Over a dozen of us gathering together at around 9:00 a.m. this past Saturday to explore the first third of the Lenape Trail. Surprisingly, the Locust Grove parking area, which only accommodates about 20 cars was already filled to capacity at 8:30. But the Millburn train station’s parking lot had plenty of spaces and parking is free on the weekends.
That day there was some track work being done on the rails, so we waited for the arrival of the westbound train about fifteen minutes late. Once assembled we had a brief overview of the day ahead and started walking at the beginning of the old section of the Lenape Trail at 9:30 a.m.
Steve Marano, the dynamo behind the revitalization of the Lenape Trail was there to review the first few miles of the trail. Dave Hogenauer, the Trail Leader for the South Mountain Conservancy, was to play an invaluable role in guiding us along the trail and proving a wealth of information about the history, geology and fauna along the way.
Our real challenge for the day, however, was to travel through certain sections of the South Mountain Reservation that had not been used in a long time and needed to be cleared and re-blazed (tree marks) so that we would have had a clear walk ahead on October 11, the day of the LENAPE34 walk. This would also serve to revitalize the trail again for others in the future.
Today it was a six mile walk through the South Mountain Reservation, then another six along residential areas and the Eagle Rock Reservation before ending at Verona Park.
South Mountain Reservation covers over 2,200 acres and is the largest in the Essex County System. It was primarily built from land purchases begun in 1895 but has acquire additional land even recently. The property was studied by Fredrick Law Olmsted, of Central Park fame, and delegated to his sons who took over the development in stages over the years. A good deal of construction work--trails, foot bridges, shelters, etc.—was carried out by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930's.
Almost immediately the trail begins climbing up South Mountain at a fairly hard incline for about one-half of a mile, climbing an elevation of about 300-400 ft. (See my previous blog for additional details on the first mile) The beginning path here is well known and used and has only one problem area where it is not clearly marked to turn left as the path starts to level out at the top of the mountain. Soon we were at the top at Washington Rock and the lookout area where you could see the town of Millburn and the Summit area further ahead. It is said that this area was one of 23 lookout points for the revolutionary militias to view and monitor the movements of the British.
Washington Rock and the paved road, Crest Dr., that leads to it, are popular for people walking and riding bikes and has been closed off to traffic. When the Olmsteds had been commissioned to design a park for South Mountain, the idea was to maintain a large pristine natural environment that people from the popular cities and towns to visit easily as a day trip into the country.
You can still see the rockwork ledge and remnants of a hut in this area. Apparently, the park has seen much use and abuse over the years but is now nurtured by the South Mountain Conservancy and the Essex County park system.
After Washington Rock, the Lenape Trail continues as a typical forested trail for several miles, much as if you were hiking the Appalachian Trail except that the typical trail marker (blaze) is painted yellow. We were fortunate to have Dave Hogenauer with us from the beginning, pointing out historical remnants of old huts and fences most of which were constructed back in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps.
Today there seems to be a lot of criticism for public works spending for economic stimulus while we bemoan unemployment. The CCC’s was one of the first attempts at putting people to work for the public good. There existed in the early part of century a loftier idea of creating a better social good by protecting nature. That ideal became a reality for a while in the development of grand local and national parks. I remembered my faher, who grew up in Jersey City, telling us stories of working for the CCCs in the Pacific Northwest clearing woods to make way for roads while planting new ones - in one of the most beautiful parts of our country. He described his time there as a "real education" that instilled in him his own respect for nature and how to get along with a tough group of guys.
Dave also pointed out certain humped rock outcroppings with polygon markings which he referred to as “turtle back rock”. As anyone familiar with the area knows, there is a popular children’s zoo called the Turtle Back Zoo which is part of the Reservation. What I never knew was that there rock formations that expanded and cooled over 200 million years ago that ended up resembling the backs of turtles, hence the origin of the name.
Probably the most impressive natural site came about three miles into the walk as we passed Hemlock Falls, which is about 25-30 feet high dropping down into a crystal clear pool. Soon we were crossing South Orange Avenue and headed to toward the Mayapple section, a mixed area of developments, trail and unused parkland.
The area of a mile or two beyond Mayapple behind the Kessler Institute and further north to Route 280 would prove to be our biggest challenge of the day. My understanding is that there was clearly marked trail at one time but due to lack of use and maintenance, it had grown unrecognizable. There is also some new land here that extended the boundries of the Reservation but needs to be clearly marked. Near O’Connor Park, Dave had scouted out a trail only the day before and did a great job of marking it with orange ribbon. While the trail was not exactly clear, and required walking through brush, it provided a good enough method of navigating the deep woods.
Our biggest problem came next as we crossed a new condo development but needed to get through an even deeper section of woods beyond where there was a low-lying swamp. Luckily, Robert Fouchaux had scouted the area out a few days before with a GPS device and had some data points to work with as we slowly found some landmarks and followed a stream until we could get to Route 10. After crossing route 10, we zig-zagged through a development heading toward the powerlines below Route 280.
Our last big challenge was heading to the powerlines where we were to find the trails intersection for the east-west junction. The western direction is the new Lenape Trail heading toward East Hanover and connecting the big state-wide Liberty Water Gap Trail. We wanted to head east and down about a ½ mile hill, descending at least a couple undred feet, toward Mt. Pleasant Avenue and underneath Route 280. The beauty of this spot at the top of the hill is that you can now see ahead to Mount Pleasant and it was downhill! The problem that we soon realized was that the grass had grown waist high and left a vague image of where the double track trail had been. Al King had clearly marked the trail but it was easy to see we simply needed to follow the powerlines. Once you started to descend the hill with even high grass disguised a rutted trail bottom that was uneven and required careful walking as you made your way down. At this point about 8 of us were left and we were sure glad that we had made it without any major problems.
After going under Route 280, the Lenape Trail meanders through some neighborhoods on its way to Eagle Rock Avenue at Mayfair Farms caterers. All we needed to do was to head east on Eagle Rock toward Pal’s Cabin and then Eagle Rock Reservation for our last major leg of the walk. Dave broke off at this point with a ride from his wife and took Mel and Barbara back to Millburn. Both Jon Stout and Gary Sanderson had walked most of what we had left to finish so we quickly picked up speed and entered the Highlawn Pavilion area of Eagle Rock. Being already over an hour late we passed up taking in the magnificent NYC view at the lookout and proceeded quickly through the Reservation and into the West Orange/Verona neighborhoods behind it. Living in Montclair, Robert litteraly dropped off our trail and down another to his nearby home.
The Lenape Trail signs are pretty thorough throughout this area and easy to follow. This led us to Verona Park and the end of our trip. Both Jon and Gary had volunteered to help carpool our walkers back but we only needed one car, so I took back Nancy, Marcos, and Marc back to Millburn for their return home.
We already knew going into this walk that this would be the hardest segment. Traveling through natural trails requires more care and a slower pace of about 2 miles per hour. We found out that the rough area above Mayapple, while temporarily marked with ribbon is still rough and slows the pace. But the last rough section before the powerlines was not marked and needs to be laid out so that it follows the permitted property lines and cleared. The powerlines trail also could use clearing to avoid a possible accident due to the ruts that are not easily visible with the high grass. I would recommend that we bypass this last mile above Mayapple and look to use residential streets or walk along Pleasant Valley Way to the Route 280 underpass. That would insure that we will remain close to our anticipated schedule to complete the 34-mile walk on Oct. 11.