We’d made it to the top of Wawayanda Mountain and found a spot for lunch on a cliff of sand-colored boulders called Pinwheel’s Vista. The sun-splashed, wind-cooled panorama of farms and rolling, tree-lined hills of northwestern New Jersey was payoff for the sweaty climb up the mountain. A turkey vulture patrolled the trees below. Maybe he sniffed my turkey sandwich.
Our small group had reached Pinwheel’s Vista on a detour off the 73-mile portion of the Appalachian Trail that runs through New Jersey. The Garden State’s stretch of the 2,175-mile trail, which runs from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Katahdin in Maine, is a gorgeous place to walk—particularly in the fall, when the foliage adds to an already rewarding experience.
“So many people hiking into New Jersey can’t get over the fact that there’s no turnpike exit here,” says James Wright, a Stockholm resident and retiree who is part of an all-volunteer corps that keeps New Jersey’s portion of the trail pristine and walkable.
Wright laughs. The Appalachian Trail is about as far from the New Jersey Turnpike as you can get and still be in the state. The well-worn path leads hikers through mountains and meadows and woods, with “uphillers” yielding politely to “downhillers” (because downhillers tend to move with more momentum).
It takes three to four days to hike Jersey’s section of the AT, but it can be savored for an afternoon or a weekend. The trail enters the state from Pennsylvania at the Delaware Water Gap, off Interstate 80, and snakes to the northeast, running parallel to the Delaware River, before it angles to the east at High Point State Park, then moves southeast along the New York State border. It enters New York near the western edge of Greenwood Lake.
I had asked Wright and Jim Gregoire, who runs an investment-management firm in Millburn when he is not overseeing maintenance of an 18-mile stretch of the trail, to suggest a one-day hike that would be enjoyable in the fall, when the AT is less congested. They picked a seven-mile hike at the eastern end of the New Jersey stretch, where the trail skirts the New York border. Here the topography is varied and the crowds lighter than the western part of the Jersey trail, near the Water Gap.
Gregoire and Wright accompanied my girlfriend, Dena, and I on the trail as it meandered from our entry point at County Route 517, about two miles north of the Sussex County town of Vernon, and headed east to Wawayanda State Park. Our trek took about six hours. In addition to climbing Wawayanda, we traversed a marsh on a boardwalk-like structure, crossed a river and a creek, and passed through woodland with lush ground cover.
Although it is possible to hike long distances on the trail—even in New Jersey—without seeing a house or car (or, for that matter, another person), the AT is easily accessible from public roads and divisible into short, out-and-back jaunts. On the stretch we covered, there were four places to park virtually next to the trail, including a parking area near Wawayanda Mountain. We were instructed to leave our car on the shoulder of Route 517 near a sign with a stick figure of a hiker.
Dena and I were to rendezvous with Gregoire and Wright near the one-mile boardwalk. The structure, a five-year project completed in 2002, cuts through a swamp filled with cattails. Mossy turtles perch on rocks. “It has a different appearance every season,” Gregoire says.
A wooden footbridge crosses the Pochuck Quagmire, the boardwalk stops, and the path turns to gravel. The trail here is flat and pleasant: many hikers are senior citizens, Wright says, and some hikers walk dogs. (The dogs must be kept on six-foot leashes.) Passersby nod and say hello. Honeybees flit among flowers.
Even without a guide, it’s not hard to follow the trail. Trees along the way are marked with a blaze of white paint. “When I hiked the AT, I didn’t even bother buying a map,” says Wright, who covered the entire trail just days after retiring from Sussex County Community College in 2002.
Not far from the intersection of Route 94, we crossed a set of railroad tracks and an active cow pasture on puncheons—long timbers placed flat on the ground. A couple of the puncheons, placed there two years ago, are covered with manure, but it seems to be a better option than trekking through a soupy field dotted with cow pies.
Wawayanda Mountain was next. From its base (in a parking lot off Route 94), the mountain does not seem like much more than a big hill. But a thick coat of deciduous trees masks the challenging climb.
We entered the woods at the bottom of the mountain, and large, greenish boulders come into view. At this point, the Wawayanda portion of the trail, cut by the New York/New Jersey Trail Conference and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy about twenty years ago, traipses around the boulders, but the steady ascent, even on a cool morning, left me sweaty and breathing hard. Wright, who used two hiking poles, seemed less stressed.
Wright also brought along a handsaw and a lopper in his backpack. As one who maintains the trail, he is responsible for making sure it is clear of large fallen trees. After sawing through the trunk of a dead tree, Wright and Gregoire haul it to the side of the trail, then drop it to the ground.
“A certain number of stumps we want, to keep the bikers from coming in,” Gregoire says.
According to Hiking the Jersey Highlands, a guidebook published by the NYNJ-TC and written by an 80-year-old hiker from Denville named George Petty, the ascent of Wawayanda from Route 94 is only about 1.2 miles. It felt much longer than that. We took a breather as a young father, bearded and hearty, briskly passed us, his daughter perched on his shoulders.
Finally, we made it to the loop that leads to Pinwheel’s Vista. It was a cloudless day, which meant we could see the monument at High Point (so named because it is the highest point in New Jersey), about 20 miles to the west. Vernon Valley sprawled in front of us, framed by Hamburg Mountain to our left and the Shawangunk and Catskill Mountains to the right.
“A rustling in the leaves on the sheltered side of the cliff may be a rufous-sided tow-hee scratching for tidbits,” Glenn Scherer writes in Nature Walks in New Jersey, a guide published by the Appalachian Mountain Club. “Or it might be a chipmunk. Or a black bear. Sun-drenched cliffs also evoke the possibility of a rattlesnake, though those creatures are rare here.”
Hiking experts say the best way to act near bears, which live in dens in the general area of the trail, is simply to keep walking; they are not interested in humans as much as they are interested in the food they might be carrying. That is why overnight hikers hang their food on a high branch or put it in a steel bear box at one of the shelters on the trail.
“Don’t put a Snickers bar in your sleeping bag, because they’ll probably find it,” says John Luthy, the supervisor of the AT’s Mid-Atlantic office in Boiling Springs, Pennsylvania.
Continuing down the mountain, we headed east, through the woods, past wild blueberry bushes, then a clearing of hemlock stumps that is slowly adopting new flora and fauna.
Gregoire, a New Hampshire native who lives in Watchung Hills, was a 46-year-old road runner when he first took to the trail in 1994. As he recalls, “The knees gave out, and I couldn’t do road running any more. I had to do something to stay in shape. I just started doing longer and longer hikes, then I’d do overnights on the trail.” He often hikes alone, but he meets people on the way.
One of the pleasures of hiking the AT is meeting “thru-hikers”—those who make the entire trek from Maine to Georgia. But few thru-hikers traverse New Jersey in autumn. Most start in Georgia in March or early April and tend to pass through Jersey in July, Wright says. South-bounders, who start in Maine, head through later.
We took a short detour on a side trail, shrouded with brambles, which led to a pond populated with beavers. We meandered while trying to get back to the main trail, walking along a leafy ridge that eventually led to a wooden footbridge on the trail across a creek. If you wander off the AT, Gregoire says, try to retrace your steps back to the last white blaze you saw.
Gregoire and Wright often paused to look at small treasures, such as wildflowers and evidence of animals sharing the trail. At one point, Gregoire found a handful of bluejay feathers, but no carcass. Perhaps an owl had swooped from the limbs above to snatch the jay, he guessed.
Before we crossed Barrett Road, where there were more places to park, we spotted a milk crate on the ground with several gallon jugs of spring water—probably placed there by a local resident. I brought more than a quart of water in my backpack but, some five miles into our journey, we were running low. There was a container with paper to scribble a thank-you note.
Most veterans bring water filters or iodine pills in their backpacks to treat creek water, but the best bet is to carry your own. As Luthy says of contaminated water, “That’ll end your hike pretty quickly.” Gregoire carried a plastic water bag in his pack with a long tube he could put to his mouth as he walked. Keeping the load light, and being able to stay on the move, really helps.
Gregoire said we only had about two more miles until we reached his parked car at Wawayanda Lake, but the first half-mile was a long incline that left my quadriceps burning and was as tough as climbing the mountain. I’d worn two pairs of athletic socks with my Nikes, so I was not suffering from blisters, but my feet and ankles were starting to ache.
We crossed the Double Kill, a serene, forest-green brook, on an iron bridge built in the 1890s but no longer used for automobile traffic. (The “2” on the two-ton-weight-limit sign was scratched out.) We followed Wawayanda Road, a dirt path, for a while until we found a short detour to the Wawayanda shelter.
The shelter, which is free of charge and is open on a first-come, first-served basis, is not exactly a Marriott: it is a sturdy wood structure about three feet off the ground, with a sloping roof. Open at one end, its primary purpose is to keep hikers dry and out of the wind. At the edge of the shelter is a picnic table and about twenty feet away, a bear box. (At first I thought they were calling it a “beer box,” which sounded good at this point of our hike.)
Inside the shelter is a notebook, in a quart-size plastic bag, and a pen. Overnight visitors are encouraged to write messages. (Cellphones, Gregoire says, work from a large portion of the AT, including the New Jersey stretch.)
Just offsite, there was a privy—a new and handsome outhouse—that had been put there in the spring. Hikers are used to roughing it, but privies are welcome sights. They certainly beat digging holes in the ground. From here, the Wawayanda State Park office is less than a half-mile away, and, just beyond that, a big lake with a big beach, which officially closes after Labor Day.
That was the end of the road for us. The trail went on, crossing Warwick Turnpike and continuing for another five miles before hitting Greenwood Lake, turning north and entering New York—another good day’s hike, Gregoire said, or part of a weekend hike when coupled with the route we had just completed.
The car ride back to where we started, even though it bent around Wawayanda Mountain, took only about 15 minutes. But we’d conquered a mountain on foot, and gotten much closer to nature than possible from the front seat of a car.
David Caldwell profiled Kenny Britt in the September issue of New Jersey Monthly. He lives in Maplewood.
Click on the links below to read our Fall Day Trips stories:
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