Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge

Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1960, lies 26 miles west of New York City's Times Square and seven miles south of Morristown, New Jersey.

Swamp woodland, hardwood ridges, cattail marsh, and grassland typify this 6,818 acre refuge. The Swamp contains many large old oak and beech trees, stands of mountain laurel, and species of other plants of both northern and southern botanical zones.

The refuge bird leaflet lists more than 223 species of birds according to their seasonal occurrence. Mammals found on the refuge include the white-tailed deer, beaver, muskrat, raccoon, skunk, red and gray fox, woodchuck, and cottontail rabbit. An interesting variety of fish, reptiles, and amphibians, including the rare and endangered bog turtle and the blue-spotted salamander, are also found on the refuge.

Origin Of Great Swamp

Roughly 25,000 years ago, where the Wisconsin glacier reached its furthest point south and stopped, the creation of Great Swamp began.

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The melting glacier withdrew northward leaving a barren landscape of sand and gravel strewn in long ridges that blocked the outlet of an ancient river basin. Water, melted from the glacier, flowed into the basin behind this natural dam to form a giant lake, 30 miles long and 10 miles wide.

Eventually the retreating glacier uncovered a second outlet at what is now Little Falls Gap, and the lake waters drained out along the Passaic River The lake disappeared and was replaced by extensive marshes and swamps which would be named Black Meadows, Great and Little Piece Meadows, Troy Meadows, Hatfield Swamp, and Great Swamp.


For a barrel of rum, 15 kettles, 4 pistols, 4 cutlasses plus other goods, and 30 pounds cash, the Delaware Indians in 1708 deeded a 30,000 acre tract, including the Great Swamp, to English investors.

Later, settlements dotted the area and during the Revolutionary War local settlers fashioned wagon wheel parts with wood cut from the Great Swamp. By 1844, farms appeared on cleared uplands; farmers drained marshlands; and"foul meadow hay" became a major crop.

Small farming operations such as these became uneconomical and gradually disappeared. Consequently, much of the cleared upland returned to woods and the lower flat areas reverted to swampland. Various modern uses have been planned for Great Swamp: flood control in the 1920s; drainage projects in the 1930s; and a jet airport proposal in 1959.

It was the threat of the jetport which enabled the Great Swamp Committee of the North American Wildlife Foundation to muster the aid of a significant number of volunteers. This effort raised more than a million dollars to purchase nearly 3,000 acres which were donated to the Department of the Interior. These acres formed the nucleus of the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. Through the years, additional acres have been added to the original tract.

Refuge Management

Wilderness Area - The eastern half of the refuge was designated as a Wilderness Area by Congress in 1968. Generally, no permanent structures, motorized vehicles, or equipment are allowed. The Wilderness Area serves as an outdoor laboratory and provides a more primitive outdoor experience for the general public hiking on more than eight miles of trails is permitted. By limiting use in this sensitive area to foot travel, the wilderness experience can be preserved.

Wildlife Management Area - The western half of the refuge is intensively managed to maintain optimum habitat for a wide variety of wildlife. Water levels are regulated; grasslands and brush are mowed periodically to maintain habitat and species diversity; shrubs are planted; nesting structures for wood ducks, bluebirds, and other birds are provided; other habitat management practices are employed; and research studies are conducted.

Visitor Activities

People are encouraged to observe, study, photograph, and just walk with nature in designated public areas. The best times for observing wildlife are early morning and late afternoon. Because of large numbers of visitors, wildlife viewing on Sunday afternoon is often less rewarding.

Waterproof footgear or old sneakers are recommended during most seasons in the Wilderness Area. Mosquitoes, ticks, and deer flies may be numerous from May to September so insect repellent and protective clothing are advisable.

Visitors who are driving through the refuge on public roads are requested to stay in their cars so the wildlife they see will remain in view for those who follow.

Wildlife Observation Center - The center, located in the Management Area off Long Hill Road, is particularly good for photography and wildlife observation. It has approximately one mile of trails, interpretive displays, an unstaffed information booth, blinds for observing wildlife, and restrooms. Please stay on the boardwalk to avoid disturbing wildlife so that others may have a chance to view the wildlife.

Tours - Organized groups may contact the refuge office in advance for conducted tours or other programs on wildlife conservation or management. There are no regularly scheduled tours.


Wildlife have no restrictions. They have free run of the entire refuge, day and night, because this is their home; people, as visitors, must be regulated.

Hours - Visitors are permitted only in the designated areas during daylight hours.

Trails are open to foot travel only.

All pets must be on a leash and remain in parking areas.

Vehicles may be parked only in designated areas.

Collecting, disturbing, or destroying plants, animals, or parts thereof, is strictly forbidden.

Camping - Picnicking and camping are not permitted on the refuge. Two county parks in the area that do allow camping by permit are Mahlon Dickinson and Lewis Morris. For information, contact the Morris County Park Commission.

Litter - PLEASE DON'T - maybe you can recycle it!

You are responsible for knowing all refuge regulations. If you are unsure, please inquire at headquarters.

Visitor Information

Refuge Headquarters is located on 241 Pleasant Plains Road in Basking Ridge. Office hours are from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday, while the refuge itself is open seven days a week, dawn to dusk.

Great Swamp Outdoor Education Center, operated by the Morris County Park Commission, is located on the eastern side of the refuge off Southern Boulevard in Chatham. The Center offers a varied natural science program of classes and guided tours, and provides one mile of trail and boardwalk for the public. Details can be obtained at the center. Telephone (973) 635-6629.

The Environmental Education Center, operated by the Somerset County Park Commission, is located on the western border of the refuge in Lord Stirling Park. The park has a varied program of environmental education courses, guided field trips, and 8-1/2 miles of walking trail. For details, telephone (908) 766-2489.

Special thanks to the Refuge Reporter for the photograph.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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