Open to the Public
Situated at the southwest tip of the Cape May peninsula, the South Cape May Meadows Nature Preserve includes more than 200 acres of critical habitat in the globally renowned birding hot-spot of Cape May, New Jersey. The peninsula acts as a funnel for birds migrating along the Atlantic Flyway. The land protected here provides foraging and resting habitat for birds before they cross the Delaware Bay.
The nature preserve is replete with dunes, freshwater wetlands, meadows, ponds and a full mile of protected beach. The trail system 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 90,000 visitors enjoy the preserve’s natural beauty each year.
Established in the 1840's, South Cape May was once a Victorian resort town boasting modest vacation cottages until a storm surge washed much of the town away during the 1950’s. Today, remnants of the town lie offshore, scattered on the ocean floor. The few homes that survived were re-located to West Cape May and Cape May City. Also gone is an open meadow grazed by cattle on the outskirts of the town. They moved on to more nutritious pastures shortly after the Conservancy established the nature preserve, leaving the area vulnerable to the common and highly invasive marsh reed, Phragmites australis.
Over the years, the face of the nature preserve has dramatically changed, especially since 2004, when the Conservancy teamed with the Army Corps of Engineers and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) to restore freshwater wetland and beach ecosystems. The project area, which included the nature preserve and the adjacent Cape May Point State Park, represented 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 in order to protect local communities from coastal flooding and benefit wildlife. This restoration entailed:
- Replenishing an eroded beach,
- Building up dunes,
- Restoring freshwater flow through the wetland,
- Controlling invasive Phragmites,
- Creating shorebird foraging and resting areas within the wetland, and
- Installing water control structures.
While the process of re-engineering the wetland and beach was intrusive, the ecosystem proved its resilience and has not only recovered, but flourished since completion of the project. When the nature preserve re-opened in 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. In 2014, the Conservancy opened two new foot trails, one to connect the main trail to the adjacent Cape May Point State Park, and the other a spur trail along the back side of the eastern impoundment.
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 beachfront supports a diverse shore plant community including seaside goldenrod, beach heather, sea rocket and several varieties of primrose.
The nature 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.
In addition to the host of migratory raptors, waterfowl, shorebirds and beach nesting birds, the nature 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 descent of monarchs during their fall migration.
Check out recent bird sightings and report your own!
The one-mile loop trail leads from the entrance through the wetland to the beachfront, and back. Trails sit atop the wetland’s levees providing a stable surface* and a raised perspective for wildlife viewing.
*Please note: trail sections on the beach and those behind the dune are sand and may not be accessible by visitors with strollers or wheelchairs.
Other Preserve Amenities:
- Gravel parking area with bike rack
- Information kiosk at entrance with trail map and other information
- Staff on site from April to October
- Scenic overlooks from the dune trails and observation platform
- Two miles of trails
- Portable toilet on site from April to October
Peak Times: The nature preserve is teeming with wildlife nearly year round, but a few times are particularly spectacular.
- From mid-May to mid-June, shorebirds and songbirds migrate along the Delaware Bayshore.
- May, June and July are the best times to catch a glimpse of American oystercatchers, least terns, piping plovers and black skimmers which nest on the beach during the summer.
- September and October are also great times to view migrating songbirds, waterfowl, shorebirds, raptors and monarch butterflies.
Preserve Guidelines: To minimize disturbance of the state protected and endangered species of this nature preserve, please follow these guidelines:
- Pets are not permitted on the nature preserve's trails.
- Trails are open to foot traffic only. (A bike rack is available in the parking lot.)
- Visitors should stay on marked trails.
- Do not handle or collect any plants or animals.
- Please carry out all garbage.
- Swimming is not permitted.
Note: Beach use is limited to nature viewing from March 15-August 31. Stopping, standing, or sitting on the beach, even when viewing nature or taking photographs, can be disruptive to nesting and feeding birds. All beach visitors are asked to keep moving and stay outside of the roped off nesting area.
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.