Get Lost in South Mountain Reservation

Put on your walking shoes and hike to Hemlock Falls, a 25-foot-high cascade in the heart of the 2,110-acre wooded oasis.

Two hikers at South Mountain Reservation
Explore South Mountain Reservation's rocky trails and shady inclines this autumn. Photo by Laura Baer

South Mountain Reservation is a great place to get lost. And chances are, you will. The extensive trail system in this 2,110-acre wooded oasis is poorly marked, and the printed maps aren’t much help. A GPS app like AllTrails is essential to avoid wrong turns. Needless to say, my hiking partner and I did not heed that advice.

No worries. South Mountain banks up against the suburban communities of Millburn, Maplewood, West Orange and South Orange, and hikers are never far from civilization (and occasional vehicle noise). Finding your way back to the entrance where you parked? That can be a challenge.

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The Essex County park system began the decades-long process of assembling land for the reserve in the 1890s. Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps workers built much of the park’s infrastructure, including trails and stone bridges, based on a design by the Olmsted Brothers, sons of the famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead,

We started our hike on the east side of the reserve, parking at the dog park and sculpture garden off Crest Drive. Catching the red-blazed trail, we headed north toward Hemlock Falls, a favorite destination in the heart of the park.

On this late-October weekday, the trail was moderately trafficked. Every hiker seemed to have a different theory about how best to reach the falls. Conceivably, all were correct. We followed the red blazes straight through a number of intersections, crossed a stone bridge, then turned left where the red trail seemed to end.

Walking west now, our trail paralleled South Orange Avenue, which slices through the park’s midsection. Soon, Hemlock Falls came into view. Following a line of fellow hikers, we made our way down a tricky section of the yellow-blazed Lenape Trail, carefully navigating a narrow, slippery ledge—the most treacherous part of our otherwise moderate hike.

Finally, we had reached the broad, flat area at the base of  the 25-foot-high falls. The falls are typically modest in autumn; springtime hikers can expect a more robust cascade.

A steep slate stairway to the left leads to an overlook above the falls. After taking in that view, we returned to the Lenape Trail at the base of the stairway and headed away from the falls, passing the smaller Hubble Falls. At this point we were walking south on what we thought would be an easy loop back to our parking area.

At an unmarked intersection, the Lenape Trail headed west. We forked off to the south on what proved to be the River Trail, a wide path along the west branch of the Rahway River. We followed the river for a while; then, knowing we needed to head east, we turned left on what we guessed to be the unmarked Bear Lane Trail. This trail took us on a steep uphill trek that gave way to a narrow downhill section.

With little signage to rely on, we sought directions to the dog park from passing hikers. Again, there were multiple opinions. We marched on. Although the route wasn’t exactly as planned, we finally recognized our starting point on the red trail and retraced our steps to the car.

In all, we took 11,600 steps—a walk of about 5 miles. Longer hikes to Hemlock Falls start at the south end of the reservation. For a shorter hike, park at Tulip Springs and cross the bridge over South Orange Avenue. This brings you to the top of the falls.

Trails throughout the park tend to be rocky; a good pair of walking shoes or hiking boots is essential. Leashed dogs are welcome. There are no comfort stations once you leave the parking areas.

Other South Mountain Reservation attractions at the park’s northern end include the Turtle Back Zoo, a miniature golf course, an expansive playground area, paddleboat rentals and the 1.7-mile walkway around Orange Reservoir. Yes, these attractions get crowded, especially on weekends, but it’s hard to argue with the park’s easy access in the heart of North Jersey.

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