Falling (Literally) For Mount Tammany

Birds chirp, leaves glimmer and a Delaware Water Gap hiker learns his lesson the hard way.

Take the first NJ exit off Route 80 to reach Mount Tammany, where you will gaze down at Arrowhead Island and the Delaware River.
Photo by Steve Greer.

It’s easy these days to catch the view from the top of Mount Tammany. Just punch up the many images on Google. But that’s not the challenging way—and it’s certainly not the most rewarding.

To really enjoy Mount Tammany—the rocky hump on the New Jersey side of the Delaware Water Gap—you have to climb it. Two trails, each slightly more than a mile, lead to its peak. The Blue Dot Trail is arduous; the Red Dot Trail, treacherous. At the top, the sweeping, hardwood-blanketed panorama is particularly spectacular in its fall palette. Although you are a mere 1,527 feet above it all, you feel on top of the world. Mount Tammany makes you work for it—and in my case, pay for it with a face-first fall requiring a visit to the emergency room at St. Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston. I learned some lessons, which I’ll share with you along the way.

The Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, traversed by a portion of the mighty Appalachian Trail, is easily accessible off Exit 1 of Interstate 80, about 75 miles west of the George Washington Bridge. Brown signs point the way from the exit to several parking lots, where the various trails join.

Before choosing a trail, stop at the Kittatinny Point Visitor Center (908-496-4458), operated by the National Park Service and open from 9 am to 5 pm, Thursdays through Mondays from September 6 through October 8. You can pick up free trail maps there and buy water and other drinks.

According to Kittatinny Trails, the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference guidebook by Robert L. Boysen, the loop formed by the Red Dot and Blue Dot trails is 3.3 miles. Manageable, I thought.

I parked in the westernmost of two free lots nearest the trails at the Dunnfield Creek Natural Area, no more than a quarter mile from the highway exit. And off I went.

The 1.4-mile Blue Dot Trail is slightly longer and more gradual than the steep 1.2-mile Red Dot Trail, so I thought it would be better to go up the Blue and down the Red. I later learned that I had it backwards; the best way is up Red, down Blue. That’s because it is less taxing on the knees (and on a hiker’s balance, I found) to scale steep hills than to descend them.

To get to the Blue Dot, I started out on a relatively flat portion of the Appalachian Trail, blazed in white. It is a serene walk. No more than a quarter mile from the parking lot the babble of a brook muffles the truck traffic from I-80.

There is a spot, canopied by tall trees, to sit on a rock and gaze at the water gurgling in the shallow brook, which runs clean and clear. Gray rock walls, with ferns sprouting from the cracks, plummet to the brook to form a cool backdrop. Sunlight filters through the birches. Falling leaves sparkle, as if under a spotlight, as they spiral down to the water.

The trails are remarkably litter free; at a stand along the way, yellow bags are available to carry out your trash. Following the blue blazes on the tree trunks, I crossed a footbridge just downstream from an effervescent cascade and proceeded up the mountain.

Soon, the Appalachian Trail branches off, continuing northward through Worthington State Forest and the National Recreation Area. Here, I picked up the Dunnfield Hollow Trail, blazed in green. Further on, this trail branches off at the point where the Blue Dot Trail begins. (The Dunnfield Hollow Trail continues east for four miles to Sunfish Pond. This is a flatter alternative that skirts Tammany, but I wanted to conquer the mountain.)

The Blue Dot Trail is rocky and appears, at times, to go straight up, like a long flight of stairs. As you ascend, maples give way to oaks. Taking my time, I stopped to sit on a log and be cooled by the breeze. Birds chirped. A lizard gamboled by. Later, I encountered two deer, their auburn coats glowing in the speckled sunshine. I spotted ants dancing on the rocks. Fellow hikers, all heading down the mountain, smiled and said hello.

I finally reached a blissfully flat ridgeline, a fire road at the top of the mountain. (The ridgeline is rocky and covered with grass, so step carefully when it is damp.) At the end of the Blue Dot Trail, I arrived at the much-photographed Indian Head scenic view. From Indian Head—named for its stony profile, said to resemble Chief Tammany of the Lenape tribe—you can see Mount Tammany’s Pennsylvania counterpart, Mount Minsi, a craggy, 1,461-foot peak looming on the other side of the Delaware.

The view was radiant with autumn colors. Below me, the green river shimmered in the warm afternoon sun. A hawk made his rounds, sweeping through the gorge with the other big birds, pausing in their southward migration.

After taking in the view for awhile, I started down the mountain on the Red Dot Trail. No more than 100 or 200 feet below the summit, I lost my balance, tripped, and smacked, face-first, into one of the trail’s big, round rocks—Shawangunk conglomerate, according to the guidebooks.

My head hit the rock, or rocks, in no fewer than five places, opening bloody gashes above my left eyebrow and on my chin. A front tooth was chipped in half. Dazed, I collected my water bottle and map and gingerly continued downhill.

I’d left my iPhone in my car because I wanted some solitude, but it would have come in handy had my injuries been worse. About two-thirds of the way down, a break in the trees afforded another brilliant view of the river and Mount Minsi but, still stinging from the fall, I just wanted to get to my car.

I will return to Mount Tammany. It’s a good hike—and safe, if you are properly prepared. Wear strong hiking shoes or boots. Carry lots of water, even on cool days. Research the best routes; the hike should take three to four hours. And don’t go alone. You will have more fun.

David Caldwell writes about sports and outdoor recreation for New Jersey Monthly. Generally, he is more careful.

Click here to read about an Irish Song and Dance Festival at the Mohican Outdoor Center.
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  1. Lou_P

    Wonderful hike! David was unlucky and just about anybody who has the will to climb the height of the empire state building over the course of a mile can do this hike. Spring is great for Dunnfield Creek in full flow, autumn is great for the fall foliage views from the summit. Weekends can be terribly crowded.