break from the interpretive trail to explore this short trail.
The Blue Trail Loop goes through an upland area consisting of mostly Mountain Laurel and Swamp Chestnut Oak.
The trail encircles a small vernal pond (the vernal pond, seen here is dry during our virtual tour).
Completing the Blue Trail Loop, head back to the Orange Trail and to Marker # 8 which describes the function of a rotting log in the forest.
Standing dead trees or snags play an important role in the eastern deciduous forest. Woodpeckers including Pileated, Downy and Red-Bellied among others excavate holes in the dead trees searching for tasty insects. These excavated holes in turn create habitat for birds including Black-Capped Chickadee. Fungus will usually invade the dead wood further softening it. Eventually, the tree will fall to the forest floor where it will continue to decay creating a rich organic soil which will support future species of trees.
Proceed east to Marker # 9 The Phragmites Marsh. Phragmites (aka Giant Reed) is a giant species of grass which can grow from 10-20 feet. Phragmites thrives in disturbed areas. Phragmites found in the Great Swamp are native to the eastern deciduous forest. Phragmites are considered invasive because of its aggressive growth and tendency to overwhelm all other vegetation.
From here the trail leaves the boardwalk and heads south to marker # 10 which passes an outdoor study area and leads to a Wigwam replica.
The Lenape Native Americans (the original people) created Wigwams as shelter from saplings, tree bark and Cattail Mats among others. This replica would have been big enough for two people. Marker #10 is the last marker for the orange trail.
After heading back from the Wigwam, turn right on the Orange Trail and follow the trail a brief distance to its terminus.
The “Prayer of the Woods” sign is found right before the start of the Red Trail. After reading the Prayer and taking in its message, turn right to start hiking the .39 mile Red Trail to continue the interpretive trail.
The first marker on the Red Trail is #11 which identifies trees found in the Eastern Deciduous Forest.
Trees found in the Eastern Deciduous Forest include the below among others:
The term “deciduous” indicates that the trees comprising this type of forest lose their leaves each fall and grow new leaves in the spring.
Continuing on the red trail leads Marker #12 “Transmission Lines and Marsh”.
Here, vegetation is periodically removed or trimmed back so as to not interfere with the power lines. This wet marsh provides habitat to Wood Ducks, Mallards, Muskrats and Red-Wing Blackbirds among others.
From here turn left at the sign leading to the education center to go to Marker # 13.
The Red Trail approaches Marker #13 as it crosses a stream.
Sediments and rocks on the stream bottom provides habitat for a variety of Crayfish and Macro-invertebrates. Marco-invertebrates lack backbones and can be seen without the aid of a microscope. Certain macro-invertebrates such as Caddisflies are pollutant intolerant. Presence of pollutant intolerant macro-invertebrates are one way to indicate the health of a stream. Macro- invertebrates eat many different things depending on the species-there are predators, scavengers, and herbivores among them. In turn, macro-invertebrates are a source of food for various turtles, fish and frogs.
Continuing on the red trail leads to Marker #14 which discusses“The Wet Meadow”. The Wet Meadow is a man-made habitat created by a power-line cut and is home to field mice, star-nosed moles and various hawks & owls among others.
Marker #15 leads to an American Beech Tree. The smooth gray bark of the American Beech Tree usually invites individuals to carve their names and other messages into the trunks. Carving in a tree trunk is similar to a cut on your finger. However, unlike your injured finger, a tree cannot put a band-aid on its wound. The carved bark is an open door for disease.
Beechdrops, seen here in this picture, lack both leaves and chlorophyll and is a parasitic plant of the American Beech Tree.
#16 The Swamp
The final marker on the red trail briefly discusses the importance of the Great Swamp. The land comprising the Great Swamp is a mix of meadows, upland woods, marsh and brush covered swamps. Only 40% of the Great Swamp is wet either part of the year or all year long whereas 60% of the Great Swamp consists of upland forest & meadows.
We are now at the end of the Red Trail.
At the end of the red trail head north to catch the beginning of the short .20 of a mile Green Trail near the parking area. The Green trail traverses in a short loop in an upland portion of the GSOEC.
After the Green Trail is complete, it’s time to visit the Observation Blind located off the parking lot which views the Pond looking west.
This concludes our virtual hike! I hope you enjoyed it and it inspired you to take a trip to see the GSOEC for yourself!
The GSOEC is located at 247 Southern BLVD Chatham, NJ.
Feel free to comment below with any bird sightings, interesting plants, memories or suggestions! Thank you and have fun exploring!