The State Park Service is restoring its First Day Hikes program for 2022 after a 2021 cancellation.
Still, with COVID-19's omicron variant leading a nationwide surge in hospitalizations, officials are mixing in a variety of self-guided options amid the standard guided group hikes on Jan. 1, 2022.
John Cecil, the director of the state Division of Parks and Forestry, recommended that 2022's participants visit a state park that is new to them to start the year. Still, he said, people should choose the hike with which they feel most comfortable.
“We understand that some visitors may still be cautious of gathering in groups," he said.
Cecil said state officials are happy to offer hikes that can permit proper distancing among participants and fully self-guided options. Among those options in North Jersey are an excursion at Liberty State Park in Jersey City and two mapped hikes at the New Jersey State Botanical Garden in Ringwood.
Ken Merz, president of the NJBG/Skylands Association, said he welcomes the return of First Day Hikes in 2022. The event includes 28 hikes and a lighthouse climb in locations ranging from High Point to Cape May. All can be a great way to relieve some pandemic stress, Merz said.
"Being in the fresh air of the outdoors, you are taking part in an experience that reduces your exposure to COVID-19, while giving the mind a chance to relax and take in the beautiful scenery," he said
The hikes at the New Jersey State Botanical Garden start in the early afternoon. Participants are asked to meet at the estate's Carriage House Visitor Center between 1 and 2 p.m. to receive maps and hike directions from park staff and volunteers.
Of the two options, the first is a more challenging hike up Mount Defiance, Merz said.
The roughly 90-minute hike takes people to the scenic overlook on the Halifax Trail. There, participants can take in views of the gardens and the 1920s stone mansion known as Skylands Manor.
The second hike traverses the flat terrain of the property's Cherry Allee and includes a loop around Swan Pond. The hike takes about 45 minutes, Merz said. No registration is required for either hike, and service animals are allowed.
Earlier in the day, other North Jersey parks will be hosting more strenuous starts to the new year.
At 10 a.m., a roughly 6.5-mile hike is set to take participants past rhododendron groves and around the natural glacial Lake Wawayanda in Vernon. Children more than 8 years old and service dogs are welcome. Registration is required by calling the park office at 973-853-4462 or through the Wawayanda State Park Facebook page.
Also at 10 a.m., High Point State Park hosts its fifth annual High Point First Day Challenge Hike. At about 6 miles, the challenge hike will traverse a rugged section of the Appalachian Trail before hitting the graded Iris Trail.
Participants in the challenge are asked to bring appropriate gear for a difficult hike, including snowshoes or foot traction, water and lunch. Children over 12 accompanied by an adult and dogs on leashes are permitted. Registration is required by calling the High Point State Park Office at 973-875-4800 or hike leader John Rovetto at 973-903-3496.
Leashed dogs are welcomed on many of 2022's First Day Hikes, including one in Belleplain State Forest in Cape May County and another within the Pine Barrens at the Forest Resource Education Center in Jackson Township.
Many of the 2022 events will be canceled in the event of inclement weather. Prospective participants are encouraged to visit njparksandforests.org/firstdayhikes for further details.
David Zimmer is a local reporter for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to the most important news from your local community, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: NJ Park Service restores First Day Hikes program amid COVID