Hiking the Appalachian Trail in New Jersey
By Linda Arntzenius
Those in the know refer to it simply as the “AT.” In New Jersey it heads northeast along the highest ridges of the Kittatinny Mountains through Sussex and Warren counties and on through the Pochuck Valley into New York State. Parts of it can be discovered in High Point State Park, Stokes Forest State Park and the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area.
According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy the trails in New Jersey are “fair to moderate” offering stunning views for those, like me, who are out to enjoy a good walk in the fresh air as well as “through-hikers” making their way along the entire length of the trail.
The Appalachian Mountain Club’s Mohican Outdoor Center above Blairstown is a frequent stop for through-hikers and that’s where I chose to start from. A number of satisfying day-hikes can be had on circular routes from various access points in the area. The Center is less than two hours by car from Princeton up Route 206 and west on Route 94—take Gaisler Road then turn left and then right onto Camp Road. The Center is reached by an unpaved track, which immediately excites a sense of anticipation for a day in the great outdoors—the scent of the air promising a retreat from worldly care.
Located in the 70,000 acre Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, the Center has a small visitor center, self-service rental cabins, a mountain lodge with bunk style accommodation, tent campsites, and a boathouse with a large deck overlooking Catfish Pond. It’s a great base from which to find the AT.
After checking out the Visitor Center with its welcoming stone fireplace, restrooms and a small shop with trail supplies, shirts and snow shoes, I head for Catfish Pond, where the clear shallow waters invite kayakers and canoers. I make a mental note for the future: kayaks and canoes can be hired right here. This eastern side of the lake boasts a flat trail with the rather intimidating name of “Rattlesnake Swamp Trail.” The timber rattlesnake, I’m told, is endangered in New Jersey and the far side of the lake is out of bounds because they make their dens there. This much misunderstood shy animal has been pushed to the brink of extinction in New Jersey and while its venom is fatal, attacks on humans are virtually unheard of. To its credit, it preys on small rodents, thereby reducing the number of ticks that carry Lymes Disease.
From Catfish Pond, a short part of Rattlesnake Swamp Trail cuts off toward the AT and I head up a steep and stony path marked with orange painted blazes toward a scenic view-point high above Blairstown. Thanks to the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC), the trails are well-marked with signposts at trail heads and along the way. It’s easy to know when you arrive at the AT because of the two by six inch white blazes on trees and rocks. Two blazes, I discover, one above the other, show that the trail is changing direction. Incidentally, there are approximately 165,000 blazes along the Appalachian Trail—just one snippet of trail trivia picked up for browsing numerous trail-related websites.
From here I can either follow the trail north to Catfish Fire Tower at 1565 feet and then back through the swamp to my starting point at the Mohican Outdoor Center (MOC) or take the AT south and detour onto the Coppermine trail, which crosses a wooden bridge in a hemlock ravine and follows a stream past several old mine shafts on its way to Old Mine Road running alongside the Delaware. I choose the latter but it’s just one of numerous options according to how much time (and energy) you have. And if you want to take in the entire NJ section of the AT in a couple of days, you can make use of camping spots en route or provided by the AMC.
Since the path can be pretty rugged here, a pair of good hiking boots and thick socks are recommended. Over the course of its journey through New Jersey, the AT rises from around 350 to 1,685 feet so if you want to walk downhill most of the time, try hiking north to south. An easy scenic downhill route can be had by driving a mile south from Millbrook Village on Route 602. Park by the gated road on the west side of the road to pick up AT, which from here climbs just 300 feet in a mile for those great views at the Catfish Fire Tower.
Hike 100 Miles Challenge
As part of its 2016 centennial celebrations, the National Park Service has issued a challenge to outdoor lovers to hike 100 miles of the Appalachian Trail before the end of the year. Since the idea is to encourage outdoor activity and promote the nation’s parks, the rules stipulate that not every inch of those 100 miles must be on the AT, but at least one mile must be. Those who complete the challenge by the end of the year win a decal sticker and considerable bragging rights. Participants are encouraged to share photos and stories on the Appalachian National Scenic Trail Facebook page, and to tag them with #Hike100AT!
On my short hike, I’ll chalk up just about five miles, so I have a considerable way to go and a lot of pleasant rambling to look forward to. As with any day hike, I’ve brought along water and a packed lunch so that I can stop and enjoy the scenery. Birds of prey including hawks and eagles are a familiar sight riding the thermals along the ridge so I’m also equipped with binoculars and camera. And, not forgetting that northern New Jersey is home to many black bears, I’ve boned up on wildlife safety and made sure that I fend off deer ticks by wearing a long sleeved shirt tucked into light-colored long pants tucked into my socks. Not the prettiest outfit in which to encounter a handful of fellow hikers this early in the year, but then they don’t look much better. During the summer, however, this world-famous trail can get pretty crowded, especially on weekends.
A Bit of History
Private citizens came up with the plan for the Appalachian Trail and created it in stages from 1921 until 1937. Today, it’s managed by the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, Appalachian Trail Conservancy and a number of state agencies, not to mention thousands of volunteers.
The first person to hike its entire length was the Harvard-trained Maine lawyer and outdoors enthusiast Myron Haliburton Avery (1899-1952) who described its many facets as: “Remote for detachment, narrow for chosen company, winding for leisure, lonely for contemplation, it beckons not merely north and south but upward to the body, mind and soul of man.” Maine’s Avery Peak in Maine is named in his honor.
In principle, the AT is open year-round but there can be seasonal weather-related closures. Access to the trail is free and open to all, but modest fees can be expected for overnight shelters or campsites. Many hikers on the New Jersey section combine a couple of short hikes and incorporate an overnight camp-out requiring a tent, sleeping bag, cooking utensils, and related accoutrements. The trail is especially beautiful during the autumn when the temperatures are also ideal for hiking.
Other good day hikes in New Jersey that take in the AT include High Point State Park and the High Point monument where there is a trail shelter for through-hikers and an observation platform with views all around. Maps peppered with evocative place names such as Sunrise Mountain, Culver’s Gap, Crigger Road, Blue Mountain Road, Kittattiny, Buttermilk Falls, and Crater Lake can be had (along with trail conditions and any other alerts) from Park ranger offices at High Point on Route 23 in Sussex, Stokes Forest on Route 206 in Branchville, and the National Park Service visitor center on Route 80 at the Water Gap in Warren County. Besides the AT, the maps show other local trails.
Appalachian Mountain Club
Founded in Boston in 1876 by Edward Pickering and 33 other outdoor enthusiasts, the Appalachian Mountain Club is the nation’s oldest outdoor recreation and conservation organization. It promotes the protection, enjoyment, and understanding of the mountains, forests, waters, and trails of America’s Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions and fosters activities such as hiking, paddling, cycling, and skiing.
With more than 100,000 members, advocates, and supporters, more than 16,000 volunteers, and over 450 full time and seasonal staff, it has 12 chapters including Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. The New York-North Jersey Chapter was the first, founded in 1912. Today it’s the second largest with more than 12,000 members and an office located inside New York City’s West Side YMCA right next to Central Park.
In addition to being a voice for land and riverway conservation, monitoring air quality, researching climate change, and working to protect alpine and forest ecosystems, the AMC organizes more than 8,000 trips a year and maintains lodges, huts, camps, shelters and campgrounds for the use of its members. It also maintains more than 1,800 miles of trails throughout the Northeast, including nearly 350 miles of the Appalachian Trail in five states.
For More Information:
For more information on The Appalachian National Scenic Trail, AT Hike 100 Challenge, P.O. Box 50, Harpers Ferry, WV 25425. Email to AT_hike100@nps.gov and share A.T. Hike100 challenge photos and stories on the Appalachian National Scenic Trail Facebook page, and tag your photos with #Hike100AT.
The AMC NY-NoJ Chapter Office: 212.986.1430; http://www.amc-ny.org/about-amc/
Kittattiny Visitor Center (opens in May): 570.426.2452
The official AMC Guide to the Appalachian Trail in New York and New Jersey by Daniel D. Chazin is now in its sixteenth edition.