Even though summer is behind us, the desire to be out in nature near water hasn’t subsided.
This fall, visit New Jersey’s breathtaking waterfalls, which are mainly found in the northern part of the state, where elevations are greater.
The majestic Great Falls in Paterson has the highest profile as New Jersey’s largest waterfall by volume and its newest national park (since 2011); Buttermilk Falls, in the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, is the state’s tallest at 85 feet.
But scores of lesser-known natural waterfalls dot the landscape, along with a few created by dams; these engineering marvels are arguably no less stunning.
Any of these falls would be the start of a beautiful autumn day trip.
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Apshawa Preserve, West Milford
If you’re seeking a waterfall destination that doesn’t require advanced hiking skills, Apshawa, in the heart of northern New Jersey’s Highlands region, is a top choice. The falls are located within the 576-acre Apshawa Preserve, accessible via a beginner-level hike along 3.5 miles of mostly flat trails (marked with blue blazes) through a lovely forest of oak and sugar-maple trees. The cascade comes from Apshawa Brook, a tributary of the Pequannock River that spills over a wide dam 40 feet high; the visible drop averages a healthy 25 feet, depending on the water level in the brook below.
From above the falls, a few dozen feet back along the trail, the widening brook creates an optical illusion similar to an infinity pool, a phenomenon common on dammed waterways. Other interesting features worth noting inside the preserve, which is open year-round and jointly managed by the New Jersey Conservation Foundation and Passaic County, are the ruins of several old stone buildings from a century-old water collection/purification project, and a half-dozen enormous metal water tanks nearby, which seem frozen in time. The preserve is located at 4 Northwood Drive (off Macopin Road) in West Milford. Park in the small lot, enter through a gate in the deer-proof fence, and hit the blue trail. Seeing a set of natural falls in the preserve requires a much steeper hike. (Apshawa means “upon the mountain” in Lenape.) Take the orange trail where it forks left off the blue, then right at its junction with the green trail, and descend via a series of switchbacks that hug the brook before it reaches the dam.
Van Campens Glen
Hardwick Township, Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area
At this Warren County destination, considered one of New Jersey’s loveliest outdoor spots, a pair of waterfalls bookends a 2.2-mile out-and-back hike along Van Campens Brook. Take Old Mine Road past the upper Van Campens parking lot (right side of the road) to the lower lot (left side). Follow the path to wooden steps ending at a railed overlook above the first set of falls. Work your way upstream via the trail until you come to a fork. Take a left away from the water, descend another set of stairs, cross the pedestrian bridge over the brook, and head uphill again for a few minutes, emerging at a rocky beach. Yet more steps run adjacent to the ravine surrounding the steep upper falls, the crown jewel of Van Campens Glen, which is punctuated by a series of pools. (Swimming is strictly prohibited; Turtle Beach, the only legal swimming hole on the Water Gap’s New Jersey side, is 3.5 miles west along Old Mine Road.) Then reverse your steps to complete the trip. Or, if you prefer a mostly downhill hike—starting with the more dramatic waterfall—park in the upper lot, cross Old Mine Road to the clearly marked trailhead, and head across a bridge to the top of the falls. Both parking areas have bathrooms. Also nearby: Millbrook Village, a living-history site operated by volunteers. Old Mine Road is closed in the winter.
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Township of Little Falls
So named to distinguish itself from Paterson’s Great Falls, Little Falls is really not that little. Stunning in its own right, Little Falls has a rich history that underscores the complex interplay of nature and commerce in the eponymous community along the Passaic River. The waterfall was created by the construction of Beatties Dam in the 1840s by a carpet manufacturer in need of power for a nearby mill. It remains the anchor of the township, easily visible from the bridge over Union Boulevard. Or walk along the Morris Canal greenway, accessible from Main Street, for a view of the falls from below. (The canal itself ran through a huge stone aqueduct above the falls that was demolished in the 1920s.) The current dam, a concrete structure dating to 1932, produces a substantial cascade that fueled far more than a floor-coverings factory: Water-flow control and flood prevention had an enormous impact on real estate values. The Beattie Carpet Mill closed in 1982, long after its namesake had become the richest man in Passaic County. But some buildings remain, converted into a luxury condominium complex called the Mill at Little Falls. Parking there is for residents; Montclair Avenue, a side street parallel to Union Boulevard, has plenty of spots to leave your car.
Laurel Falls and Waterfalls at Dunnfield Creek
Worthington State Forest
South and slightly west of Van Campens Glen, and just half a mile from Turtle Beach, waterfall-rich Worthington State Forest is a can’t-miss for cascade seekers. The forest’s tallest falls, Laurel, comprise three separate sections of a stream that runs from Sunfish Pond directly into the Delaware River. The 41-acre rock-basin lake atop Kittatinny Ridge boasts multiple spectacular scenic overlooks and is considered one of New Jersey’s seven natural wonders, carved by glacial forces during the last ice age. Laurel’s middle and lower falls are the most impressive, though like all waterfalls, their volume is dependent on recent rainstorms. Leave your car at the Douglas Trail parking lot and cross Old Mine Road; the lower section is accessible by a short climb up an unmarked path directly opposite the lot. Swimming is prohibited in the forest. The Douglas Trail parking lot is 4 miles from the last exit off Route 80 West (Millbrook/Flatbrookville).
Visitors to Worthington should not miss the Dunnfield Creek Natural Area and its impressive series of falls. Descending from the southern end of Sunfish Pond, the Dunnfield waterway has a few large drops and several smaller ones. Take the Dunnfield Creek Trail (moderately steep and marked by light-green blazes) straight up to the pond to see them all. Or get your waterfall fix while notching an Appalachian Trail experience on the portion of the storied trail, in a dense forest of mature hemlock and other hardwoods, that weaves its way through the forest. Follow the Appalachian Trail’s white blazes until you reach a fork, then bear right to pick up the Dunnfield Creek Trail. The first set of falls is less than a mile from the Tammany parking area, which sits just east of the Millbrook/Flatbrookville exit. The Tammany lot leads right to the Dunnfield Creek Natural Area, with both trailheads clearly marked.
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High Bridge, Hunterdon County
A dam that Preservation New Jersey once listed among the state’s most threatened historic sites is the source of a popular waterfall destination in Hunterdon County. The falls from the stone spillway over the Raritan River’s South Branch, reconstructed a decade ago, produce a breathtaking spray just a mile from downtown High Bridge. Like the dam that forms Apshawa Falls, the majority of 42-foot-high Lake Solitude Dam rises above the lake it created, making for a 25-foot cascade even when the water level is particularly high. Take in the sights from the observation deck above the dam. The levee was originally built to furnish electric power for the Taylor-Wharton Iron and Steel Company, which produced munitions for American forces from Revolutionary times through the early 1970s; some officials hope to see it revived as a hydroelectric plant. Off River Road/Route 639, the parking lot holds only a half-dozen cars.
Lockatong Wildlife Management Area, Stockton
Deep in Hunterdon County, this wildlife preserve boasts a deep pool fed by a multi-tiered waterfall that is easily accessible from the road. Park in the Lockatong WMA lot off Route 519/Hog Hollow Road and take the trail into the woods to the left of the lot (not the one through tall grass to the right). There’s no map at the trailhead, but a 25-minute walk along the mostly flat path ends at the best view of the main drop, 10 feet above a cliff, and several smaller ones along the same ridge. Meander upstream along Lockatong Creek and you’ll see a few more pretty falls. The charming village of Frenchtown is 10 miles north of the preserve, and worth visiting after you are finished enjoying nature.
Pamela Weber-Leaf has covered the environment beat at two daily newspapers. She was formerly an environmental lawyer.
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