So last weekend’s hike was one of the best I’ve experienced in New Jersey as far as great views were concerned. I’d chosen it because NJHiking.com had selected it as one of the state’s best hikes for viewing the fall foliage. It was to be my daughter Lesley’s birthday hike in what’s becoming something of a tradition. Originally planned for the previous weekend, the high winds and wet conditions at the time caused us to postpone it for another week, which was a pity, I felt, because it seemed at that time the fall colors were at their peak. However the week’s delay, as it turned out, had only slightly diminished their beauty.
Our small group included myself, Lesley and son-in-law, Keith. Ever since a bear attacked and killed a student in this very area in 2014 I’ve tended to hike as part of a larger group believing there’s safety in numbers. Although that attack was seen as an extreme aberration, you have it in the back of your mind that you’re quite vulnerable out alone in the woods. But I’m determined not to let anxiety limit my enjoyment of the outdoors and I’ve recently started venturing out again solo or in small groups. The large group hike is fine and comfortable. All you have to do is follow the leader. But to me it’s more of a challenge and more of an accomplishment at the end of the hike knowing you got yourself around through your own navigation and decision making. The mental application can be just as rewarding as the physical.
The start of the hike is a real eye opener, especially this early on the morning after one of my regular Friday nights at the pub. Right out of the parking lot you’re into a steep 600 ft climb on the State Line Trail (blue blazes) up through the woods. After about a mile you leave the trees and emerge on to the ridge to immediately face a spectacular view out across Greenwood Lake, a long narrow body of water which extends all the way from Passaic County New Jersey up into New York State. We hang out on the ridge for a while taking in the views (the NYC skyline can be seen in the distance) and catching our breath from the climb. The sky has a thin cloud veneer which infuses the scene with a bright silvery glow, helping to banish any remaining traces of early morning sluggishness.
We continue along the ridge on the Ernest Walker Trail (yellow blazes) – Hey! That’s me: an earnest walker! It’s an easy rocky path overlooking the lake and ends in a turn back into the woods, leading to Surprise Lake which suddenly appears before us in an opening in the trees. Thanks to my printed directions there was no great surprise in arriving at it, other than coming across a couple of tents pitched on some high ground to our right looking out across the water. Two couples are up and about preparing breakfast. A young woman, with her sleeping bag still wrapped around her, exchanges a few words with us. She seems quite bohemian and laid back, fitting the scene perfectly.
Further on we come to a rock face which involves a satisfying scramble upward to another ridge with more spectacular views. With the sun now clear in the sky we see the tree covered landscape in all its fall glory. New York City can be picked out more distinctly than ever. Going on we pass the the Appalachian Trail heading south, but we head north following the yellow blazes. Most of this section of the hike is along the level, smooth rock of the Bearfort Ridge so it’s easy walking, a welcome relief from the forest paths which are studded with irregular rocks and boulders. Along here we stop for lunch, cheese sandwiches for Lesley and Keith, plain boring old peanut butter on whole wheat bread for me (where’s the jelly, you may ask… sorry not for me!). It’s like eating cardboard but as a creature of habit I always find it somehow reassuring and believe it’s as good as anything for maintaining energy levels. We share a few squares of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk chocolate for good measure before getting going again.
At this point I’m acutely aware of muscle tightness in my inner thigh, so I shorten my stride somewhat for fear of pulling a muscle. It may have been due to my movements during some of the earlier rock scrambles. At my age, every little twinge causes some mental questioning. Could this be a long term problem? What if it causes an injury that inhibits my walking habit? How many more years or even months can I continue to hike? As I go on though, it eases up. I relax and get my mind back to focusing on the trail. But it’s a concern. Next April I’ll be embarking on my most challenging hike ever over a period of six days, and it’s essential that nothing diminishes my fitness.
Continuing along the ridge we’re blessed with other viewpoints looking out over the lake. At one of these points, someone has wedged a long straight branch between the rocks, at the top of which a ragged and frayed stars and stripes ripples in the wind. It strikes me as a perfect metaphor for the state of our country as we approach the end of this fearful and squalid presidential election campaign.
We come to the end of the Ernest Walker trail (the twinge in my leg has made me an even more earnest walker), and join the Appalachian Trail (white blazes) heading north, and soon come to to the New Jersey/New York state line which is marked clearly on the rock surface with remarkably fresh white paint. Of course we have to stop to take pictures of us straddling the border.
A little farther on, looming ahead as the trail veers to the right, is a large rock formation known as Prospect Rock which we leave the trail to ascend. Suddenly and dramatically, reaching the top, a stunning uninterrupted vista ravishes our vision, a bronze, yellow and orange carpet of trees glowing under the sun and reaching as far as the eye can see far north into New York State. We stand here for some time struggling to absorb the beauty of the view. At this moment it strikes me that, yes, life is indeed good!
Eventually we drag ourselves away, returning to the trail and descending a slanting rock face into a deep shadowy gully. Here in the gloom, it feels quite forbidding but there is something mysterious and alluring about it too, a combination of greenery and moisture laden rocks, among them black openings and crevices, perfect, it occurs to me, for the den of a discerning bear. But if there are any bears around today they’re keeping themselves very well hidden.
The gully soon opens out to an attractive wooded landscape. My printed directions tell me that here we will “rock-hop a stream with nice water cascades that will be heard before it’s seen.” But not today. The stream is as dry as a bone, testament to the lack of rain we’ve had throughout the summer and fall.
As we walk on we are soon faced with a towering rocky ridge high above us. Surely the trail does not take us up there… but yes, it does indeed. And so we scramble upward until we come to a vertical face which, conveniently and somewhat incongruously, has a series of metal rungs fused into the rock, a ladder leading to the top. Up we go, and when we reach the top, once again a glorious panorama is revealed to us, now looking east spanning Greenwood Lake and New York’s forested, gentle hills. Again we linger, aware of the immense privilege of being exposed to such beauty. And again it’s an effort to drag ourselves away.
This is as far into New York we will go today. We now have to retrace our steps along the Appalachian Trail back into New Jersey. We descend the “ladder,” scramble back down through the rocks to the valley below, across the non-existent stream and return to the mysterious bear gully at the foot of the rock face leading to Prospect Rock. Feeling quite fatigued now I suggest we take a break before what will be the day’s final climb. We sit in the shadows chatting and eating our granola bars, and then head upwards slowly making our way back into the sunlight above.
We return along the trail until we see the blue blazes of the State Line trail, the continuation of the trail we started out on 4 hours earlier. This will take us back to the parking lot. The path leading steeply downhill is slippery with fallen leaves. Now I use the one walking pole I have in my possession to give me the stability I need, such is the requirement of the older hiker, unlike my two youthful companions who follow behind heedlessly.
Soon we hear the noise of the traffic on the road by the parking lot, and the welcome sight of the lot’s portaloo. Here we are back to our starting point, more tired than I would normally be after a hike of 7-1/2 miles, the many steep rock scrambles having taken their toll. But I’m not alone in this, Lesley and Keith both are experiencing a similar tiredness. But for me, and clearly for the the both of them too, it’s a tiredness infused with contentment, a sense of accomplishment and deep relaxation.
What a fabulous hike it was! The scenery,the foliage, the varied trails and, yes, even the rock scrambles all combined to make this one of the best hikes I’ve experienced in New Jersey, and one I hope to revisit repeatedly in the future, notwithstanding my dodgy muscle twinges. And much to my delight, Lesley was more than satisfied with the birthday hike her old Dad had chosen for her.
Of course a day hiking is not complete without a couple of beers. And before we parted we ensconced ourselves for a short time in Nutley’s Cowan’s Public Bar, IPAs for Keith and me, pumpkin ale for Lesley. Cheers!!!