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6 daytrips to recharge the soul

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Many of us find a deep connection with nature — a oneness with the greater world kindled through direct sensory experience. Whether the catalyst for connection is the hypnotic white noise of a flowing river, the sweet drift of honeysuckle on a hiking trail, or the glittering expanse of the cosmos on a black and cloudless night, immersion in the natural world can evoke a strong sense of spirituality. Indeed, Unitarian Universalism’s 7th Principle recognizes that we are not alone but part of an “interdependent web” of existence.

Summer is the time to get outside and nurture our spirituality with all that nature has to provide. Here are six spots within a 90-minute drive of Newark to unite with nature and recharge the soul.

Delaware and Raritan Canal State Park. Long ago, they were parallel ribbons of commerce — the canal and the railroad. Today the canal, along with the narrow paths on both sides that once were mule trails and railroad trackbeds make up the park, which stretches 30 miles from Frenchtown to Trenton before angling northeast to New Brunswick.

“The towpath,” as the park is simply known to locals, is a magnet for walkers, bicyclists, and nature lovers. Along the Delaware, the trail meanders through dense stretches of woodland that open to reveal stunning views of the river, waterfalls, and isolated spaces that allow for reflection and connection. Bull’s Island, halfway between Lambertville and Frenchtown, is a favorite for bird watchers, especially in early spring.

Whitesbog Village, Browns Mills, Burlington County. The serenity of New Jersey’s Pinelands and the state’s cranberry and blueberry cultures come together in this combination nature-and-agricultural-history preserve. Here, the first cultivated blueberry was developed in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1916.

Today, the park is home to 3,000 acres of cranberry bogs, trails, and forests. Roads of “sugar sand”— the Pinelands’ trademark near-white, fine-grained sand — are open to hikers, bicyclists, and horseback riders, winding through quiet cranberry bogs, stately pine groves, and an early 20th century agricultural company town. Start in the general store, which sells food made from cranberries and blueberries as well as handicrafts from the locals who live in seclusion in the Pine Barrens.

Voorhees State Park, Glen Gardner, Hunterdon County. Situated in the steep and rocky mountain range thrusting above High Bridge, Voorhees's hiking trails and facilities were constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps during Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Though the trails can be rocky, they’re not difficult and are worth the effort for the sweeping views of Round Valley Recreation Area. If you choose to stay the night, try campsites 42, 44, or 46, which ring edge of the camping area and offer long views and a very private feel.

If you’re a stargazer, Voorhees is one of the best places in New Jersey to be. Remote enough to evade the grip of light pollution from New York and Philadelphia, Voorhees is home to an observatory open to the public for skywatching programs year round.

A labyrinth. A labyrinth is a path one walks for personal and spiritual reflection. They are believed to stimulate right-brain activity. Try walking one and see if you don’t come back out of it without a sense of inner peace.

By one count, there are 74 labyrinths open to the public in New Jersey. Some are set in quiet expanses of land conducive to communing with nature. Two such spots are at Murray Grove, a Unitarian Universalist conference and retreat center in Lanoka Harbor, Ocean County, and Unity of Sussex County, in Lafayette.

Columcille Megalith Park, Bangor, Pa. You don’t have to go all the way to Stonehenge to feel the power of Earth’s energy in stone. Studded with monoliths, Columcille’s grounds are rooted in Celtic spirituality and inspired by the Isle of Iona in Scotland.

Columcille runs spiritual programs on the equinoxes and solstices, and some of them are spectacles of sight, sound, and storytelling. Don’t miss the torchlit celebration of Samhain, the ancient Pagan forerunner of today’s Halloween, this year on Saturday, Nov. 1.

The Jersey Shore. Away from the hustle and bustle of the commercial boardwalks, the shoreline is a 24/7 theater whose featured attraction is a spiritual tale about life’s ebb and flow, impermanence, and rebirth. Climb the 217 steps to the top of Barnegat Lighthouse and listen to all that nature has to say through rushing wind, crashing waves, and hawking seagulls.

And if it’s boardwalk towns you like, a little open-mindedness pays dividends for the soul. For a completely different take on spirituality, visit Seaside Heights and follow this guide to happiness.

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