Duke Farms open to the public

A Thousand To One

In the spring of 2008, Duke Gardens closed to the public, after forty-three years of operation. A splendidly enchanted acre housed under glass, the "Garden of Nations" replicated various classic garden settings from across the continents, and were the realization of one of Doris Duke's life's ambitions. Inspired by DuPont's Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, PA, Ms. Duke developed the gardens in her father's honor, and they remained a radiant parcel of the fabled heiress's legacy, gaining extraordinary allure for visitors from around the world. The dismay of an army of the Gardens' devotees was hardly diminished by the trustees at Duke Farms when they explained that, although the gardens were finished, the Duke property would refocus its programs and operations to become an environmental showcase and learning center. The new mission would be "to serve as a model of environmental stewardship and inspire visitors to become informed stewards of the land."

The Farm Barn
The Farm Barn visitor orientation center.

Those that were disappointed with the trustees' decision should be happy to know that, after some delay, the former one-acre exhibit has been expanded to one thousand acres open for public exploration and enjoyment for the first time in one hundred years. The gardens have become Duke Farms Living Habitats, and their worldly cultural aesthetic has largely transformed into a focus on what belongs right here, right now.

Located on 2,740 acres in Hillsborough, in Somerset County, Duke Farms is one of the largest privately held parcels of undeveloped land in New Jersey, owned and supported by Duke Farms Foundation, an operating foundation of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. In the late 1800s, the tobacco and hydropower magnate, James Buchanan "Buck" Duke, purchased forty farmsteads to supplement the core of his estate along the Raritan River, and began to transform his landscape, adding scores of buildings, two conservatories, over two miles of stone walls, eighteen miles of roadway, and more than two million trees. Duke excavated nine lakes on the farm, partly to enhance his vision for a public park, but also as a system to power the estate. In 1899, Duke opened his park, and for sixteen years, visitors enjoyed picnics, ice skating, greenhouse displays, gathering wildflowers and long carriage drives winding through the property, which became increasingly endowed with formal, European-style effects and features; fountains, sculpture, and pergolas. Unrelenting vandalism eventually persuaded J.B. Duke to close his park to the public in 1915, and he returned his attention to large-scale farm operations. Aiding in the World War I effort, Duke's staff employed innovative equipment to cultivate hundreds of acres of wheat, rye, corn, hay, and miscellaneous crops.

When Buck Duke died in 1925, his daughter Doris was twelve years old. The Somerville estate remained her legal residence throughout her life, and she added another seven hundred acres in the late 1960s by purchasing land from surrounding farms that were threatened by development. A dyed-in-the-wool conservationist, Ms. Duke continued the legacy started by her father, most notably her world-famous Gardens of Nations. Upon her death in 1993, she directed in her will that Duke Farms be maintained as haven for wildlife and a place for horticultural and agricultural research. The gardens, however, were not mentioned. Although they were extremely nice to look at, and many people enjoyed them, they were extremely expensive to maintain. The gardens were not handicapped accessible and, because the greenhouses were not cooled, they closed to the public during the summer months. The Doris Duke Charitable Foundation turned to a broader horizon.

Garden Plots
Community garden plots at Duke Farms.

Visitors are no longer required to pass through guardhouse gates to the Duke Estate. Rather, they enter along Duke Parkway West off Route 206 and drive to the Farm Barn. Built in 1906, and former home to thoroughbred horses and dairy cattle, the Farm Barn now serves as the orientation center for visitors. Renovated to LEED platinum standards (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), geo-thermal wells heat and cool the building, a large 2.6-acre solar array supplies electric power, and rainwater flows off the roof for collection in underground cisterns. In the neighboring agricultural fields, there is a community garden with 420 plots available by lottery for local residents. The Northeast Organic Farm Association (NOFA) also offers an organic farm incubator for budding entrepreneurs from all over the country. Inside the Farm Barn, educational exhibits and interactive displays illustrate the concepts of sustainable design and regenerated natural landscapes on the property, and there is a short film about the history of the estate. Guests can also grab a bite to eat at the café, register for upcoming educational programs or events, and pick up a trail map (which they are reminded to return for reuse) before they walk, bike or hop aboard a tram to access the core area of the property where there are eighteen miles of trails. Twelve of those miles are accessible by bike, and four are paved for handicapped access or strollers.

Eagle Gate
The Eagle Gate

The tram, which runs about every thirty minutes enters the trail system through the Eagle Gate, so named for the magnificent bronze sculptures, cast in Paris around 1902, that perch on the stone posts of the entrance. They are a reminder that, not only is this a place of uncommon pedigree, but that birds are primary citizens at Duke Farms. There are 231 known bird species on the property, many attracted by the rare grasslands in the western section. Most popular are great blue herons, great horned owls, and, yes, bald eagles. Besides birds, Duke Farms is refuge for seventeen wildlife species considered threatened or endangered. The greenhouses that housed Duke Gardens were converted to a native nursery where more than 200,000 plants have so far been propagated from seeds collected on the property for native habitat regeneration. Invasive species that really have no benefit for wildlife, and crowd out the plants they need, have been removed from 830 acres, and 325 acres of meadows have been restored to date. The results of these efforts are on display along your excursion through the park, along with other fascinating items, all interpreted by twenty-six signs erected at important locations, and forty audio tours available for download to your phone via QR codes or from the Duke Farms website.

Mermaid Pool
The Mermaid Pond, with algae-eating islets.

Turning left through the entrance, Vista Lake soon appears, the largest of the estate's artificial impoundments. Completed in 1908, it was originally referred to as Lake 45, because its surface lies forty-five feet above the surface of the Raritan River. Above Vista is Duke Reservoir, where, at eighty-one feet, water pumped from the Raritan River still cascades down to fill a total of nine lakes below it. Originally integral to the estate's hydropower plant, the system foreshadowed J.B. Duke's work in the North Carolina piedmont where he would eventually supply hydroelectric power to mills, factories, electric lines, cities and towns. The Mermaid Pool, which lies between the reservoir and Vista Lake, became a swimming pool for Doris Duke in the 1930s when she remodeled it with a cement lining. Environmental engineers have placed floating islets made of recyclable material and plants with roots that go down into the water to suck up some of the nutrients in order to control the algae that thrives here and in other lakes. The waterfall that spills from Mermaid Pool into Vista is now solar-powered, and the lakes remain home to a variety of fish, as well as some rather large century-old snapping turtles that nest in the nearby tree mulch.

The old foundation
The Old Foundation

The tram's first stop is at the "old foundation", where Buck Duke began to erect and 80,000 square foot mansion in 1911. Why he decided to halt construction remains somewhat of a mystery, but stop he did; donating the steel built into the foundation to the World War I effort. A sign that shows what the completed house would have looked like overlooks a great lawn that was landscaped before the house's construction began. The terraced panorama leads down to the Great Meadow, which, after a controlled burn to get rid of invasive flora, has been reseeded with native grasses and wildflowers.

Above: Southeast coastal plain garden in the Orchid Range Conservatory
Below: Native orchids are nurtured along the trail.

With paths trailing off into the perimeters of the park, the main loop continues past Otter Lake (guess who lives there) towards the tram's second drop-off point, the Orchid Range. This, the estate's first conservatory, built in 1903, is the birthplace for most varieties of orchids commercially available today. The greenhouse has been retrofitted to LEED Gold standards and showcases some of the hundreds of orchid species from tropical regions along with some that have been cultivated at Duke Farms. In another section of the greenhouse, reminiscent of the old Duke Gardens, an American Southeast Coastal Plain garden reveals a diversity array of plants native to this subtropical area, including an evolving population of orchids. Nearby, a trail leads to a garden where a native orchid, only recently discovered during a "bioblitz", weaves itself to maturity in the open air.

At the bottom of the Great Meadow, the third tram stop, the Hay Barn Meadow Path leads to another of the estate's architectural remnants. The hay barn, one of the buildings first constructed on the farm, burned in 1915. Doris Duke adapted the ruins as an outdoor sculpture gallery, relocating marble statues from other parts of the old estate, still visible today arranged along the high stone walls, covered with trumpet vines alive with summer hummingbirds.

Another early building, the Coach Barn, a carriage house and field office for J. B. Duke, later for Foundation staff (who will move to the Farm Barn), continues service as quarters for large group seminars and meetings. The Old Dutch farmhouse, the country manor where the Duke family resided, is in mothballs, with no foreseeable role in the Foundation's mission for land stewardship and sustainability.

Coach Barn
Inside the Coach Barn

It is difficult to see it all in one day, but a few scattered afternoons would be well spent at Duke Farms. Even if you're breezing through on a bike, some areas are accessible only on foot. Whether you enjoy wildlife watching, wildflower photography, ancient champion trees, geocaching, tracking the marks of man, or a sublime picnic, remember that Duke Farms is a park with a mission. Although the $45 million model of sustainability here has been achieved in isolation of any thing close to normal economic pressures, pay some attention to the message. The knowledge, the science, and the techniques for a more sensible human environment are here, painted in bold strokes, courtesy Buck and Doris Duke.

June, 2012

Admission to Duke Farms is free, although some programs carry a fee. The park open six days a week, closed on Wednesdays. Be prepared to carry out what you take in; there are no refuse barrels. And you'll have to leave your dog home.

1112 Duke Parkway West, Hillsborough, N.J. 08844
(908) 722-3700
To learn more, visit Duke Farms Website

Upcoming Events

  • March 18 • DISCOVERING BIRDS. This is a fantastic opportunity to spark interest in what has become a life-long passion and hobby for generations. Bring your binoculars (or borrow a pair) for a guided bird walk of the property.┬áMeet at the Orientation Center. 10 - 12pm. $5.
  • May 5 • NATIVE ORCHIDS. Learn about orchids native to NJ through a PowerPoint presentation and by exploring them in our Native Orchid Nursery Bed, Landscape Beds, and the Subtropical Orchid Garden. $10.
  • May 12 • UP WITH BIRDS. Join bird expert Bruce McWhorter for an early-morning bird walk through fields and forests at Duke Farms. Bring your binoculars and meet at the Orientation Center for this guided walk. Open to anyone with an interest in birds, children are required to be accompanied by an adult. 7 - 9am. $5.

Nearby accommodations and attractions

  • Jacobus Vanderveer House
  • The Jacobus Vanderveer house is the only surviving building associated with the Pluckemin encampment.

    1 River Rd W, Bedminster 07921, 908/212-7000 x611

  • Bouman Stickey Farmstead
  • 114 Dreahook Road, Stanton 08885, 908/236-2327

  • Lamington Lifestyles
  • A Bedminster destination for 31 years (formerly Lamington General Store) located in a restored 1890's general store, Lamington Lifestyles offers two floors brimming with home decor, unique gifts, women's apparel, baby gifts, jewelry and artwork... some designed by over 80 American artisans. Specializing in custom farm tables. Tues-Sat, 10AM-5PM; Sunday, Noon-5PM

    285 Lamington Rd., Bedminster 07921, (908) 439-2034

  • Ship Inn Restaurant and Brewery
  • New Jersey''s first brewpub where, in addition to14 British ales and hard cider on tap, you can enjoy selections brewed on-site. The menu is derived exclusively from cuisine from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Lively weekend entertainment, on and off premise catering.

    61 Bridge St., Milford 08848, 908/995-7007

  • Fairview Farm Wildlife Preserve
  • Paths of green, fields of gold!

    2121 Larger Cross Road, Bedminster


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jj llevs
05 Oct 2017, 12:49
Great that it's not overwhelmed with tacky weddings, corporate events, etc. Breath of fresh air to have a world in which some things are beyond the reach even of the checkbook.

Every once in a while somebody does something right. Against all odds, and representing a massive fight, no doubt, this place is in that category. Hardly the cigarette titan's vision, but I am guessing he would be impressed. I'm sure his granddaughter would be and Lord knows NJ needed something real.

18 Jul 2017, 21:04
Wondering why they don't redo the one glass greenhouse? it is a beautiful glass building and the front doors face a gorgeous fountain and flowers. This would be an amazing place for weddings. people would be lined up to use this gorgeous building. I bet you would get some famous people wanting their weddings here. maybe tents near the fountain? orchestra out on the grass? It would be AMAZING! I think it would be worth the investment.....many weddings would recoup the cost quickly?
22 Mar 2015, 06:42
hey great place to bike
Edward Comiskey
20 Sep 2014, 11:18
I was wondering if my wife and I would be allowed to use our low speed ezip scooters instead of bikes as it's quite too much peddling for us?
elaine mandala
12 Jun 2014, 13:30
I am curious most about the stone walls around the estate. Who built them, how long did it take? Any help or direction will be appreciated.
leroy fisher
10 Jun 2014, 08:09
What happened to the cows? The cows that Doris loved. Roy
16 Apr 2013, 08:35
I saw a young lady pull out of the gates that lead to the duke estate this morning which is located at the sharp curve going into Raritan, and it's not the first time either. I wouldn't be surprised if she is Edward Henry's daughter who is the President of the Duke Foundation. If the Foundation the had any brains, they would of kept the 2 most popular attractions, the manor house and the gardens or at least keep one of them open and charged a higher tour fee to cash in. We would of paid anything to be able to still go on those tours. Heartless move on their part.
06 Apr 2013, 21:36
I'm hoping to be able to visit the Veghte Cemetery /aka Duke Cemetery. My great grandparents lived on the Quick farm (great great grandparents' farm) which was sold along with other farms (cousins) to the Dukes. My great grandfather stayed on as a caretaker and is buried with his wife in the cemetery nearby. Hoping there is easy access to this cemetery.
01 Apr 2013, 17:48
Sounds like executers and administers are making money and letting all the rest go. Personal greed will rule to bad some one doesn't step in. Sounds like chuck is right. Money for them, none for the grounds the people.and to bad for Doris and all her hard work.
Tabatha Matthews
27 Mar 2013, 11:01
I grew up living on the Duchess Farm on Doris Duke's estate from for seven years in the 1970's. My father, Arthur Sproch & grandfather, Arthur W. Sproch, worked for Doris Duke as her personal security guards and body guard. I believe we lived their from 1975 - 1982. I remember the white farm house, with cows on both sides of the barns and the winding driveway I would walk to catch the bus. Looking through all of these pics brings back so many memories.
Maureen Stafford
03 Dec 2012, 13:30
I remember back in 1973-5 riding my babies on bicycle through the most wonderful woods in the summer months, all part of Duke estates. My children, although small, remember some of these excursions. They are the indelible moments that call the future to repeat them, throughout life. I am so grateful to Ms. Duke for providing those very special times for me with my children, which money was no part of.
20 Oct 2012, 15:54
I went to the gardens years ago and they were beautiful, and remarkable. I agree that it is a shame that they were destroyed. The video of the destruction available on you tube is heart wrenching. BUT, as a long time resident of the area, I went to the estate for the first time today. It is beautiful, and fascinating. There are trails for bikes, a tram for those who cannot manage otherwise, and less traveled trails for walkers with wood chips. It is a wonderful place to visit, with a sense of calm and beauty hard to find in the hectic surrounds of suburban NJ. I have become a fan, and you should give it a chance.
Vivian Bedoya
21 Sep 2012, 09:39
For information about features on the property, such as the statuary, the best source is Duke Farms. Call 908 722-3700.
Ann Bengivenni
21 Sep 2012, 05:58
Looking for the name of the statue standing near the orchid conservatory. Where is he from? He is the boy with the violin.
Henry Totten
16 Sep 2012, 19:20
I"ve lived at Duke Farms ever since i was a little boy. I was raised on the farm. I remember all the xmas party's at the Big House. Everyone who worked and lived on the estate was invited. I remember meeting Doris Duke at the party. She would read out the names on gifts that mom's would wrap. As I grew older. I learned more about the farm. I milked the cows,plowed the fields, baled hay. I can't beleave what the cow barn looks like. What happened to the four house's on the end the barn? I will have too make a trip out to the old home stead. Thank You Henry Totten
22 Jun 2012, 15:00
Are there fields of wild flowers on the grounds?
Vivian Bedoya
17 Jun 2012, 09:35
It's a moot point but one that I felt compelled to comment on. Being just one of "those that were disappointed with the trustees' decision" to destroy the Duke Display Gardens, I read this article with interest. None of us who campaigned against its closing thought that the Foundation's mission for land stewardship and sustainability was a bad idea. Quite the opposite! We thought it could be incorporated alongside the attraction that drew thousands of visitors every year while giving the public broader access to the site. Now that I've learned that the Orchid Range greenhouse "has been retrofitted to LEED Gold standards" I can't help but wonder why the same could not be done for the Display Gardens.
Skylands Visitor
04 Jun 2012, 09:48
Park admission is free, closed on Wednesday.
Debby Morginstin
02 Jun 2012, 19:34
Are you opened on Sundays? Is there an entrance fee? We are Sr. citizens.
Barbara Brenner
12 Apr 2012, 11:11
I have been making a "pilgrimage" to the gardens every year for about 32 years, toting my friends along with me. You have no idea how disapponted I am. Whoever made the decision to close the atrium is certainly no friend of the gardens and the beauty they provided.
No Name
04 Apr 2012, 12:47
The gardens are no longer open and are gone - neither are the tours of the Estate. Your page is very outdated. No eagle cam either this year -- \r\nThe only thing open is a walk on the Wild Side - thru the woods on a path. \r\nThe greenhouses are gone too. Such a shame.
No Name
22 Dec 2011, 14:58
The gardens under an acre of glass, You all once knew are gone. They sadly no longer exist. They are empty and contents sold off at auction. the Manor house is also empty of all that was.
Peggy Dennis
29 Aug 2011, 18:51
Your website is badly out of date stating: "Preparations for renovation and construction have already begun and the orientation center is scheduled to open in the spring of 2010."\r\n\r\nAre you open or are you closed?\r\n\r\nBring yourself up-to-date!
07 Aug 2011, 07:38
Is the one-hour bus tour of estate and garden still available and if so what is the fee and schedule?
george christopher gardellis
20 Jul 2011, 04:33
All go by the farm with its massive wall surrounding it an wonder who lived there an who still farms the land i also see there use to be a wonderful garden an green house shame its no longer open i plan to go to the mountains again this weekend an i'am going to make this a stop on the way back would like more info on jobs at the farm
10 Apr 2011, 20:38
The indooe displays are no longer open. The trusteed of the estate decided to close the formal gardens /greenhouses in 2008 and turn the entire estate into an "environmentsl studies" area. I was just there today and was VERY dissappointed!!! It looks like they're just using that as an excuse to let the place fall apart= return to its natural state by removing all the NON native species; ie: EVERYthing the Duke's plante; and reintroducing only native plants that will attract more native fauna! I think they're hoping noone comes so they can sell off all the land and make a fortune for the "estate"....and it's board members????
Mary Lou Smith
22 Mar 2011, 06:33
Are the gardens and greenhouses open and available for self tours this spring? Please inform me as to any options available for touring Duke gardens this spring. \r\nThank You.
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