Helen C. Fenske Visitor Center

Helen C. Fenske Visitor CenterThe Helen C. Fenske Visitor Center is located at 32 Pleasant Plains Rd., Harding Township, NJ, at GPS coordinates 40° 43 ‘09.56″ N, 74° 31’ 32.38″ W. It is open daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.


Photo by Michael Stadelmeier

Exhibits demonstrate the variety of habitats and wildlife that can be seen at Great Swamp NWR. The History Hallway tells the story of the citizen-led fight to save Great Swamp from becoming a jetport in 1959.

Visitor-Center-Discovery-DenThe Discovery Den has educational and entertaining displays for adults and children which change seasonally. Videos are available for viewing on request, as well as the current photo contest entries.

“It’s a Wing Thing” exhibit in the Discovery Den

“It’s a Wing Thing” exhibit in the Discovery Den

Visitor Center Library BearThe Library is home to an educational black bear mount which offers a close-up look (and feel) of this large mammal.

Another highlight is the fabulous quilt on display, donated to the Friends by Marcia Rymer. The quilt incorporates the birds and flowers that are found on the Refuge.

The children’s corner features seasonal crafts, coloring pages, and puzzles for kids. During cold weather, or on rainy days, families spend some time in the Visitor Center enjoying the indoor activities. The natural history Friends’ Library is open to the public for reference; library materials may be borrowed by Friends members.

Quilt Detail - Flowers (left) and Chickadee

Quilt Detail – Flowers (left) and Chickadee

Friends’ Nature Shop

Visitor-Center-Friends-Nature-ShopThe Friends Nature Shop, located in the Visitor Center, is managed and staffed entirely by volunteers. All proceeds from the Nature Shop are used to fund a variety of projects and activities that benefit the refuge and refuge visitors.

At the Nature Shop, visitors will find a variety of items including books, photos, games, jewelry, clothing and, of course, Judy Schmidt’s hand-made mugs.

Self-Guided Walks

Nature Detective Trail

Nature Detective Trail SignThis is a short loop path through the woods with eleven interpretive stops along the way. At the “Bark-ing” stop, children learn about tree bark and can feel different types and textures of bark. At the “Ready! Set! Grow!” stop, children can investigate and handle various types of seeds and nuts. At “Earth Music,” children listen for animal sounds — is it a bird, a frog, or an insect? The Nature Detective Trail encourages children to use their senses — touch, smell, listen, and observe. Although geared to young children, the walk is fun and educational for all visitors.

Bockoven Trail

Vernal Pool PlatformThis is a half-mile trail through the meadow and woods, circling a vernal pool. The first section of the trail is ADA compliant and passes through a field. Check the “edges” where meadow and woods meet for birds and other wildlife. The accessible portion of the trail ends at a wooden platform overlooking the vernal pool. Read the interpretive panel to learn more about these valuable habitats and the wildlife that depend on them.

The wood-chipped trail continues through the woods leading to a peaceful view of the Passaic River by a centuries-old white oak. Check the river for fish during the summer or ducks in fall and spring. The trail circles the vernal pool, deafening with the mating calls of wood frogs and spring peepers in March. An opening in the trees offers a view of the meadow providing opportunities for birding in all seasons. Take a copy of the free Tree and Shrub Guide with you. Those yellow tags on the trees along the trail are keyed to information in the Guide — you’ll learn the tree name and a lot more about each species.

Friends Native Plant Garden, Pollinator Box, and Turkey Mound

Visitor Center Butterfly Garden Shary Skoloff

Butterfly Garden. Photo by Shary Skoloff

Beyond the Visitor Center there is a demonstration butterfly garden, certified by the North American Butterfly Association. Native plants provide food and nectar for a variety of butterfly species, as well as a host of other pollinators. The garden changes color as the different native wildflowers, shrubs, and vines come into bloom, so check it out from spring through fall.

Pollinator BoxThat large structure on the edge of the garden is a Pollinator Box which provides shelter and nesting areas for many bees and wasps — all important pollinators. Click here for a copy of the Pollinator Box Brochure.

The large area behind the butterfly garden is actually a working septic mound. For a long time, this was a lawn requiring weekly mowing in season. Now it has been seeded with native wildflowers and grasses providing a natural area for pollinators. There are so many insects that you can actually hear the mound buzzing as you walk by in late summer.

Turkey Mound. Photo by Edward Mayer

Turkey Mound. Photo by Edward Mayer

The mound offers great birding — wild turkeys all year round, goldfinches abound in July and August, and many sparrows forage for seeds during the winter.