In the 1930s, the Veblens began acquiring and consolidating properties along the Princeton ridge on the east side of town, near Herrontown Road. Towards the end of Oswald's life, they donated 82 acres to Mercer County to form the Herrontown Woods preserve in 1957. It was Princeton's first dedicated nature preserve. When Elizabeth Veblen died in 1974, the Veblens' remaining 14 acres, including the Veblen House, were added to the preserve.
In 2013, volunteers who would later form the Friends of Herrontown Woods were given permission to clear trails long blocked by fallen trees and invasive growth. Steady effort ultimately cleared trails on 220 acres of open space in Herrontown Woods and Autumn Hill Reservation, making these beautiful preserves once again welcoming to the public. FOHW continues to care for the preserves, keeping trails open and removing invasive shrubs and vines that compete with native species and obscure the preserve's natural features.
Rock walls in the woods are evidence that the land once was farmed. However, the boulders along the Princeton ridge in Herrontown Woods discouraged plowing, and so helped protect the many native wildflowers to be found along the trails. Though some of the woodlands were logged in the 1920s, some trees are 150 years old or more. The forest is a mix of red, white, and black oaks, massive tulip trees, hickory, beech, black birch, sweetgum and red maple. In the understory can be found many woody species of less stature: ironwood, three native species of Viburnum, witchhazel, high and low-bush blueberries, and an occasional solitary hazelnut. A few native shrubs are unable to grow to size due to heavy deer browsing: the native euonymus, called strawberry bush or hearts 'a bustin', serviceberry and azalea. These we have given protection to in the Botanical Art Garden, next to the parking lot, so that they can reach their full size. The Friends of Herrontown Woods is also helping restore the butternut to Princeton's woodlands.
MAPS: The HerrontownWoods.org website has a color-coded map of existing trails, landmarks and access points. Copies are often available at the kiosk at the main parking lot, but many hikers take a photo of the map on the kiosk and use that to navigate.
PARKING AND ACCESS: The preserve's main parking lot is off of Snowden Lane, down the short street across from the entrance to Smoyer Park. The official address is 600 Snowden Lane in Princeton, NJ. Other places to park and enter the preserve include the Veblen House driveway at 452 Herrontown Road, and a trailhead behind the Stone Hill Church on Bunn Drive.
FLORA: Because the boulder fields discouraged plowing, Herrontown Woods harbors one of the most diverse populations of flora in Princeton. In the late 1960s, a PhD student at Rutgers University, Richard J. Kramer, researched and wrote a book detailing Herrontown Woods' natural history. Published in 1971 by the Stonybrook-Millstone Watershed Association, a pdf is available at this link.
GEOLOGY: Located on the Princeton ridge, Herrontown Woods is dominated by boulders that increase in size as one hikes from the parking lot up towards the top of the ridge. Glaciers did not extend down to Princeton. These boulders are diabase rock--igneous in origin--some of which our former board member Jon Johnson discovered to be highly magnetic.
HYDROLOGY: Herrontown Woods contains the only tributary of Harry's Brook whose headwaters are undeveloped. These headwaters are home to salamanders, some species of which may not be found anywhere else along the ridge. Various vernal pools attract breeding frogs in the spring.
FARMING HISTORY: Ridge lands in northeastern Princeton were home to about 30 small farms, averaging 30 acres each. An article by Jac Weller in a 1981 Recollector tells the story of these hardscrabble farms.
Fiddle heads of Christmas fern perched on boulders.