Friday, July 22, 2011

Take Raritan, spell it backwards...

Based on a suggestion from a Hidden New Jersey reader, Ivan and I recently visited Natirar, a new park within the Somerset County Park System. Nestled in the rolling countryside of Peapack-Gladstone, it's in an area of old estates I've long been curious about.

So how did a county park get located in such lush and, most likely, costly real estate?

More than 100 years ago, lawyer Walter Graeme Ladd and his wife Kate Macy Ladd began purchasing land in Peapack/Gladstone and Bedminster, eventually amassing over 1000 acres. They built a 40-room Tudor mansion atop a hill on the land, also constructing additional outbuildings to accompany maintaining structures that had been on the land since the 18th century. The estate was named for the Raritan (spelled backward), the river that flows through it.

Not long after they acquired the property Mrs. Ladd built a convalescent home for women there, and that entity gained control of Natirar after her death in 1933. Consistent with Mr. Ladd’s will, the convalescent home was disbanded 50 years later, and the property was sold. The King of Morocco acquired the estate but never lived there, ultimately selling more than 400 acres of it to Somerset County. Rather than keeping the house and many of the buildings, the county is leasing them to outside operators, including entrepreneur Richard Branson, who’s turning the mansion into a spa.

Today, great expanses of well-manicured lawn and open space welcome you as you drive past the gatehouse onto the property. Park visitors are directed to a parking lot near some barns, while spa guests are guided up to the mansion, high on the hill.

The evidence of human intervention on the land is strong, as you'd expect on an old estate. This park definitely isn't a Sierra Club project. That said, there's about four miles of gravel pathway on the property, a good stroll for visitors and anyone wanting to take their regular daily walk in very pleasant surroundings. We visited on a very sunny, very hot day and pretty much had the paths to ourselves.

The closest path crosses the well-kept lawn, with very few trees nearby to provide shade or habitat for birds. We saw a bluebird or two, but other than that, the main attraction was a couple of vultures and hawks above. Eventually, the path started to hug a shady tributary of the Raritan River, which we crossed on a broad carriage bridge. A temporary sign advised us that bees were at work, and that we should stay on the path. Indeed they were. In droves.

Farther down, the path splits, with the left fork veering upward and through additional woods, including some very mature rhododendrons. Reaching the top of the hill, we found the designated nature path, a loop around a broad field of tall grasses, thistle and the like. Again, much of this path lacks trees, though a few benches are thoughtfully placed in shady nooks. An unoccupied stable stands pretty much in the middle of all of it.

The birding got a little better at this point, though most of the avian activity was either far above us or somewhere in the distance. The vultures and some redtail hawks seemed to find this area a bit more interesting. Plus, I was happy to spot a pileated woodpecker in the distance, bare-eyed (to be fair, Ivan made the ID by sound; I was just the first one to lay eyes on it).

The real fun was in the butterflies. Ivan spotted three or four different types, including a black swallowtail and a buckeye, and the volume of butterflies in the area seemed especially high. Neither of us is very well versed on the topic, so we couldn’t identify some of them accurately, except to say there’s a good variety.

Summing up the Natirar experience, it’s not exactly the place for a hiker or naturalist, but it would be a nice spot to share a cultured picnic, perhaps after the fox hunt.

3 comments:

  1. wow - love this site, glad i stumbled on it. my husband and i travel everyweekend in search of something new in NJ, some NY state and Conn. We stumbled on an old abandone Psyc Center in NY State called Leftwhitch village. And the Celery bird farm in allendale and 2 weeks ago we went to Ninety Acres...way cool

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  2. Hi, Limabean, and thanks for your comments! Hopefully we can give you a few more places to check out. You might have seen that we visited the Celery Farm back in March. What a great place! Where's Ninety Acres?

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  3. ninety acres is the name of the property which resides on the Raritan...I mean Natirar.
    I haven't gone back that far in your archives yet...but I will.

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