If you venture to the east of the New Jersey Pine Barrens you’ll find a small town located within the Mullica River-Great Bay Estuary. The town of Tuckerton has a rich cultural history strongly tied to its brackish waters. Tuckerton is also home to the Jacques Cousteau National Estuarine Research Reserve (JC NERR) and its Grassle Marsh. This year not only marks the 25th anniversary of the Reserve itself, but the 10th anniversary of the pocket marsh that has become a treasured place in the community.
The History – How did the Grassle Marsh and its Trail come to be?
The JC NERR is one of the least disturbed places in the densely populated northeast coast of the United States (from Maine to Boston!). The Reserve encompasses approximately 115,000 acres of diverse terrestrial, wetland, and aquatic habitats in and around the estuary where salt water from the Mullica River and saltwater from the Atlantic Ocean mix in Great Bay. After the JC NERR Coastal Center was constructed, we wanted to expand our footprint to occupy the pocket marsh located next to the building and worked with land management partners to purchase the land. On October 11th, 2012, the pocket marsh was dedicated in honor of Fred and Judy Grassle, two distinguished national and internationally renowned marine scientists with close ties to Rutgers University and members of the JC NERR staff.
Prior to coming to Rutgers, Fred was a Senior Scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), and Judy was a research scientist at Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL), Woods Hole, Mass. In 1989, Fred left WHOI, and came to Rutgers as the Director of the newly established Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences (IMCS). During his reign as Director, (1989-2007), the Institute flourished and was ranked as one of the top three marine science institutions in the world. In 1989, Judy joined IMCS as a tenured faculty member where she continued her research on commercially important marine species. Fred and Judy prepared students to meet the emerging challenges of a changing environment as leaders in science, policy and education. We are forever grateful to them for their innovative and pioneering contributions to marine research, education and stewardship of our natural resources.
Soon after the Coastal Center was built, our staff wanted to provide an additional space that would further help the local community and visitors alike connect with nature, and the diverse flora and fauna of the Reserve. This sparked the idea of creating a trail that travels behind the Coastal Center and into the pocket marsh. In 2016, the Grassle Marsh Trail was opened to the public.
As it stands today, the ½ mile Grassle Marsh Trail welcomes visitors with a Welcome kiosk and custom artwork by local Tuckerton blacksmith Stephen Nuttall, representing the Grassle Marsh habitats of upland woods, salt marsh wetlands, open water (as well as some of the creatures found within it). The trail also features interpretive signage, children’s activities, a raised boardwalk extending out over the Grassle Marsh, and an observation deck with benches and a spotting scope.
The Grassle Marsh Trail has become a treasured place within our local community: a place to escape the fast pace of daily life and recharge, connect with nature, and create life-long memories with family and friends. This would not have been possible without the help of staff and volunteers to manage the trail. Since 2017, the Ocean County Trustees have maintained the trail and boardwalk, installed and repaired signage posts and the Welcome kiosk, maintained the grounds around the JC NERR, and more! In 2020, we began our Trail Stewards Patrol Team, made up of dedicated volunteers that make routine surveys of the trail for litter, vandalism, or any safety hazards. We could not be more grateful for their steadfast support.
There are also many species of creatures that call the Grassle Marsh Trail their home. How do we know? Critter cams! Around the trail, we have motion activated cameras installed that help capture snapshots of elusive creatures. Over the years we have spotted a diverse array of species that we may have never spotted otherwise. Below are some of our favorite critter highlights!
“Life on the Edge” Interpretive Exhibit – An Extension of the Grassle Marsh Trail
The Grassle Marsh Trail does not end when you loop back to the Welcome kiosk! An extension of our interpretation of the estuary can be found just steps away at the Tuckerton Seaport at our “Life on the Edge” exhibit! The interpretive exhibit allows visitors to go back in time to explore New Jersey’s maritime history and leap into the future to learn about the state-of-the-art scientific research on-going at the JC NERR. Visitors are guided on a journey from the headwaters of the Mullica River, through the forested Pinelands, into the open marshes and wetlands of the Great Bay, and out into the ocean without getting their feet wet.
Through hands-on activities and multimedia components, visitors are able to explore the roles estuaries play in our daily life, a variety of aquatic life that call these places home, and what individuals can do to become stewards of this unique and important ecosystem. Some of the most popular features of the exhibit include a photo booth pledge station, a theater and multipurpose room, a giant view master, an interactive table map of creatures found within the reserve, and a chance to look into the depths of a water droplet. The Life on the Edge exhibit is for everyone and all ages!
From Near and Far, There are Many Ways to Enjoy the Grassle Marsh Trail Today
Our trail is open every day, from dawn until dusk, and can be enjoyed by all ages! There are many ways to enjoy a self-guided visit to the trail. Junior naturalists enjoy the interpretive signage and “Kids Corner” activities marked throughout the trail. We also have multiple scavenger hunts for the Grassle Marsh Trail, including new releases each season! With the various levels of activities featured in each edition, all young explorers can enjoy. Each season we release a new edition, with new flora and fauna to discover. Keep an eye out for the release of the newest fall edition, coming soon!
Family enjoying the winter ‘20-’21 “Winter Wonderland” trail scavenger hunt. Photo credit: Erin Saponara.Trail Scavenger Hunts – Fun in the Sun (summer ‘22).
New and returning visitors alike can enjoy our trail in a new way through our virtual trail guide! Created back in 2020, and sponsored by the Flyover Country app, this virtual field trip is designed for use both virtually as well as while visiting the trail. The interactive guide can be enjoyed by all ages and features 17 “stops” along our trail highlighting: the cultural history of Tuckerton, the Mullica River-Great Bay estuary, ecosystem knowledge, and more! It even features new “Kids Corner” activities designed to explore both our trail as well as your own backyard. If you are not in the South Jersey area, photography that accompanies each “stop” helps bring our trail right to you from across town, across the country, or even across the world!
A Trip Down Memory Lane
This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Grassle Marsh, and we fondly look back on the memories and programs we have shared with our community:
National Trails Days!
National Trails Day is celebrated on the first Saturday of June each year. In the past, we have held volunteer, public, and staff-only clean-up and trail maintenance days to celebrate!
Yoga on the Boardwalk
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, we have held multiple yoga programs on our trail.
Halloween Night Hike
In 2019 we held our first ever Halloween Night Hike. It was such a hit with participants that we brought it back in 2021! We look forward to bringing back more moon-lit walks on our trail in the future.
Our Grassle Marsh Trail is open every day from dawn until dusk. Please visit anytime you would like (trailhead is next to the JC NERR Coastal Center at 130 Great Bay Boulevard, Tuckerton, NJ 08087). You can also stay updated on projects, programs, and events being held on the Grassle Marsh Trail and at the JC NERR. Learn more about how the Grassle Marsh and Trail came to be & the impact it has had on the community from the JC NERR’s Communications & Outreach Coordinator, Amy Plantarich at firstname.lastname@example.org.