One of the surest signs of spring in the United States is when the cherry blossoms begin to bloom. And though thousands of people flock to Washington, D.C. every year to see the cherry blossoms, what if I told you that you can see even more right here in the tri-state area? Yep! You can! At Branch Brook Park in Newark, New Jersey.
About Branch Brook Park
You may be surprised to learn that Branch Brook Park was actually the first county park to be established in the United States. Initially just 60 acres, the current park is comprised of 360 acres of land about four miles long and a quarter-mile wide. The Morris Canal, which used to run from Jersey City to the Delaware River, formed the park’s western boundary, and the park stretches north to south from Mill Street in Belleville, NJ to I-280 in Newark. A tributary of the Passaic River known as “Branch Brook” once passed through the park’s grounds, hence the name Branch Brook Park.
During the Civil War, the land upon which the park sits was used as a training ground for volunteers and an encampment for soldiers heading south for battle. After the war, in 1867, Frederick Law Olmsted (the designer of NYC’s Central Park and many other magnificent parks) recommended the site to the Newark Park Commission, who wanted to develop a new municipal park.
It wasn’t until 1895, though, that the park was formally created. And though Olmsted wasn’t involved in the initial design, his sons’ firm, the Olmsted Brothers, were hired in 1898 to redesign the park. In the 100+ years that followed, more property was acquired, allowing the park to be expanded to its current size.
The first batch of 2,000 cherry trees were donated to the park in 1927. Structures, such as boathouses and shelters, were added, and baseball fields and a roller skating rink were also were introduced. Later in 1980 and in 1981, Branch Brook Park was placed on the New Jersey and National Registers of Historic Places, respectively.
Today, Branch Brook Park is a sprawling oasis in the middle of a bustling urban center, and I’m so glad that we stumbled upon this magnificent hidden treasure!
Visiting Branch Brook Park
In springtime, the highlight of Branch Brook Park is definitely the cherry blossoms. With more than 4,000 trees, Branch Brook Park has the largest collection of cherry blossom trees in the United States! Most of the trees are already in full bloom, so this week is probably the last chance you’ll have to admire this spectacular display of nature. And though you can enjoy cherry blossom trees throughout most of the park, the largest collection can be found around the lake in the southern end of the park.
Depending on where you’re coming from, how you get to the park will vary. Where the Morris Canal once was is now the Newark Light Rail, making the park easy to access via public transit. Within the park, there are also tons of places to park if you wish to drive instead. Do note, though, that parking is tricky at the southern end near the roller skating rink, as much of the parking space there is being used as a COVID testing drive-through lane.
If you’re approaching the park from NYC on I-280 like we were, you will see the stunning Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart from the highway. It sits right alongside the park and we had no idea it existed either, but it is rather splendid! The cornerstone for the 45,000 square-foot cathedral was laid in 1899, and it was officially dedicated in 1954. We didn’t go inside, but we spent quite a bit of time admiring it from outside. Check out their virtual tour if you’d like to see the stunning interior.
We were lucky to snag a parking spot right in front of the cathedral and used this as the starting point for our visit. From there, we walked down the hill toward the lake and then proceeded to follow the trail counter-clockwise. The trail here along the eastern side of the lake is a super muddy mess, so while you maybe don’t necessarily need to wear boots, you do probably want to ensure you’re not wearing anything you’d be sad to see ruined. And while you’re dodging all those mud puddles, don’t forget to stop and admire the lovely view.
Heading north, there are several ball fields, more ponds and fountains, two huge dog parks, tennis courts, and So. Many. Cherry. Blossoms! We walked up to Heller Parkway before turning left and making our way back down to the southern end of the park. For part of our walk, we followed the markers for the Lenape Trail, which is a 36-mile trail connecting multiple parks in NJ. Overall, our loop only covered about 5 miles by the time we returned to the cathedral, but there were still about two more miles of the park we didn’t even get to explore.
As you head north, the crowds begin thinning out, so if you’re just looking for a quiet place to have a picnic or take a stroll, I’d definitely recommend starting north and working your way south until you get tired and want to head back. The blossoms around the lake are quite beautiful, but the crowds made it somewhat difficult to fully enjoy at times. Although, you really can’t beat the view of the cathedral from the western side of the lake, so dealing with the crowds was a price we were willing to pay.
It was a pleasant surprise to discover such a fantastic park right in the heart of Newark, and it’s nice to know that you don’t have to travel to D.C. to see such a wonderful collection of cherry blossoms. So, if you have time this week, I do hope you’ll head to Newark and catch a glimpse of this splendid display of spring magic before it’s too late!
And if you’re looking for more ideas for getting outdoors this spring, we’ve got you covered!
Plan Your Own Visit
Where to Go
- Branch Brook Park: Newark, NJ 07104
- Here are directions and maps to specific sites and attractions within the park.
When to Go
- Now! Today! Seriously, if you want to see the cherry blossoms in all their splendor, now is the time to go because the blooms won’t be around much longer.
- Otherwise, Branch Brook Park is open daily from dawn until 10:00 pm.
Tips for Visiting
- The largest concentration of cherry trees is around the lake at the southern end of the park. Incidentally, this is also where the largest concentration of people will be! If you want more space to stroll and just want to enjoy the park, head further north.
- There is an entire section of parking near the roller skating rink reserved solely for COVID testing. If you wish to start your stroll near the cathedral or lake, you’ll want to look for parking on the street or further away from the roller rink.
- The trail along the eastern side of the lake was incredibly muddy. Don’t wear any shoes you’d be sad to have covered in mud.
- If you can’t visit in person, you can check out the cherry blossoms on the park’s social media pages and via their tree cam.