Saturday, January 5, 2013

Walking the Lenape Trail

I was recently on one of my many walks on the local Lenape Trail. It’s not hardcore hiking. Chunks of it don’t even run through woods as you would expect of a trail.

I was looking at a map of the trail and realized that many parts of my own childhood and the childhood days of my sons are on that trail.
The trail crosses Essex County, N.J., one of the most congested counties in the United States.It connects Newark, New Jersey with Roseland, New Jersey.

This trail forms a segment of the Liberty-Water Gap Trail and incorporates the West Essex Trail (the Lenape Trail’s only rail-to-trail section) and it connects with Morris County’s Patriots Path trail. It was only established in 1982, though some of the trails it followed have been used for a long time. It is the fifth longest trail in the state behind the Delaware and Raritan Canal Trail, the Appalachian Trail, the completed section of the Highlands Trail in NJ and the Batona Trail.

It’s a suburban/urban trail and it traverses Newark (Jersey doesn’t get more urban than that) and its suburbs, through parks as well as the Watchung Mountains and Passaic Meadows.
I walked the mostly urban street parts of the trail when I worked at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark. I have walked all of its 34 miles piece-by-piece. The eastern terminus is in Newark’s Ironbound district. A nice urban start with plenty of places to eat.

It’s street walking through downtown Newark and through the Frederick Law Olmsted-designed Branch Brook Park (home to the city’s Cherry Blossom Festival with 3,500 cherry trees and the most diverse cherry blossom display in the country).

You want old trails? The Passaic Meadows was the former basin of Glacial Lake Passaic. We are talking dinosaurs and the earliest natives. Glacial Lake Passaic was a prehistoric proglacial lake at the end of the last ice age approximately 13,000 years ago.

I read about it when I was a kid. I had found some fossils and wanted to be a paleontologist. The lake was was formed from waters released by the melting of the retreating Wisconsin Glacier that had pushed large quantities of earth and rock ahead of its advance, blocking previous natural drainage.
The drainage basin is what we call today the Passaic Meadows and the part near our walking trail is the Hatfield Swamp. The lake was formed on the western side of the Watchung Mountains by a blockage of the Passaic River.

Eventually the river formed its present course, a circuitous detour around the north end of the Watchung range through present-day Paterson. And the lake found a new outflow to the ocean via the Great Notch in Little Falls, near Totowa and Montclair. And when the glacier retreated farther to the north, the outflow of the lake drained toward the north and formed the gorge of the Great Falls of the Passaic River in Paterson, which is just a short walk from my office at Passaic County Community College.

What is left of Glacial Lake Passaic is several swamps in northern New Jersey, particularly, the Great Swamp.

Back on the trail.

Leaving Newark, it goes west through Belleville, Nutley, Bloomfield, Montclair, and into my town, Cedar Grove. That part of the trail I have covered many times. It’s my favorite section.

Mills Reservation is a county park, 157.15 acres that bridges Cedar Grove and Montclair. I walked these woods many times with my sons when they were young Indians, soldiers, hunters, wolves, and Cub Scouts.

The reservation has no development other than a small parking area and the trails. It a minimalist design by the Olmsteds in their last association with Essex County. The three of us made made maps of the area, brought our lunch packs, hiking staffs, compasses, cowboy hats, Indian weapons and lots of energy and imagination into those woods.

The Eastview Trails runs the edge of a cliff that overlooks the New York City skyline to the east. It was a part that my sons loved to walk. It was a part that terrified me when they were young - the cliff, the edge - stay close.

On a clear day, you can see to the south and east the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, the New York City skyline including the Statue of Liberty. To the northeast is the Palisades and to the north and west, peaks from the Ramapo Mountains can be glimpsed and the beginning of the Second Watchung Mountain.

The outcrop at Quarry Point was the site of a World War Two anti-aircraft gun emplacement and the remaining cement circle was our resting place. My son, Drew, at age 5, planted a circle of trees near there, and again at the north end, so that the forest people would have a place for their ceremonies.

Right across from that point you can see the Montclair Hawk Lookout. Atop a 500-foot basalt ledge, it’s a stone-filled platform that is the site a sanctuary of the New Jersey Audubon Society where birders gather to watch the migration mixture of both coastal and ridge flights in autumn.

After Mills Reservation, the yellow blazes lead you to a place where it combines with the West Essex Trail on the former Caldwell Branch of the Erie Railroad. You enter Verona on the old Erie Railroad line, hit some pavement and go into Verona Park.

Verona Park was the fishing hole for my sons. Sunfish, stocked trout, catfish and even once a big carp that someone must have released from a pond. I spent many happy hours in that park with my boys.
Then, the trail moves into Eagle Rock Reservation passing the Eagle Rock lookout on the ridge of the First Watchung Mountain (AKA Orange Mountain). From that view of the New York Skyline, many people watched the Twin Towers fall on September 11, 2001. There is a memorial there now.

The trail goes under Interstate Highway 280 and follows power lines over the Second Watchung Mountain (AKA Preakness Mountain).

I read that a side trail is planned that would lead to South Mountain Reservation. That sanctuary between Orange Mountain and Preakness Mountain was where this urban kid tried out his his Huck Finn fantasies.

South Mountain Reservation was my childhood forest. It is much bigger than Mills Reservation. I took my sons there too, but it wasn’t around the corner, so it wasn’t a big part of their childhood. It covers 2,047.14 acres between the first and second ridges of the Watchung Mountains.
In 1896, John Durand described the mountain that includes South Mountain Reservation as:

“a wilderness, as it probably existed at the time of Hendrick Hudson, a primitive forest abounding with deer and other wild animals, and traversed by streams alive with trout. Game was plentiful – partridges, quail, woodcock, rabbits, squirrels of every species, raccoons and foxes; while occasionally a hungry bear that had trespassed on the farmyards in the vicinity would be tracked to its den and shot.”
In 1680, wolves, bears and cougars were observed in the area, and there was a bounty on them. As a kid, I saw them all. Well, I imagined I saw them all. I did see deer, foxes and once I saw a porcupine. Sometimes these days a black bear is spotted.

I had my favorite places. Hemlock Falls and the smaller cascade Blackrock Falls were always stops when we were hiking or biking. At the far south end of the reservation we used to go fishing at Diamond Mill Pond. There were some bass there and the state would put trout in, but usually we were catching and releasing sunfish.

Another view of New York City there is a ridge called Washington Rock. A plaque there sent me to a history book as a kid. I had to check the facts again now.
It was from this outlook that, on June 23, 1780, Essex County and Newark Militia were first warned that the British had launched an attack westward toward “the Gap,” (now Hobart Gap), a natural pathway to Washington’s troops encamped at Morris Town. In a pincer movement designed to gain access to the Gap, Hessian troops fought bitterly along Vaux Hall Road, with the British advanced along Galloping Hill Road, until they were repelled, the Hessians at the base of the mountain and the British in Millburn—called Millville in those days. Washington Rock served again as a lookout for the Army when reactivated during the War of 1812.
The Lenape Trail also goes through Becker Park and a blue side trail goes to to the Walter Kidde Dinosaur Park. This park has thousands of dinosaur tracks, including the smallest ones ever found.

Then the Lenape Trail continues west across the Morristown and Erie Railway tracks and passes under I-280 and continues along Hatfield Swamp and the Essex County Environmental Center before ending at the Patriots’ Path.

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