Watchung Reservation

One of the worst marked parks in New Jersey, Watchung Reservation has only one advantage - it is inside of the Metro area, very close to I-78 and Summit. It offers several trails (so badly marked that I have to mention it again), a few historical places, but very little elevation. Most of the time, you will be surrounded by sounds of civilzation - cars, other people and plains. If you still decide to hike here, read further. If not, check the other activities listed towards the end of this review.

Getting there
I work in Summit and live nearby. Yet, it took me about 45 minutes to get to the visitor's center, which is only a few miles away. In other words, there are only very few (terrible) signs pointing to the reservation. Take Exit 44 East off I-78 and turn left on the traffic light. After a mile or so, turn right onto Route 645 - watch out, it's easy to miss this turn. After a short but very slow ride through a forest, you arive to a circle. Take the first right (Summit Road) and later the next right (Providence Road). Soon, you'll hit the parking lot.


Parts of the reservation resemble a rainforest.
If all maps are gone, go to the visitor's center - they usualy have enough in reserve. This is really important, as the park has recently (again) changed the marking and closed some of the trails. The following hike is about six miles long (up to 10, if you get lost), and should take 4 to 6 hours (depending how often you get lost).

Start at the trailhead marked "Nature Trails", and take the white trail, which gently slopes downhill. On the bottom, once you hit a small stream, turn left onto the Orange trail, and climb back up. For a long time, this trail will run on an even level later. Most people take the White trail, mainly due to some nice nature formations. However, as full as the park is, I have never met anybody on the orange trail.

Follow the orange trail until you see residencial houses in front of you. Ontil then, the trail leads throught some small meadows and otherwise very serene area. The trail is well kept and very level, so walking there will be a joy. Once you hit the houses, the trail turns right and starts a snake-like move. Very soon, it merges with the white trail again. Continue downhill and look around you - this is a very popular spot for the deer, and you may get some nice pictures done here.

The pine plantation early morning.

Once the trail hits a gravel road, take a left. Soon afterwards, take another left, up an unmarked trail, which turns out to be the continuation of the White trail. Once you are back into the forest, you'll hit a beautiful pine reservation. Pines everywhere, a very quiet and serene environment, especially beautiful when it is sunny and the shades create various effects on the forest floor. This section, however, is very populated by other hikers.

Soon, you will come to a picknick area. You can stop here, but it is usualy quite full. Pass the area on its right edge, cross the road and dive back into the forest. Soon, you'll come to an intersection; turn right. You will walk through a rarely visited area, but the trail will be well-kept and level. However, there is very little to see, and that little is spoiled by the rather frequented road that runs paralel to the trail.

Once the road turns right and disappears, the trail starts a gentle descent, which soon turns pretty steep. While descending, you will find a cmall campfire remains - from here you'll get the best scenic view in the park, which means very little. Follow the descend until you see more residencial houses and the trail turns sharply right.

One of the many great picnic spots in the area.

Now this is one of the worst sections of the park, and you will realize that the trail is closed. You will end up in a very wild and unkept area, climbing over fallen treen and branches. This ordeal will continue for about 15 minutes until you come to a small stream, and the trails levels up.

Walk upstream. I can't advise you to keep following the white trail, as it seems non-existent in this area. Yet, you will be able to walk quite comfortably, until you hit the ruins of a paper mill. Behind the ruins, there is a small pond, which is a popular hangout of the local children. The trail veers right and then left, and lets you climb steeply up. Once you reach a small ridge, the trail levels out.

After a short walk, you will reach a rather swampy area with a couple of tiny streams. This area is beautiful in mid spring, when the streams still carry some water and everything is green. Cross the long bridge and head back into the woods. Soon, you will descend to another small straem, and climb back up on a very eroded part of the trail. Now watch out here - the trail markings show that you should turn left and climb up a steep slope - don't go there! In fact, the trail continues straight.

The rest of the trail is rather uneventful, until you hit the Deserted Village, a popular sightseeing spot. If you decided to take the hike in the afternoon, you will arrive here about an hour before sunset and most likely will be the only one around, This only enhances the deserted feel of the village, which has been first built for people working at the paper mill, and later converted into a luxurious suburb neighborhood, only to close down in the first half of this century.

Deserted Village - the name is more spooky than the appearance.

Once you pass a house with a small wooden tower, look right for the trail to continue. This section is remarkably well marked, so you should have little problems to find a small grave site of the Willcox family from the Revolutionary War. Continue on the trail, and you will eventually arrive on the Lake Surprise. Here, you can turn right on the Blue trail, which will take you straight back to the trailhead, or you can complete the Sierra trail (white) by circling around the lake. To be honest, the lake is nice for short vakls with your family - the trail is flat and wide, with lots of other people and cyclists. I prefer to take the blue trail myself.

Other activities
Lake Surprise, is a major fishing area. While I have never seen people to swim here, many just paddle around in their boats or simply enjoy the sun. Also, the area around the visitors' center features many huge grass areas, which are frequently used for barbecue, Frisbee, volleyball and other sports. This is actually a very nice place to go with your family for a Sunday barbecue.

Difficulty: 6 out of 10, mainly due to long trails and terrible marking.
Orientation: 2 out of 10. The markings are extremely bad, mostly because the trails were recently changed.
Beauty: 4 out of 10. Nice for a family hike and other activities, but too affected by being in the metro area.

Final words
Watchung Reservation is easily accessible and offers great picnic grounds. However, the hiking trails are badly marked, unkept in some places and offer very little to see. Hike here only if you are lazy to drive further.

Other links
Watchung Reservation @ Wild NJ - a short article with aditional information.
Hike description at New York New Jersey Trail Conference
A few pictures at HikeNJ

© Jozef Purdes, 2001

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