Do the Hike: Wetlands Institute’s Marsh Trail

Photos and Story by Collin Hall

Do the Hike is a recurring feature in Do the Shore that features walks, trails, and hiking spots across Cape May County, no matter how small.  

Who hasn’t been to the Wetlands Institute? Me, at least not in 15 years. It was a homeschooling hot spot when I was younger; lots of smart-aleck kids who thought themselves too bright for public school would crowd into the Institute’s lecture room to hear about birds or turtles or something else true and beautiful.  

The Wetlands Institute on a rainy March afternoon.

I hadn’t been to the Wetlands Institute since those snot-nosed days, but the first thing that struck me on an impromptu visit after seeing the new Dungeons and Dragons movie is how well-maintained the Institute’s grounds are.

The main building is striking because most of it is sided with cedar shakes. A brick walkway hugs the western portion of the center’s front lawn, and flirty monkey grass and varied trees obscure the building’s many juts and overhangs. It’s all quite mysterious. Why is the center, in the middle of a vulnerable wetland – made of wood? Who keeps the lawn looking so nice?

Houses across the street from the Wetlands Institute right outside of Stone Harbor, technically in Middle Township.

People throw the word “magic” around a lot, but if this place doesn’t have the rustic feeling of an enchanted garden, nowhere does. 

The Wetlands Institute is a research center dedicated to monitoring the health of one of the country’s most diverse – and delicate – ecosystems. But for most of us, it’s a beautiful building with enchanting grounds and great indoor exhibits.  

The trail itself is hard to miss; it’s marked by several large “Marsh Trail” signs near a storage shed and lots of picnic tables on the water. The trail itself is short – only a quarter of a mile. But my girlfriend and I spent a solid 45 minutes here at sundown leering at birds and the diverse foliage that grows here. We visited on an early Spring evening, so lots of the plants had yet to bloom or return after a long winter.  

A sign that beckons you onto the trail.

We spotted several mid-sized Eastern Red Cedar trees with small blue juniper berries. These evergreens are common on coastal dunes and the sandy outer edges of wetlands. We also saw the fruit-bearing northern bayberry, always a pretty sight.  

This walk is super accessible – it could be done with a wheelchair, and a 720-foot ramp loop gives great views of the surrounding wetlands. The old wooden walkway from my childhood was destroyed by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and the new ramp is wider and flood-proof, if a bit less charming.  

A lived-in scene before the Salt Marsh Trail entrance at the Wetlands Institute.

Like the Stone Harbor Point trail, this is a great place to get a glimpse of non-human life in an area that is otherwise highly developed. The wetlands are still busting with shore birds and aquatic critters – it’s common to see crabs and turtles here in the summer. But twirl around and you’ll see houses on the horizon in every direction. 

Even if this isn’t a proper “hike,” the marsh swamp trail is a great place to spend an hour on a nice evening or cool morning. I wish I had brought a book to read on one of the benches by the trail entrance. The atmosphere here is lovely, and if you’re lucky enough to live nearby, don’t take it for granted.  

Can you identify the type of reeds in this photo? Email 
Emily looks at a birder on an early April afternoon.
The storage shed at the end of the trail.  A plaque says the shed was donated in the 1980s. If this is the original shed, we’re amazed it has held up for so long.
You can take a “cell phone tour” of the trail.