Things to do in Union County

Table of Contents Sports and RecreationParks, Gardens, Trails and SanctuariesDowntownArtsEats and DrinksUnique to Union County…

In New Jersey, a trip down the shore and a hike along the Appalachian Trail can happen on the same day. Pizza is better here than anywhere else in the country, music venues are legendary, downtowns are made for strolling and historic sites and museums are in no short supply. Forget the What Exit jokes … we love the Garden State.

So, for those residents — out-of-staters, too — who are ready to make plans after more than a year of being cooped up, we have some ideas for those who would rather grab their car keys or a mass transit ticket than book a flight.

Consider this an insider’s guide to the state, broken down by counties. It’s not an all-encompassing list, and it’s not meant to be. It’s a jumping-off point and then go do some exploring and let your curiosity — and some help from locals — be your guide.

The latest part of our series takes a look at Union County.

Sports and Recreation

A young man fishes at Warinanco Park in Elizabeth. Paddle boats can be seen right.  Patti Sapone | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

Warinanco Park (St. Georges Avenue, Roselle-Elizabeth | 908.527-4000), which was designed by Olmsted Brothers of Massachusetts and opened in 1920, is well known for its ice rink. Built in 1961, it was billed as the first public artificial ice skating rink in Union County. In 2016 and 2017, the rink underwent a $7 million modernization and renovation that doubled the overall complex space and transformed it into a year-round venue for skating and other activities.

But the 205-acre park has plenty more to offer visitors. Located on the border of Roselle and Elizabeth, Warinanco has picnic pavilions, gardens, playing fields, trails and a boathouse, where pedal boats may be rented.

The boathouse is open Fridays from 3 to 8 p.m. (last boat launched at 6:45 p.m.) and weekends and holidays from 2 to 8 p.m. (last boat launched at 6:45 p.m.).

Cranford Canoe Club offers canoe and kayak rentals.  Patti Sapone | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

Those looking to enjoy a serene canoe ride on a section of the Rahway River should consider renting a boat at the Cranford Canoe Club (250 Springfield Ave., Cranford | 908.709.7285). Rentals are available seven days a week at the facility.

In addition to rentals, the club hosts special events such as the Cranford River Carnival. The event, set for Saturday, Sept. 18, from 1 to 5 p.m., is being held to “honor Cranford’s 150th anniversary and to celebrate one of our greatest treasures, the mighty Rahway River.” A centerpiece of the carnival will feature a boat parade featuring decorated canoes and kayaks.

A female archer selects a bow as she prepares shoot at the Union County Archery Range at Oak Ridge Park in Clark.  Patti Sapone | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

The 90-acre Oak Ridge Park (136 Oak Ridge Road, Clark | 908.527.4000) is one of the 36 Union County parks. The park, a former golf course, features a multi-use path and fitness trail for walking or running. Two activity options that make this park unique are the archery range and the disc golf course.

The archery range is open to those 9 and older with an Archery ID Card. The ID card can be obtained by passing a safety course offered through the Union County Department of Parks and Recreation, consisting of a training session followed by hands-on instruction at the range.

The disc golf course is free and no reservations are required but players should consult the county website and the kiosk located at the course for information regarding closures due to events in the park.

A student pets one of the horses after a lesson. Watchung Stable in Mountainside, located in the Watchung Reservation, offers riding lessons and more. The stable is located in Mountainside. The complex consists of a main barn which houses nearly 100 County and privately owned horses, four riding rings, a show ring and an outside hunter course. A state-of-the-art facility, it is barrier-free and includes an isolation barn, paddocks, and a substantial hay and straw storage area. Patti Sapone | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

Watchung Stables (1160 Summit Lane, Mountainside | 908.789.3665) has been owned and operated by Union County since 1933. The facility is intended to offer visitors an opportunity to learn how to ride, improve equestrian skills or “just enjoy the natural beauty of the 26 miles of bridle paths that weave through the reservation, a 2,000-acre forest preserve.”

The complex consists of a main barn, which houses nearly 100 county and privately owned horses, four riding rings, a show ring and an outside hunter course. A state-of-the-art facility, it is barrier-free and includes an isolation barn, paddocks, and a hay and straw storage area.

The administration building includes a general assembly room and a tack shop. Visitors are welcome to tour the facility during regular business hours. Scheduled guided tours and programs are available for Girl/Boy Scouts, pre-schoolers, senior citizens, and organizations serving people with disabilities.

Parks, Gardens, Trails and Sanctuaries

Adults and children enjoy participating in The Great Pumpkin Sail at Echo Lake Park in Mountainside. This is a popular annual post-Halloween tradition where families set their lit jack-o’-lanterns afloat on the lake. Patti Sapone | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

Echo Lake Park (Park Drive, Mountainside | 908.527.4900) offers something for everyone. Visitors to this lush county park can go fishing, ice skating, and sledding, use a fitness trail, a multi-use path, pedal boats, and reserve picnic areas. There is a playground, a dog park, as well as soccer and softball fields. Here, a September 11th Memorial was erected.

At Echo Lake Park, special events are held frequently. One exceptional annual event is the Union County Great Pumpkin Sail. At this illuminating autumn event, residents float pre-carved jack-o-lanterns on the lake. Details on the event for 2021 have not yet been released.

The Shakespeare Garden in Cedar Brook Park. In 2007, both were placed on the National Register of Historic Places.  Patti Sapone | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

Created by the Plainfield Shakespeare Society in 1927 and tended by Plainfield Garden Club volunteers, the Shakespeare Garden (Cedar Brook Park | Park Avenue and Randolph Road, Plainfield) is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The garden, designed by landscape architects Olmsted Brothers of Boston, features two 100-foot borders and 17 flowerbeds.

According to a statement on the Plainfield Garden Club website, “The beds, all laid out geometrically, were edged with brick, according to the custom of the times. To give the garden literary interest, stake labels were placed in the beds with the botanical and folk names, and quotations about the flowers.”

The PGC also noted, “Only the old varieties of plants were used in the garden, many obtained from England. Rock garden plants were added, herbs and a rose bed of old-fashioned roses.”

Trees planted in the garden include Holly, English Hawthorn, Mulberry, and Taxus (Yew), clipped in topiary style. And, since sundials were relevant during Shakespeare’s time, the garden has one that is encircled with English ivy. The garden also features an arbor that is shaded by a honeysuckle vine and bordered by wild thyme and Eglantine.

Bird watching from left, David Bernstein, left, Jonathan Kilzas and Peter Kwiatek at Hawk Rise Sanctuary in Linden.  Patti Sapone | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

There is a bird sanctuary located off Route 1 in Linden. Yes, it’s located near an industrial area off Route 1, but when you’re in the sanctuary, you feel like you’re a million miles away from the traffic or industry.

The Hawk Rise Sanctuary (1811 Lower Road, Linden | 908.396.6506), maintained by New Jersey Audubon, opened in 2012 and features flat trails in the sanctuary which spans 95 acres.

Visitors are welcome to walk the trails, which are about 1.5 miles long.

At the entrance to the sanctuary, there is information about what animal and plant species visitors should look for, as well as upcoming programs. Events for the fall include the “Hawk Rise Migration Walk” on Sept. 23 and “Looking for Late Migrants at Hawk Rise” on Oct. 14.

Trailside Nature & Science Center located within Union County’s Watchung Reservation in Mountainside. Patti Sapone | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

Trailside Nature Science Center (Watchung Reservation | 452 New Providence Road, Mountainside | 908.789.3670) is Union County’s environmental education center. The center is located within the 2,065-acre Watchung Reservation preserve, which contains woodlands, fields, lakes, streams and 13+ acres of hiking trails.

The center houses 4,500-square-feet of interactive exhibits, including a 34-foot American beech tree exhibit that fills the building’s atrium. The center also features classrooms that look out on the reservation, a multipurpose room, a library, children’s discovery room and a 250-seat auditorium.

The educational programs presented here are intended to allow visitors an opportunity to explore nature and gain a better understanding of the natural world around them.

The science center is surrounded by the Watchung Reservation Sensory Trail, which is designed to “provide sensory stimulation and interaction, and meet the physical, social and cognitive needs of different age groups.”

The Watchung Reservation Sensory Trail is a 0.3 mile loop with a central gazebo. The interpretive signage includes two talking kiosks highlighting the natural and human history of the area. There are also sounds from nature, including bird sounds, insect sounds, and the sounds of the Lenape Indians, who once occupied the reservation.

The central gazebo has a sensory play area to “attract children and encourage exploration and discovery.” The area features crawl-through log, mushroom steppers and a balance beam that looks like a tree branch.

There are also musical components on the trail including drums, xylophone, and other items to touch such as wheels and balls, and raised garden beds for touching and smelling.

The 0.2-mile braille trail loop with guide ropes features multiple stops to learn about the local flora and fauna.

The trail stretches from the Trailside Center and into fields surrounding the center and there are two outdoor classrooms along the trail where naturalists can gather groups and make presentations.

People walk through the gardens at Reeves-Reed Arboretum in Summit. Patti Sapone | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

Reeves-Reed Arboretum (165 Hobart Ave., Summit | 908.273.8787) offers 13.5 acres of historic and contemporary gardens and six acres of woodland forest. The arboretum is a “must stop” for those interested in gardening, hiking, art, or bird watching. Reeves-Reed hosts exhibits and demonstrations, children’s programs, concerts and special seasonal events.

We must make note of the goat grazing that happens on the property. In October, goats from Green-Goats in Rhinebeck, New York, come to the arboretum to help clear away a year’s worth of wildflower growth, invasive vines and weeds. This environmentally friendly vegetation removal allows for replanting of the “Daffodil Bowl” with bulbs for spring.

Downtown

East Broad Street in downtown Westfield at dusk. Patti Sapone | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

Perhaps Downtown Westfield needs no introduction, but it’s possible folks don’t know just how much happens in this idyllic town. Of course there is plenty of shopping and dining, but there are activities and special events that take place all year long.

In the summertime, for instance, there are sidewalk sales and Sweet Sounds Downtown Music Festival on Tuesdays. There are farmers markets, fitness events, chalk art exhibitions, ice carving demonstrations and a “Glo Downtown” event with lighted seesaws.

Arts

Technical rehearsal of the Nutcracker in Rahway presented by the American Reperatory Ballet. ARB’s Nutcracker has been a holiday tradition since 1964, when it premiered at McCarter Theatre. In this production, under the direction of Artistic Director Douglas Martin, ARB’s professional dancers are joined by students from Princeton Ballet School to tell the story of a young girl and how a mysterious gift brings about enchanted dreams and fantastical scenes. Patti Sapone | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

Built-in 1928, the Union County Performing Arts Center (1601 Irving Ave., Rahway | 732.499.8226) — listed in both State and National Registers of Historic Places — is a multipurpose venue for the performing arts.

The largest center for the performing arts in Union County, the facility showcases children’s programming, musicals and plays, classic and independent film presentations, multicultural programs and events, and live music concerts. UCPAC — which functions to provide “greater access to the arts in both the City of Rahway and in the County of Union” — also hosts children’s summer camps, recitals, and community events such as festivals and outdoor concerts.

Eats and Drinks

Al Santillo takes a pizza out of the brick oven at Santillo’s Brick Oven Pizza in Elizabeth. Patti Sapone | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

When Food & Wine named New Jersey the best pizza state in the nation, Santillo’s (639 S Broad St., Elizabeth | 908.354.1887) got a shoutout.

According to nj.com’s Jeremy Schneider, the brick oven at Santillo’s is legendary … “it’s baked many of the most deliciously distinctive Sicilian, pan and tomato pies prepared in New Jersey — and if your pizza is the best here, it’s the best anywhere, full stop.”

There is no eat-in option here, nor does Santillo’s deliver, but that hardly matters. Drive here and take out some of the best pizza in the country.

Wursts on the grill at the Deutscher Club’s Biergarten in Clark.  Steve Hockstein | For NJ Advance

Interested in beer? Brats?

For those who enjoy either … or both … the Deutscher Club (787 Featherbed Lane | 732.574.8600) is the place to be when the social club hosts outdoor events. At public events, such as biergartens, seasonal festivals including Oktoberfest and Christkindlmarkt, guests can enjoy authentic German beer and foods under the massive wooden pavilion or at picnic tables arranged neatly under the grove of trees that soar as high as the eye can see. There is more than beer and brats, though.

The typical menu for Oktoberfest, for instance, includes traditional wursts, pretzels, potato salad, spaetzle, and homemade potato pancakes. In addition to bratwurst and bauernwurst, there is leberkäse and chicken, roasted pigs, smoked eel, and cakes.

In addition to the German food, look for about a dozen varieties of German and American beer — Oktoberfest, pilsner, lager, and weiss bier. At Christkindlmarkt, add glühwein (hot spiced wine) to the menu.

The next Biergarten, featuring classic American cars and music by Don Bitterlich, will be held on Friday, Aug. 20. Admission is $5. Deutscher Tag will be held on Sunday, Sept. 19, Oktoberfest is set for Oct. 2 and 3 and the club’s Christkindlmarkt will be on Nov. 21.

Unique to Union County

The Feltville Historic District, located in the Watchung Reservation in Berkeley Heights, is a historic area which contains several buildings dating to the 18th century. It is known locally as “Deserted Village.”  Patti Sapone | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

Yes, there’s a Deserted Village in Union County (2 Cataract Hollow Road, Berkeley Heights).

The story goes like this: In the early 18th century, a sawmill was built along the Blue Brook to supply lumber to farmers; hundreds of acres of forest were cleared.

More than 100 years later, David Felt bought 760 acres of land and built a printing factory along the brook. He built a town on the bluff above the brook to support the operation, and by 1850, 175 people were living in Feltville. After Felt retired in 1860, the town became deserted until 1882 when the property was purchased and converted into a summer resort called Glenside Park. The popularity of the resort waned and Glenside Park closed in 1916.

Soon after the Union County Park System was formed in 1921, the area was incorporated into the Watchung Reservation. The grounds of the Deserted Village are open every day, dawn to dusk. The visitor center is open Saturdays and Sundays (and most holidays) from noon to 5 p.m.

There is a pamphlet available for a walking tour that explains the 10 surviving historic buildings. The pamphlets outlining the walking tour through the Deserted Village, with some additional history, are available in kiosks in the parking lot off Glenside Avenue and near the general store/church.

Members of Model Railroad Club Inc. operate trains across the large track layout. The club is one of the largest model railroad clubs in North America and features HO scale and N scale layouts,  Noah K. Murray | for NJ Advance Media

The nonprofit Model Railroad Club, Inc. (A. Paul Mallery Model Railroad Center | 295 Jefferson Ave, Union | 908.964.9724) was founded in 1949 by author and Master Model Railroader Paul Mallery. Today, it is regarded as one of the largest model railroad clubs in North America and features HO scale and N scale layouts, as well as other model railroad and industrial exhibits.

The club’s HO scale layout takes up most of the floor space in the 11,000-square-foot facility. The layout features three fictional railroads: the Class 1 Hudson, Delaware and Ohio; the Trenton Northern, an interurban and traction line; and the Rahway River, a short line. Each railroad interchanges with the others but has its own operating crew and procedures.

Once a year, the club hosts an annual Light and Sound Show, where the HO scale layout is “transformed into a theater and the trains run to a professionally narrated script.” The dates for the 2021 show are Nov. 26, 27 and 28 and Dec. 3, 4, 5, 10, 11 and 12.

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Patti Sapone may be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Instagram @psapo, Twitter @psapone.

Linda O’Brien may be reached at [email protected].