Watchung Reservation is a Peaceful Fall Day Trip

Sandwiched between Routes 22 and 78 in Union County, Watchung Reservation offers a 2,000-acre respite from the bustle of nearby roadways and townships.

Beautiful fall foliage at Watchung Reservation.

The famed Olmsted brothers designed the Watchung Reservation in 1921. Photo by Natalie Chitwood

Sandwiched between Routes 22 and 78 in Union County, Watchung Reservation offers a 2,000-acre respite from the bustle of those busy roadways and the townships beyond.

The famed Olmsted brothers—renowned for New York City’s Central Park, New Jersey’s South Mountain Reservation, and Verona, High Point and Branch Brook parks—designed the reservation in 1921. The land encompasses the ridges of the First Watchung and Second Watchung mountains. These volcanic-basalt uplifts provide views of the New York City skyline, as well as Newark and Jersey City. Blue Brook flows through the center of the reservation; a dam at the brook’s eastern end creates Lake Surprise. In the fall, maple and beech trees offer pops of red and gold amid the reservation’s evergreens.

[RELATED: The Best Fall Day Trips in New Jersey]

The reservation is home to the county-owned Watchung Stables, located in the east end of the park on land cleared in the 1950s for a Nike missile base, part of our nation’s East Coast line of defense. The Trailside Nature & Science Center, dating to 1941, is the oldest such facility in the state. Here, you’ll find 4,500 square feet of exhibits on New Jersey’s history, ecology and geology.

Miles of hiking trails crisscross the reservation; the pink-blazed, 6-mile History Trail is the most popular and comprehensive trek, passing many notable historic and geological sites. The trail begins and ends at the Nature & Science Center parking lot. Allow up to three hours for a leisurely stroll.

Friends admire Lake Surprise at Watchung Reservation.

Pals Karishma Jagad of Wayne and Raven McAndrew of Montclair revel in the beauty of Lake Surprise. Photo by Natalie Chitwood

From the parking lot, follow the History Trail clockwise into the woods, making sure to grab a map and brochure at the signpost along the road. You’ll cross several small, wooden bridges before beginning to parallel a gorge that grows deeper as you move along. Here, runner Crissa Thurman of Glen Ridge stopped with her pugs, Gus and Clair, to marvel at the depth of the gorge. “You just don’t expect to see a gorge like this cutting through the middle of northern New Jersey,” she remarked.

Soon, you’ll pass a marker at the site of a Revolutionary War-era copper mine. As the History Trail begins to parallel Blue Brook, you’ll see the ruins of the village of Feltville on the ridge above; don’t worry, you’ll get there later. For now, follow the trail past the sites of the Feltville paper mill and Hermit’s Pond, then down a set of wooden steps to the sites of the Drake farmhouse and barn.

For about a mile, the trail parallels Route 78 and Glenside Avenue; noise barriers keep the din of the traffic off the trail. About halfway along this stretch, the History Trail crosses Cataract Hollow Road. Take a right down the road to explore the Masker’s Barn, church and cemetery, and what remains of eight other buildings of Feltville, a former mill town where 175 people lived in 1850.

Return to the top of the road and follow the pink blazes back into the woods. You’ll pass the sites of a former Boy Scout camp and cornfield before reaching Lake Surprise. Cross the bridge, then follow the evergreen- and rhododendron-lined trail along the southeastern edge of the lake, past historic markers for the Lake Surprise boathouse and bathhouse. Here, friends Karishma Jagad of Wayne and Raven McAndrew of Montclair stopped for pictures of the fall foliage at the water’s edge. “We’ve just recently begun hiking, and this was a great way to get out and enjoy a beautiful fall day,” McAndrew says.

The pink trail climbs away from the lake, past the site of the Badgley House to New Providence Road. Turn left and head uphill. This takes you back to the Nature & Science Center parking area.

Once you’ve experienced the History Trail, you can try other routes through the reservation. There are plenty of options, from as short as 1 mile to as long as 11. And if you’ve worked up an appetite, make a post-hike stop at Bovella’s Bakery Café, Mazzella’s Gourmet Market or the Mountainside Deli, all in Mountainside, just minutes from the reservation. If you stop pre-hike, you can also have sandwiches packed to go for a picnic lunch along Lake Surprise.

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