There are plenty of places to stay along the East Coast Greenway — unless you want to camp. That’s one of the challenges of a route that goes through densely populated urban areas as it connects some of America’s largest cities.
So add this camping option to the list — and in New Jersey no less, the most densely populated state. Mercer County, smackdab between New York City and Philadelphia, has just opened 10 camping spots in one of its biggest parks. Cost is $20 per night for no more than seven nights.
The spots are at the East entrance of Mercer County Park — so about 7 miles from the D&R Canal/East Coast Greenway and Washington Road for southbound riders, and 5 miles from the D&R Canal/East Coast Greenway and Bakers Basin Road for northbound riders.
We checked out the campsites on Sunday, one day before the reservations system went live. (And you must reserve in advance.) They look great! Of course, everything was still spanking new, but still… Thumbs up!
Six sites have a lean-to, essentially a three-sided cabin, for those who travel with a mattress pad and sleeping bag but no tent (or just hope to stay dry when it rains). I looked — no hooks for a hammock. One has a ramp to make it ADA-compliant.
They’re built by the park’s maintenance staff using repurposed ash wood and have a nice rustic look.
The other four are tents-only. Whether lean-to (plus tents) or tents only, no more than six people to a site.
Then each site has a charcoal grill AND a campfire pit (with a rack that goes up and down, so seems suitable for grilling to me) plus a picnic table.
These are hike-in sites; water and bathrooms are maybe a 5-minute walk away. To find the camp spots when you come in through the East entrance, go straight, rather than bearing left toward parking, bathrooms and pavillion.
There are no electrical outlets by the sites or in the portable bathrooms that have since been added near the parking spots for campers. There is one in the permanent bathrooms as well as one by the Coke vending machine outside that building.
Before you leave, look into the kayak rentals and pontoon boat rides offered in the park.
What about food?
There’s a deli just down the road, at the intersection of Edinburg Road and Old Trenton Road. But the hours are limited – 8 am to 3 pm Monday-Saturday, closed on Sunday.
During the week, the community college’s culinary students might be cooking for their restaurant (college abuts the park). Summer Thursdays you might catch happy hour (and food) at the Boathouse deep into the park. And on weekends there might be a concert or special event at the park’s Festival Grounds — so food trucks.
Or just stop along the way. If you’re coming from Washington Road (and you’re not planning a detour in the other direction to Princeton), you’ll pass a Korean supermarket (thumbs up) with prepared food options (eat in or take out) in the Windsor Plaza shopping center that also has an outpost of a pancake place that’s a Princeton institution, a pizza by the slice joint, burger spot, ice cream shop and more. I’m a fan of Shanghai Bun in the shopping center on the other side of the street at the bottom of the railway bridge (Dunkin and Domino’s there too). Heck, you’ll find plenty of options in West Windsor, even a Trader Joe’s if you want to detour a bit.
Do turn right off Princeton-Hightstown Road/County Road 571 right after the Windsor Plaza shopping center (onto Alexander Road and soon after onto Harris) — 571 gets a lot less bike-friendly.
If you do want to go to Trader Joe’s and/or Whole Foods, go another 2 miles on the D&R Canal towpath and use a small bridge to get off the towpath at the northern edge of the golf course (Princeton Country Club). Then follow Google Maps directions for 7.5 miles to Mercer County Park East Picnic Area.
Coming from Bakers Basin are a few restaurants (and Wawa, the classic Jersey convenience store) as you approach the intersection of bicycle-unfriendly Quakerbridge Road. If those aren’t your thing, stay on Lawrence Station Road and then Avalon Way to reach Costco, Big Star Bazaar (Indian supermarket), Dunkin and a few restaurants. I’d backtrack to where Lawrence Station intersects Youngs Road rather than turning onto Quakerbridge, though.
Failing all that, there’s always trying to get something delivered. Or calling Uber/Lyft.
And if this is your rest day … or are willing to take one … there is plenty more to do in the area. I’m a big fan of the Lawrence Hopewell Trail that connects to the D&R Canal/East Coast Greenway. There’s an amazing hand-carved Hindu temple less than 4 miles away (and a chocolate shop on the way). If it’s Friday or Saturday, there’s always Screamin’ Hill, New Jersey’s first farm brewery (directions here). You could even venture out to Freehold to find Bruce Springsteen’s childhood homes, as we did.
Or just spend more time in Princeton and look for traces of George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. You won’t regret any of these choices.