Mountain Lakes Open Space Area
Princeton, NJ 08540
Overview of Selected Trail
The Mountain Lakes Open Space Area, a “central park” in Princeton, consists of some 400 acres just north of the center of town, most of it open to the public. It has a wide variety of hiking trails – and two biking trails – some connecting to other trails outside of the area described here. Along with views of Tusculum, the estate built by John Witherspoon, and historic Coventry Farm, it features a great variety of open fields, several small streams and lakes, old stone walls, boulder fields, and old growth pine and hardwood forests. The area is divided into five sections: The Billy Johnson Mountain Lakes Preserve, including the Mountain Lakes House; Mountain Lakes North; John Witherspoon Woods; the Tusculum fields; and Community Park North. Most of the remainder of Tusculum, to the east, and Coventry Farm, to the west, is private open space.
A total of about 8 miles of trails plus ½ mile of paved driveway.
Any length of time up to 4 hours or more.
Plastic triangles in 6 colors – see trail description.
Walking/Hiking, Dogs permitted on leash, Biking on authorized bike trail only.
Mostly flat terrain: from 100 ft. at the lakes to 280 ft. in the NE corner of John Witherspoon Woods.
Generally easy. Several small stream crossings on rocks. A few steep banks, downed trees, tree roots, and difficult segments through boulder fields.
General parking at Community Park North parking lot. A small, signed lot off Cherry Hill Rd. provides direct access to John Witherspoon Woods. One may also park at Farm View Fields and use the bike path on The Great Road to access the Coventry Boardwalk into Mountain Lakes Preserve. Parking is generally available at the Unitarian Church on Cherry Hill Rd. with access to the Community Park North woods, and on weekends and summers at Princeton Day School, with access to the Stuart Trail across The Great Road and slightly to the north (see trail map).
Princeton owns the major portion of this preserve, while Friends of Princeton Open Space does much of the trail maintenance. Through a subsidiary, Mountain Lakes Holding Corporation, FOPOS maintains the ML house, which is available for weddings and other functions. Call 609-924-8720 Tuesday through Friday for more information.
There are picnic areas for public use in Pettoranello Gardens (Community Park North.) Fishing is permitted, but removal of any other flora or fauna is not. Scattered benches overlook the lakes. Several signboards near the newly restored lower dam (2012) refer to the ice-making business, which was the original reason for the lakes.
To the main parking lot at Community Park North:
From Lawrenceville, follow Route 206 northbound to Princeton. Pass through the traffic lights at Elm Road and Library Place. At the next traffic light turn left and stay on Route 206 north instead of going straight into town, and at the bottom of the hill take the jughandle where the sign says “All turns- Mountain Avenue”. Cross 206; the Community Park North parking lot is immediately on the right.
From downtown Princeton, head west to the intersection of Nassau St. and 206, and go right on 206 north. Follow the directions above.
To the Cherry Hill parking lot:
Remain on Rt. 206 north beyond the jughandle and turn left at the next traffic light, Cherry Hill Rd. Go about 0.7 mile and look for a small sign saying “Witherspoon Woods” on the left.
To Farm View Fields and PDS:
Go northbound from Lawrenceville or southbound from Princeton on Rt. 206 to the light at Elm Road. Turn right and go about a mile and a quarter, and Farm View Fields will be on your left, just beyond Pretty Brook Rd. For PDS, the main parking lot is just inside the main entrance at the next traffic light.
Three major northwest-southeast trails, 2 northeast-southwest trails and a major loop crisscross the Mountain Lakes Open Space Area:
– The .9 mile Stuart-Coventry View Trail (red markers) begins at the west end of the main parking lot and runs SW along the sewer line trail and across two newly constructed bridges (2015) before turning NW along the Coventry Farm boundary in The Billy Johnson Mountain Lakes Preserve before entering Mountain Lakes North and ending at the Stuart Crossing on the west inlet stream, where it meets the Stuart-Witherspoon
– The 1.1 mile Stuart-Witherspoon Trail (yellow markers) begins at the small parking lot on Cherry Hill Rd., runs SW through boulder fields (some huge rocks, including Devil’s Cave) and old growth forest in John Witherspoon Woods and Mountain Lakes North, crosses the west inlet stream at the Stuart Crossing, and continues along the Stuart Trail (private property- stay on the trail) to The Great Road. For longer hikes, across the road is the start of the PDS Trail (also on private property), which follows the PDS boundary to a connecting trail coming from Woodfield Reservation (see separate listing.) Note: The PDS Trail may not be maintained, in which case Woodfield Reservation can be reached by following The Great Rd. and then The Great Rd. West to a signed driveway for the Woodfield parking lot (0.4 mile.)
– The 1.5 mile Pettoranello-Brookside Trail (white markers) crosses a dozen small and medium size streams (2 on bridges). It begins at the east end of the main parking lot and runs along several paved and unpaved trails in Pettoranello Gardens before entering the pine woods across the sewer line in Community Park North. From there it enters the Tusculum Fields, running NW through parts of the East Field and turning SW through the North Field, and then reenters the woods and turns NW again as it passes the ML House and drops down to the very pretty east inlet stream. Upon entering John Witherspoon Woods it makes a large loop on both sides of the inlet stream before ending at the John Witherspoon Woods Trail.
– The 0.7 mile John Witherspoon Woods Trail (red markers) begins at the trailhead kiosk halfway down the driveway to Mountain Lakes House (no parking.) Going down the steps to the east side, the trail runs NW and then NE through various types of terrain and forest before entering John Witherspoon Woods and ending at the Stuart-Witherspoon Trail.
– The 1.0 mile Boardwalk-Tusculum Trail (blue markers) runs in both directions from the trailhead kiosk:
> To the NE, it runs down the steps to an immediate junction, where it turns right and crosses several streams before entering the pine woods in Community Park North, then crosses into the Tusculum Fields and runs NE along the East Field to Cherry Hill Rd. (no parking.)
> To the SW, as the only authorized bike path, it follows a maintenance “road” before entering the woods and then exits the Preserve and crosses some significant wetlands on a boardwalk built with funds donated by the J. Seward Johnson, Sr. Foundation. After some great views of Coventry Farm, the trail ends at The Great Rd.
– The 1.1 mile James Sayen Trail (green markers) is a double loop that is entirely within the The Billy Johnson Mountain Lakes Preserve. It can be accessed from several points on either the Stuart-Coventry View or the Boardwalk-Tusculum Trail, or from the lower lawn of the Mountain Lakes House. It makes a complete circle around the upper and lower lakes, and a second loop across the new bridge on the sewer line trail.
In addition, several shorter trails and spurs exist, including the .3 mile Community Park North Trail (yellow markers), which begins at the Unitarian Church parking lot and runs SW through pine woods to the driveway, and the half-mile West Field (Double) Loop (orange markers), with views of the Tusculum estate.
> The sewer line (0.8 mile, no markers) enters the Area from Route 206 and runs SW to a gate into The Glen (private) before reaching The Great Road. This is a wide, grassy swath, which separates Community Park North into the pine woods on the north and Pettoranello Gardens on the south.
Deer, foxes and smaller mammals are present. There are many large specimens of pine, fir, beech, tulip, hickory, oak, maple, ash and locust in various parts of the park, along with a variety of shrubs and wetland plants. The oldest trees in The Billy Johnson Mountain Lakes Preserve are found at the northern end of the property. The “seven sister” cluster of red oaks in the fence row on the northern boundary is particularly nice, although a number of these specimen trees were casualties of Hurricanes Irene and Sandy.
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The Billy Johnson Mountain Lakes Preserve, a private estate of some 76 acres,was acquired in 1987 with the aid of Friends of Princeton Open Space, which holds the conservation easement and maintains the trails, and is owned by the municipality of Princeton The man-made lakes, which are the centerpiece of the Preserve, were used for producing ice for cooling in the days before mechanical refrigeration, and the foundations of several ice storage buildings still remain on the property (see signboards near the lower dam.) Mountain Lakes North was donated to the Township in 2001 by the Winant family, as part of an overall agreement involving the preservation of Coventry Farm and the creation of Farm View Fields park. The adjacent estate to the east is Tusculum, the historic home built by John Witherspoon. A piece of this estate, the John Witherspoon Woods, was donated to Princeton Township by the Pardee family, previous owners of Tusculum. Another piece, along the edges of Mountain Lakes and John Witherspoon Woods, was acquired by Mercer County when the Moore family took possession. The fields to the south and west of the house were acquired by Princeton Township and NJDEP in 2005, with the aid of Friends of Princeton Open Space, Mercer County, the D&R Greenway and Concordia Foundation. Community Park North, which had been owned by Princeton Township since the latter part of the 20th Century, was also part of the
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