Hello, dear readers! Though we’ve been getting back into our regular weekend hikes lately, we’ve been trying to work in some other fun non-hiking outdoor activities, too. Fortunately, there is no shortage of outdoor fun to be had in the New York Metro area! And recently, we used a Friday vacation day to spend a car-free afternoon cycling at the wonderful Duke Farms in Hillsborough Township, NJ.
About Duke Farms
Located about 45 miles from New York City, Duke Farms is a 2,740-acre property with about 1,000 acres available for guests to wander FOR FREE! Duke Farms has 9 manmade lakes, 18 miles or roads and trails, and about 45 buildings, some of which are used for educational classes and programming. And these are just a few of the highlights that Duke Farms has to offer.
The property was initially developed in the late 1800s by J.B. Duke, a tobacco and hydropower industrialist from Durham, NC. Duke University was actually named after Duke’s father, Washington, after J.B. Duke established the “Duke Endowment” in 1924 at what was formerly known as Trinity College.
J.B. died in 1925, and Duke Farms was willed to his daughter, Doris Duke, who was only twelve years old when her father passed. A woman ahead of her time, Doris Duke became known for her interest in the environment, and it was important to her that Duke Farms not only be utilized for agriculture and horticulture but that it also be a place for environmental research and conservation.
And though you won’t really see much of the farm during your visit, Duke Farms is indeed a farm! In addition to the many flowers, fruits, and vegetables grown there, Duke Farms was also home to dairy cattle. The property was expanded in the 1960s and 1970s during which time about 1,000 acres were used as farmland with another 700 acres used as pasture.
Doris Duke was ahead of the game when it came to organic farming as well, ensuring their crops were grown with chemical-free herbicides. Today, the farm produces vegetables, meats, and eggs that you will see featured in the menu at their onsite cafe. Additionally, Duke Farms supplies produce to local chefs and donates a significant amount of produce to their local community as well.
Doris Duke died in 1993, and though various parts of Duke Farms have been open to the public over the years, the Duke Farms you visit today only officially opened to the public in 2012.
Visiting Duke Farms
While you can certainly spend the day just strolling at Duke Farms, it’s a fairly large and spread-out property and no cars are permitted, so it’s really an ideal location to do some biking! You can bring your own bike, or you can rent a bike for up to 2 hours for just $7. All you need to do is sign a waiver, show photo ID, and be sure to wear a helmet at all times while biking. You can bring your own helmet or borrow one of theirs.
There were incredibly high winds the day we visited, so many of the signs that lead you to the bike rental area had blown over, leaving us rather confused as to where to go. But never fear! We’ll get you to the right place to start your Duke Farms biking adventure.
When you arrive, you’ll park at the Orientation Center, which can be seen below. Due to COVID, there was no general access to the building, but there are restrooms right inside the front door that you’re welcome to use (masks were required inside at the time of our visit).
The cafe is also open and can be found way over on the right side of the building, but they were only open until 2:00 pm when we visited, so we weren’t able to sample the food after we were done cycling. If you plan to grab a snack, you might want to check the cafe’s hours in advance before you set out to enjoy your day. You can also find more info about COVID-related updates to hours, access, and more on their website.
And now to find the bike-share tent! When you’re standing in front of the Orientation Center and looking out towards the parking lot, you’ll notice a shelter-like structure somewhat off to the right. Head toward that structure.
Shortly before the shelter (which seems to be an electric charging station for their work carts), you’ll see this nice reddish-brown colored path.
Follow this path back out to Dukes Parkway West. There’s a crosswalk there, and an attendant will come out and help you safely cross the street where you can enter Duke Farms at the South Gate Entrance.
Once you go through the entrance, you’ll find many more signs for the bike-share program, and if all else fails, follow the signs for the Hay Barn. Stay on the road as it passes through the arches of the Hay Barn (and don’t forget to stop and enjoy the sculpture garden inside!), and shortly after, you’ll reach a building with a big white tent beside it. Et voila! You’ve found the bike rental tent.
We were pleased to discover that the bikes they had to rent were actually great quality and after about five to ten minutes of set-up, we were ready to start zipping our way through the property! I highly recommend brining along a copy of their map or you can download and use their app. If you do use the app, just note that not all the hours and information were up-to-date with their latest COVID-related changes. When in doubt, check the website the day you visit for the most current info.
From the bike rental area, we headed north to ride along the uppermost perimeter of the property on a road called Arboretum Way. Through the woods, you’ll be able to spot a creek that connects to the Raritan River and enjoy the lovely trees and streetlamps that line the road.
Soon you’ll find yourself at the old Coach Barn, completed in 1903. J.B. Duke and his estate manager both had offices here, and there were stables for horses as well. On the second floor, there was an apartment that was formerly used by the carriage coachman and, in later years, the chauffeur. We did not go inside, but it is now used for classes and conferences, and there are also restrooms available here if needed.
Our next stop was at the lovely Meditation Garden, which was probably my favorite place at Duke Farms. During our two-hour visit, we had both blue skies and sunshine AND rain and clouds, as you’ll see from the pictures below. (We actually doubled-back to the Meditation Garden once the sun came back out to get some better photos!) It’s a quiet and tranquil spot, perfect for meditation, and all the blooming flowers added such magnificent color.
Next, we continued along Arboretum Way before turning south on West Way to head to the various lakes that dot the western end of the property. We took shelter from the last bit of rain under a stone gazebo and then continued on to see the lakes. The “Great Falls” can be found near Great Falls Lake, but there was no water rushing over the falls during our visit.
Our final destination at Duke Farms brought us to the ruins of the foundation of a mansion that J.B. Duke began building in 1911. Once the landscaping and foundation were completed, construction was halted for reasons unknown. Today, you can see what’s left of the foundation and enjoy the views that the Dukes had planned for what was to have been their three-story home.
The only major attraction at Duke Farms that we were unable to visit was the Orchid Range, which is a series of greenhouses that include both tropical and subtropical varieties of orchids. At the time of our visit, the Orchid range was only open on Saturdays and we visited on a Friday. However, it seems like you can now visit the rest of the week as well. As always, check their website for updates to their hours and attractions.
If you DO visit on a Saturday or major holiday, though, be sure to reserve a free entry pass in advance, as this is the only way you will be able to visit Duke Farms. Passes are available two weeks in advance, and only one is needed per car (not per person). If you plan to be dropped off and arrive on foot or your own personal bicycle, an entry pass won’t be needed. In this case, you’ll also be able to access Duke Farms from either the Raritan Gate or Conservation Gate. For more details, check out their reopening FAQs.
We had a blast at Duke Farms, even despite the brief rain shower about 20 minutes into our visit. It’s so rare to be able to bike in such a lovely place without needing to worry about cars, so pack up the whole family and make your way to Duke Farms soon!
Plan Your Own Visit
Where to Go
- Duke Farms: 1112 Dukes Pkwy West, Hillsborough Township, NJ 08844
When to Go
- Duke Farms is currently open Tuesday through Saturday, 8:30 am to 6:00 pm.
- Duke Farms is closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day.
Tips for Visiting
- Check the Duke Farms website for updates to opening days and hours since everything is subject to change as COVID guidance evolves. More reopening FAQs can be found here, too.
- Visiting Duke Farms is free, but you will need to reserve an entry pass if you wish to visit on a Saturday or major holiday. Passes become available two weeks in advance, and only one pass is needed per car. (No pass is required during the week or if you’re entering by foot or bike.)
- If you wish to rent a bike, you’ll need to sign a waiver and show photo ID. Save some time during your visit by completing your waiver online before you arrive.
- Use their app to navigate Duke Farms and locate all of the property’s attractions! (Note: Some of the information was outdated due to COVID changes – check the website the day of your visit for the most up-to-date details.)