When Mike McCormick's hiking blog took its first steps in March of 2013, he imagined that "a few friends and maybe my mother would read it."
Four years later, nearly 540,000 people have visited Southjerseytrails.org, a savvy, user-friendly how-to overview of picturesque places to walk, with or without the kids, in the portion of the Garden State that hiking guidebooks generally ignore.
A part of New Jersey, truth be told, that some people — among them, local inhabitants — disparage as a flat and featureless swath of urban/suburban/exurban sprawl.
But the hiker/blogger,and the columnist who walks regularly (if not religiously) agree there are far more interesting paths to take around here than, say, Route 70.
"I love South Jersey, and I love finding places here that I've never been," says McCormick, 35, a Catholic-school teacher, Boy Scout leader, and father of two. His wife, Alexandria, also is an educator with a love of the outdoors; the couple live in Barrington and are expecting the imminent birth of a third son.
McCormick started the blog with a post about the Stafford Trail he and fellow Scouts helped build in Voorhees when he was growing up there. He's gone on to research, visit, and photograph 130 trails, with another 80 or so to go.
"I thought it would be a six-month project. How many trails could there be?" he says. "But I'm always hearing about new places."
The blog's warm, witty online narratives about places like Crows Woods in Haddonfield — one of McCormick's favorites, and mine — are illustrated with photographs, often of his sons.
The pictures have become a popular feature; the boys are nicknamed "The Pres" (Abraham, 5, for Abraham Lincoln) and "Tree Rider" (John, 3, for naturalist John Muir), and readers get to watch them grow up in beautiful settings.
"One of the reasons I do this is for the time I get to spend with the kids," McCormick says. "It's great fun."
Sure looks that way.
The blog also offers detailed summaries and tips, including photos of trailheads and parking lots, as well as of the scenery, at state, county, and municipal trails, private but publicly accessible preserves and reserves, and even a scenic cemetery. He rates these places on a 10-1 scale, too.
"I never knew how gorgeous the Delaware Bay is until I started doing the blog," says McCormick, with whom I spent a late afternoon last week exploring the closer-to-home loveliness of Gloucester Township's terrific Timber Creek Park.
Several fans of South Jersey Trails and its two companion pages on Facebook, where I posted a query, emailed to say they've discovered new places to enjoy thanks to McCormick.
"Even though I grew up within a half hour of Franklin Parker Preserve … and currently live within 15 minutes of it, I had no idea it even existed before I stumbled across the SJ Trails blog," says Sean Mulcahy, 45, the owner of a digital marketing firm in Tabernacle.
"A Facebook acquaintance, actually Mike's wife, recommended his blog to me, and I couldn't be more pleased," says Asiyah Kurtz, who moved to Haddon Heights last fall from Memphis.
"I've logged almost 80 miles of trails over the last couple of months, lost 15 pounds, and reduced my stress levels," Kurtz, a 44-year-old human resources professional, adds.
"There just isn't anything out there that compares to what Michael has [done]," says the photographer Jason Gambone, 43, of Marlton. "It's like having a friend [who's] been to that cool spot and has all the juicy details about where to go."
That friend with the juicy details is as amiable as he is knowledgeable — a Flyers fan with the Celtic gift of gab and an unabashed passion for the woods, fields, creeks, cedar swamps, and surprisingly expansive wilderness areas in this part of New Jersey, including those to be found amid the densely developed Burlington, Camden, and Gloucester municipalities near Philadelphia.
"Finding all of these great places to hike," says Mike Ralph, 40, a church youth director from Pitman, "has given me more appreciation for South Jersey and helped me realize there is a lot of natural beauty [here] if you just take the time to look."