Monday, February 21, 2011

Continuing Along The Watchung Mountains

This post continues our virtual walk along the Watchung Mountains that we began in an earlier post with three more stops in Essex in Union Counties.

Eagle Rock seen on a 1907 postcard
Continuing south through New Jersey, we come to Eagle Rock Reservation, on First Watchung Mountain. The Reservation is a 408.33-acre (165.25 ha) forest reserve and recreational park primarily in the communities of West Orange, Montclair, and Verona. The land is owned and administered by the Essex County Department of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs.

The reservation is named after the Eagle Rock, a bare rock looking down from the mountain, which marks the boundary between the towns of Montclair and West Orange, New Jersey. The Lenape Trail passes through the reservation.

Overlooking the Manhattan skyline is a memorial built in honor of those killed during the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks with the names of all who perished at the World Trade Center or on the two planes that crashed into the twin towers permanently inscribed in a marble memorial.

That particular day, I left my job when the planes hit and drove home past this reservation where cars were lined along the road and at the overlook as people could clearly see the burning and then collapsing towers to the east.

Check out the Eagle Rock Reservation Conservancy for more information including a map.

Campbell's Pond - South Mountain Reservation
Our next natural area is South Mountain Reservation which covers 2,047.14 acres (8 km²) in central Essex County, New Jersey, in portions of Maplewood, Millburn and West Orange, bordering South Orange, between the first and second ridges of the Watchung Mountains.

Wikipedia gives us some history of the area. 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.

The park has a Revolutionary War historic site at what is called Washington Rock. It dates back to the late 18th century when Beacon Signal Station 9 was located here. It was one of 23 beacons built by General George Washington to observe British troop movements quartered on Staten Island and New York City.

From this outlook on June 23, 1780, Essex County and Newark Militia were first warned that the British had launched an attack westward toward "the Gap," (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, while the British advanced along Galloping Hill Road, until they were repelled, the Hessians at the base of the mountain and the British in Millville (now Millburn).

Washington Rock served again as a lookout for the Army when reactivated during the War of 1812.

The reservation has been well preserved and is primarily in a wild state today. Woodlands abound in a variety of hardwood trees, and tall hemlocks tower above streams, creeks and ponds. The west branch of the Rahway River flows through the valley. A reservoir and watershed owned by the City of Orange lies in the northern tract.

As a youngster, I spent many days wandering this reservation. Our family often took weekend drives that included a stop along Crest Drive which leads to Washington Rock and once led to the "deer paddock" where we would feed the deer.

The paddock is gone (but the deer have certainly thrived) and Crest Drive has been closed to vehicular traffic at the point of the old paddock, but visitors can take an easy walk down to Washington Rock.

Though many people know the area from South Orange Avenue south to Millburn as the Reservation, it extends farther north and includes the Turtle Back Zoo and the South Mountain Arena. The zoo's train rides through the woods along the Orange reservoir.

From different locations, there are vistas allowing views of New York City, Elizabeth, Union Township, and even Staten Island.

Hemlock Falls is one dramatic feature, and neighboring Blackrock Falls is another picturesque smaller cascade. A hike to Hemlock Falls is a moderate one and uses the Lenape Trail.

The reservation was built from land purchases that started in 1895. Frederick Law Olmsted visited the newly acquired reservation and said it was some of the most beautiful and promising terrain he had ever seen. The Olmsted Brothers designed the park in stages with much of the construction work of trails, footbridges, and shelters being done by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s.

More at the South Mountain Conservancy 

Watchung Reservation is the largest park in Union County and it is bounded by the city of Summit, the borough of Mountainside, the townships of Berkeley Heights, Scotch Plains, and Springfield. The reservation consists mainly of the upper valley of Blue Brook, between the ridges of First Watchung Mountain and Second Watchung Mountain. A dam near the headwaters of the creek creates Lake Surprise.

The 1,945 acre (7.8 km²) parcel is forested, and the reservation is managed for the preservation of its natural resources, but it does contain playgrounds, golf courses, stables, and a museum within the reservation.

The most popular recreational activities in the reservation are hiking and horseback riding on its many trails. The county-owned Watchung Stables are located on a large cleared area in the eastern end of the park, and at the center is the Trailside area, a large park with picnic tables and playground equipment with the Trailside Nature and Science Center at the southern edge in Mountainside.

The land in the reservation is not as pristine and undeveloped as our earlier stops. In fact, an entire village, Feltville, once existed in the woods in the northwestern quadrant and recently became inhabited again.

One popular hike through the western reservation goes through a pine plantation planted by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the 1930s.

In late 1950s, the U.S. Army built a Nike missile base here and operated it between 1957 and 1963 to defend the airways over New York City. It is now the site of the stables.

During the 1980s, NJDOT completed a section of Interstate 78 through the northern fringe of the reservation. An attempt was made to build "land bridges" to allow wildlife to travel safely between the split parts of the Reservation, but they failed to be successful.

A Reservation Map (pdf) is available along with more information at the Trailside Nature and Science Center.

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