Situated at the southwest tip of the Cape May peninsula, The South Cape May Meadows Preserve, includes over 200 acres of critical habitat in the globally renowned birding hot spot of Cape May, NJ. The preserve is replete with dunes, freshwater wetlands, meadows, ponds, and a full mile of protected beach. The Cape May peninsula acts as a funnel for birds migrating along the Atlantic Flyway and the land protected there provides foraging and resting habitat for birds before they cross Delaware Bay. The preserve’s loop trail provides visitors with wildlife viewing opportunities in both a freshwater wetland and on an undeveloped beach, a rarity on the heavily developed Jersey shoreline. An estimated 300,000 visitors enjoy the preserve’s natural beauty each year.
Just offshore, the remnants of the town of South Cape May lie scattered on the ocean floor. The Victorian Resort town, established in the 1840’s included a modest number of vacation cottages in its prime, but most were destroyed by a storm and overtaken by the ocean in the early 1950’s. The few homes that survived the storm were moved to new locations within West Cape May and Cape May City. Grazing cattle helped to maintain an open meadow following the town’s destruction. After the preserve was established by the Conservancy, and the cattle moved on to more nutritious pastures, the wetland and meadow were overtaken by the common reed, Phragmites a highly invasive plant.
The face of the preserve dramatically changed once again in 2004, when the Conservancy teamed with the Army Corps of Engineers and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) to restore the Meadows freshwater wetland and beach ecosystems. The project area included both The South Cape May Meadows Preserve and the adjacent Cape May Point State Park, this project was the first of its kind undertaken in New Jersey and has been a marked success. The goal was to return the degraded landscape to a more productive, and natural state to benefit both the wildlife and the residents of local communities by adding protection from coastal flooding. Elements of the project included replenishment of an eroded beach, building up of the dunes, restoration of freshwater flow through the wetland, control of the invasive common reed Phragmites, creation of shorebird foraging and resting areas within the wetland, and installation of water control structures. While the process of re-engineering the wetland and beach was very intrusive, the ecosystem proved its resilience and has not only recovered, but flourished in the three years since the completion of the project. When the preserve re-opened in June of 2007 it not only featured important enhancements for wildlife, but also amenities for visitors; including a gravel parking lot, information booth, improved trail system, and an observation platform.
Location: West Cape May Borough, Lower Township, Cape May County
Acres protected: 218 acres
What to See
No longer dominated by Phragmites, the freshwater wetland plant community is dominated by rose mallow and cattails. Along the trails and throughout the meadow, visitors can enjoy a variety of grasses, rushes, and sedges along with wildflowers like marsh pink, blue mist flower, and purple boneset. The beach front supports a diverse shore plant community including seaside goldenrod, and sea rocket, and several varieties of primrose.
The preserve’s beachfront is a critical nesting site for federally threatened piping plovers, and state threatened least terns, along with American Oystercatchers, a special species of concern. Volunteers are needed to help protect beach nesters.
In addition to the host of migratory raptors, waterfowl, and shorebirds, and beach nesting birds, the preserve’s diverse habitats support many species of mammals, reptiles, and insects. Visitors may catch a glimpse of river otters or muskrats swimming through the wetland, see evidence of deer moving through the dunes, cross paths with an eastern box turtle, or witness the decent of monarchs during their fall migration.
The 1 mile loop trail leads from the entrance through the wetland to the beachfront, and back. Trails sit atop of the wetland’s levees providing a stable surface* and a raised perspective for wildlife viewing. Download the trail map.
*Please note: trail sections leading onto the beach and behind the dune are sand and may not be accessible by visitors with strollers or wheelchairs.
Other Preserve Amenities:
Peak Times: The preserve is teeming with wildlife nearly year round, but a few times are particularly spectacular.
From March 15th to August 31st beach use is limited to nature viewing
All other uses of the beach are prohibited during this time to minimize disturbance to beach nesting birds
Take the Garden State Parkway South to the end where it merges into Lafayette Street in Cape May. Continue straight on Lafayette Street. Bear right onto West Perry Street. This will turn into Sunset Boulevard, drive west for one mile. The preserve is on the left just past Bayshore Road. The parking area is well marked on the left.