Melissa: Take a hike! My top five trails in NJ!

So many hikes…so little time. New Jersey has so many hiking trails in varying lengths and degrees of difficulty. It’s hard to pick my favorites, but here are five hikes that I really enjoyed. At some point they may be ousted and replaced.

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Hacklebarney State Park, Morris County, New Jersey

I would rate this hike easy to moderate. The scenery here is beautiful and I think that’s mostly because of the stream you are hiking parallel to for the majority of the trail we opted to follow (red trail to white or yellow). 

Along the way there are wooden bridges and plenty of places to venture out into the water for a great photo op or to dip your feet in. The large rocks along the hike are plentiful for taking a break or even having a snack. There are also picnic benches and sitting benches perched alongside the water.

Along the trail at Hacklebarney State Park

Here’s the downside…the trail is rocky. Very rocky. So make sure you have good shoes because it could get slippery and you could lose your footing. Oh and the trail marking along those rocky parts isn’t exactly user friendly so you really have to pay attention to where you’re going. There were a few instances where we had to stop and figure out if we go straight or go up the hill.

I would categorize it as kid and dog-friendly as I’ve seen plenty of both. Honestly I don’t think I could hike with either one. I’m always amazed by those hikers that carry small children on their backs on a hike. So kudos to you if you’re one of them! 

Hacklebarney State Park

After the red trail you can opt for white or yellow. We’ve done both. Yellow is definitely more challenging as it’s mostly uphill. There’s plenty of parking at this State Park and the bathrooms are right at the beginning.

The last time we were there a Park Ranger was setting up a station under a tent to provide information. I thought that was a nice touch considering you don’t see that very often. Check the trail map at the trailhead before heading out. Maybe even take a picture since the rocky portion isn’t clearly marked. 

Overall I love this park because of the scenery and bonus tip…there’s a farm not too far away that has a bakery and hot apple cider in the fall. So good!

Cheesequake State Park, Old Bridge, New Jersey

This hike is an easy one. There are five designated trails at the park. The Red, Yellow, Green and Blue pathways are for hiking and walking use. The White Trail (multi-use) is designated for hiking and mountain biking. They vary in lengths ranging from 0.75 to 3.0 miles. They are all fairly easy with some inclines where you have to step down over big roots.

Along the way there are some footbridges over streams of water, depending on when the last rainfall was. You also may encounter some steep steps to climb up or down determined by which end of the trail you began with. The terrain varies from wooded to pine forest to swamp and can get muddy from time to time, again depending on current conditions.

Melissa on a foot bridge at Cheesequake State Park

We headed to Cheesequake in late October when the foliage was at its peak here in New Jersey.  Due to Alan’s OCD, all of our hikes have to be at least 3.1 miles (a 5K) so we planned on doing the Green Trail loop.

Cheesequake State Park

The parking at the trail head was full so we had to park down by the lake and walk to the Yellow Trail to the trailhead and then begin the Green Trail from there.  The Yellow Trail begins with a large flight of stairs and then through the woods only about a quarter of a mile to the trailhead.  From there we follow the green markers.  The trail is well marked for all of the colors (red, blue, green, and yellow). As you zig and zag, not too far in you come to the Nature Center.  

The trail is fairly busy and in my past experience it usually is in the middle of the day.  There are a lot of families and large groups that utilize the trails as they are easy to navigate and they are not challenging.  If you would rather have some quiet time, I would suggest going earlier in the day. It’s not wall to wall people but it’s not secluded either. If you’re the chatty type or like to acknowledge every dog on the trail (I’ve had both as hiking buddies) then hiking in the middle of the day for you.  If you’re like me and don’t want to make new friends because you have enough already, then I would tell you to go earlier in the day.

The remainder of the trail is easy to maneuver and picturesque.  We passed a small pond, walked through a small section of pine trees, over some foot bridges, and through a beautifully wooded path. The drawback is that you can see and hear the Garden State Parkway and/or Route 34 traffic at some points along the trail but, whatever, you’re in New Jersey so the Parkway is never far anyway.

The last ½-¾ of a mile is composed of a paved road. This is where some of the trails meet and the road is used for driving to camp sites in that section of the park. After completing the loop and coming back to the trailhead, we then get back on the Yellow Trail so we can make our way back down to the lake parking lot. The trees were stunning in the Fall.

Overall, I highly recommend a hike at Cheesequake State Park. I think it’s a great hiking introduction for kids and beginner hikers as it’s an easy one and I think it’s close to home so it won’t take up your whole day if you don’t have the time to dedicate an entire day to a hike.

Ramapo Lake, Oakland, New Jersey

Well this one was a surprise. It started off nicely with a well-marked parking lot and trail. We were taking the Ramapo Lake Loop trail which was about 4 miles. The first part of the hike was easy and very pretty as we traipsed through the woods.

There was a small family behind us with an energetic child whose voice carried throughout the woods which made it so peaceful (sarcasm). Thankfully they kept stopping along the way because the kid was so far ahead of them he had to wait up for them several times. 

When we got to the lake it was beautiful and fairly crowded. There was a man there training his hunting dog by throwing an object far into the lake and the dog would repeatedly retrieve it. There was a couple having lunch or a snack on the concrete wall in front of the lake when a dog, who was being walked (not the hunting dog), just came up like the great white shark in Jaws and ate part of their sandwich. So lots of activity at the lake. We took some pictures, watched the retriever, and carried on back to the trail.

As we were meandering on the trail there were other groups of hikers but it wasn’t crowded. And we were able to ditch the family from before. We were on an incline and Alan was in front of me and all of a sudden he stopped and pointed and said “bears.” I saw three small black figures running in the distance.

Listen, you don’t have to tell me twice. I may like nature but I’m a city slicker through and through. I’m not messing with bears or any other animal when I’m in their home. We turned around in the direction we just came from and I couldn’t walk fast enough.

Now keep in mind these bears were WAY in the distance but I wasn’t taking any chances. My heart was racing. We believed that we were far away enough and warned a young group of hikers that there were bears. And they were completely dismissive. “Oh ok, thanks.” Hello? Am I the only one panicking here?

After about 10 minutes we ventured off onto the trail again with our eyes wide open and whistles around our necks. The trail was pretty well marked and then we came to a wall of rocks. But not like rocks you can climb or step up on. I’m talking flat rocks that go straight up where you have to scale them. So I started to ascend and made it half way up before turning around and seeing Alan struggling just a tiny bit. He has a fear of heights so this comes into play. And being the compassionate person that I am, I took out my phone and started snapping pictures and laughing. He didn’t find it that amusing but I did.

Rock climbing at Ramapo Lake

OK so we made it to the top and find the Van Slyke Castle ruins. I had no idea this was here so what a great surprise. According to Wikipedia, “Van Slyke Castle, originally known as Foxcroft, is a ruined early 20th century mansion in Wanaque, New Jersey that was built to resemble a castle. The home was built by stockbroker William Porter in the 1900s. He named the property Foxcroft, as it was built on Fox Hill. The property was abandoned by the 1950s.” We explored and took some great pictures of which one is currently hanging on the wall in my living room.

Van Slyke Castle

We ventured back down all the while keeping an eye out for more bears and alerting anyone we passed along the way and they all reacted the same way…dismissive. I guess it’s old hat for them. 

A fairly rugged hike but worth it to see the view and the ruins at the top.

Watchung Reservation, Watchung, New Jersey

I think this hike is fairly easy. We picked the white, purple and yellow combination trail as it is measured to be 3.8 miles. We parked in the parking lot which was about ¼ full and found the trailhead.

I think this hike is fairlyeasy. We picked the white, purple and yellow combination trail as it is measured to be 3.8 miles. We parked in the parking lot which was about ¼ full and found the trailhead.

There were some hills and parts were rocky but still a fairly easy hike.  Because of the recent rain and since it was 30 degrees during the hike, parts of the trail were slightly muddy and frozen but easily manageable. You were far enough into the woods where you couldn’t hear the traffic so that’s always a plus for me.

There were a few foot bridges and we came to a huge gully with a pretty stream and where someone left a rope swing tied to a tree. I convinced Alan to swing from it with the promise that I wouldn’t push him while he was on it. Needless to say I did not keep that promise.  

Alan swinging at the Watchung Reservation

We approached a sign explaining how copper was mined there back in the 1600’s.  Across the chasm was another trail where we saw other hikers. There were a few water features and streams that were quiet and picturesque. Watch your step though. Most of the trails have roots sticking up so there are a lot of tripping hazards.

The path through the Watchung Reservation

As far as crowds, the first half of the hike we were alone. Once we came to the gully, we saw more hikers, dogs, and families. But it wasn’t to the point where we were all over each other.  

The trails were greatly marked and easy to follow with varying distances. At the nature center, the trail head, and also in the parking lot are maps showing the distances and colors of the trails.  

Also on the website, it lists numerous historic places you can visit in the reservation as well as a lake.  Honestly, I’m not a huge fan of winter hikes only because everything is dead and brown but I would definitely do a little more homework and go back to explore some more of it.  Overall a nice hike, considering how cold it was. Definitely a great hike with kids because of the well-marked trails and fairly easy terrain.

Pyramid Mountain Historic Area, Montville, New Jersey

The parking lot was packed and the road was lined with cars on a January afternoon so I figured it would be crowded but it wasn’t. This hike was moderate. I’d say so leave your Converse at home and break out your hiking boots cause you’re gonna need ‘em.  

Before leaving the house we decided we were gonna take the blue trail which would have been approximately 3.5 miles and the big draw here was Tripod Rock. This is a large glacial boulder balancing on top of three smaller rocks. A wonder of nature! Ok off we go.

Here’s the faux pas we made right off the bat. We didn’t check the trailhead map which we usually do just to confirm where we are going and usually a picture is taken just in case. I guess we thought we were beyond that step and will later regret it.

Easy enough trail to start with, the path being lined with stones for the first quarter of a mile. It’s pretty, probably nicer in the spring when everything is alive. Here’s the thing…along this trail when there are vistas or overlooks (which are sometimes marked) you know what you see? High tension wires! Gotta love hiking in New Jersey. 

The great New Jersey landscape along the trail.

The trail was nicely marked until there was a fork in the road. Blue to the right, blue with black dots to the left. We decided to keep to the right. That would wind up being a mistake but I blame the woman approaching us while we were at the fork who was talking loudly on her cell phone while walking her dog on the trail. I don’t get that. Don’t you hike to be in nature? I do. So be aware and don’t cackle on the phone when there are other hikers. Thank you for coming to my Ted Talk.

Like I said, the trail was very well-marked so when we came to a wall of rock we had to climb we couldn’t second guess ourselves because the rocks had blue markings on them. Well up we go. It was difficult to navigate and slippery since it had rained within the past few days. We took our time (keep in mind Alan’s aversion to heights) and I did not laugh or take pictures of him this time. Yes, I deserve credit for that.

The path to Tripod Rock

We went to what seemed like the top only to see more high tension wires and off in the distance the NYC skyline. As we descended it was even more difficult as we were afraid of falling. At one point two hikers were at the bottom patiently waiting for us (like 5-7 minutes) as we climbed down. 

Well low and behold at the bottom of this rocky mountain we just climbed is a sign. Guess what the sign says? “Tripod Rock” and it points to the way we just came from. I looked at Alan and said, “I’m not climbing back up that now. I’ll wait for you if you wanna go back.” Needless to say we moved on and before we knew it we were back at the parking lot and didn’t even make it to 3 miles. 

Moral of the story…check the trailhead map because then we would have seen that the blue with black dots trail led right to Tripod Rock and then proceeded to loop around and connect back to the blue trail. I hope that woman on the phone enjoyed this natural wonder for me.

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