Happy Trails

Pilot the rescue dog peers out at the October sunrise at Segment 14 of the LHT. 

For the COVID-weary, the Lawrence Hopewell Trail Has Provided Relief

By Anne Levin | Photos by Sarah Emily Gilbert

 

The Great Blue Heron that frequents the Pole Farm at Segment 13 is captured before taking flight.

Four strategically placed counters keep track of foot and bicycle traffic along the Lawrence Hopewell Trail (LHT). In recent months, they have recorded a stunning statistic: a 205 percent jump in usage during the third quarter of 2020, compared to the same quarter a year before.

Clearly, the 22 miles that wind through scenic stretches of Lawrence and Hopewell townships have become a refuge from the COVID-19 pandemic. There are more joggers, walkers, cyclists, families, photographers, birdwatchers, wildlife observers, and naturalists making use of the trail than any other time in its 18-year history.

“We get emails from people saying the trail makes such a difference in their lives right now,” said Eleanor V. Horne, co-president of the nonprofit that oversees the LHT. “They tell us that getting on the trail makes them feel normal in this crazy time. They need to have that experience in nature, to have that feeling that all’s right with the world.

Evan Kaplowitz discovered the LHT after moving to the area from Philadelphia three years ago. His property, he was happy to learn, is right next to a section of the trail. “I work from home in corporate finance. I’m crunching numbers all day,” he said. “So sneaking away for an hour in the afternoon, and seeing people out there, has been really nice. It’s a way to get outside and reconnect with neighbors without having to worry about proximity. I can keep my distance. And it’s beautiful. I jog, and I have also taken my bike on the trail. Whatever your needs that day, there’s an area that calls to you.”

Lht Trail is wonderful for cyclists. (Courtesy of lhtrail.org)

For social worker Sarah Emily Gilbert, whose remarkable sunrise photographs are featured on the LHT website, early morning walks have been a lifesaver. “The trail has been my personal therapy during COVID times,” she wrote in a Q&A on the website. “It’s free, no appointment necessary, or mind-numbing waiting room music. I’m sold.”

The familiar hay bales at Caron Road Woods on Segment 5 rest in a November Sunrise.

The southern end of the trail is near Gilbert’s Lawrence Township home. Accompanied by her dog, Pilot, she started shooting photos with her cell phone after sustaining a concussion last May and having to curtail her daily run. “It was something I could do during a time when I was experiencing several barriers,” she wrote. “Now it’s become a hobby and a creative outlet that I hope will continue to be a part of my everyday life. Being an early riser with a penchant for an adventure, I was fortunate to discover several segments of the LHT close to my home. I walked, and walked, and walked some more. And guess what I found? So much beauty! I have returned to my running, but in addition to clocking miles and times, I’ve learned to stop, listen to the sounds, and photograph the grace that surrounds me.”

The idea for the Lawrence Hopewell Trail grew out of a commitment on the part of Bristol Myers Squibb (BMS) to get people outside and improve the quality of life for those living in the two townships and throughout Mercer County.

“We were looking for ways to give back to the community,” said Becky Taylor, who is co-president with Horne. Taylor was with BMS; Horne with Educational Testing Services (ETS), which soon joined the effort. “We wanted to say we appreciate being corporate residents,” Taylor said. “We had this idea of a biking and walking trail. What if we got together with government and non-government entities and had a group project where we all worked on the same thing, making it something tangible that people could enjoy?”

Dennis Davidson, who was with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, was among those invited to the initial meeting. He told Taylor and Horne, who had been introduced by former Lawrenceville Mayor Pam Mount, that establishment of a trail was typically something initiated by government.

“Dennis was very right about the fact that it would be an unusual approach to develop a trail,” said Horne. “We are the only situation in the country that I know of where a nonprofit organization is developing a complex, paved trail that crosses jurisdictions. And after 18 years of working on it, I think I understand why we are the only one. But it has turned out to be the right way for us to develop this trail. And here we are, 18 years later, still working on it.”

A bundle of flowers reach out to meet a Monarch butterfly at Mercer Meadows at Segment 13.

The Lawrence Hopewell Trail Corporation was formed in 2001 as an independent nonprofit. An all-volunteer board meets regularly to advocate and manage the 22-mile trail (20 miles are completed; two miles remain). The first section was built in 2004. There are 16 individual segments along the trail: Mt. Rose Distillery, Mt. Rose Preserve, Cleveland — Pretty Brook, ETS, Carson Road Woods, BMS — Lawrenceville, King’s Highway, Maidenhead Meadows, BMS — Princeton Pike, The Lawrenceville School, Lawrenceville Main Street, Village Park, Mercer Meadows — Pole Farm, Mercer Meadows — Rosedale, BMS — Hopewell, and The Watershed Institute. The LHT is the northeastern-most point of the Philadelphia-based system known as Circuit Trails, 850 miles of pathways that connect communities.

Financial and in-kind support for the LHT has come not only from BMS, ETS, Mercer County, and the Mercer County Park Commission, but also from Lawrence and Hopewell townships, the New Jersey Department of Transportation, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, The Watershed Institute, D&R Greenway Land Trust, The Lawrenceville School, Prism Capital Partners, Capital Health, and individual donors.

Last July, Mercer County opened a pedestrian bridge over the Stony Brook at Mercer Meadows, replacing a leg of the trail that formerly went through the Mercer County Equestrian Center with a much safer route. “The county’s decision to build that bridge says a lot,” said Horne. “It says there is a tremendous partnership there. That trail is so heavily used that it was worth the investment to make it safer. We are deeply indebted to [Mercer County Executive] Brian Hughes for being an incredible supporter. We also have a fabulous relationship with the Mercer County Park Commission. The LHT is not the only trail in Mercer Meadows, but it is the transportation spine.”

The LHT has several signature events, including the popular Full Moon Ride that allows joggers, walkers, bikers, or skaters the opportunity to log miles for a virtual trip to the moon. The Saturday Morning Walking Club continues during the pandemic, but “Trail or Treat” for Halloween 2020 was canceled.

“Giving the impacts COVID has had on the people of Lawrence and Hopewell and beyond, we have adjusted our approaches,” said Taylor. “We had 600 people come out for the Full Moon Ride. We have a really robust arts program where we challenge people to create art on the trail — paintings, photographs, or something made at home. We love hearing that what we are trying to do actually makes a difference in people’s lives. Yes, we wanted to build a trail. But we also wanted to enhance our community.”

Future visions include a bridge over Interstate 295 connecting north and south Lawrence Township. “It’s going to be pretty hard, but being hard has never stopped us,” said Horne. “We’re like the little engine that could. And we have a lot of support for it.”

Since the bridge over Stony Brook opened, the trail has been busy. “A new thing for us is that people are beginning to complain that too many people are using the trail,” said Horne. “They think of it as an experience where they can feel isolated, so they complain. But it makes me happy. It’s a good problem to have.”

Pedestrians and dogs enjoying the LHT. (Courtesy of lhtrail.org)