The panorama from Catfish Fire Tower, looking east toward Fairview Lake and Long Pine Pond. Photo by Bryce Gladfelter
Hiking the entire Appalachian Trail might be on your bucket list, but chances are you won’t get around to completing the trek. Take heart. New Jersey is blessed with 72.2 miles of the iconic trail. Here are four hikes that rival any section in the other 13 states traversed by the East Coast’s ultimate footpath.
Rattlesnake Swamp Loop
● 4 miles
image by panoramio.com
This hike goes from swampy lowlands to soaring heights. There are forests of deep green rhododendrons; a long, mossy swamp; rare, healthy hemlock groves; and far-reaching views from the ridge on a clear day.
The outing begins at the Mohican Outdoor Center, situated on a 60-acre glacial lake, with various connecting loop trails.
Grab a free trail map and turn left on the gravel road through the property. On your left is Catfish Pond.
Before long, the trail intersects the orange-blazed Rattlesnake Swamp Trail. Take the left branch. You’ll head into a marshy area.
Mountain laurel borders this section of the trail; it soon gives way to rhododendron as the land grows moister. Bright sprigs of wintergreen dress up the forest floor. Proceed through a large hemlock forest, skirt Catfish Pond, cross an old creek bed and follow the swamp’s edge. At several points, the trail goes right to the edge of the swamp (help preserve the environment—resist the temptation to step onto the spongy floor and its variety of mosses). After about an hour’s walk, turn right on the stone road to the fire tower. In five minutes, you will intersect the Appalachian Trail. Turn right to head up the ridge. You can walk on the rugged trail or on the parallel stone road. A sign points to Catfish Fire Tower, three-quarters of a mile away.
The ridge-top walk is smooth and effortless. You’ll be awed by the parallel ridges that rise to the north and south. Soon the fire tower breaks through the treetops.
On a clear day, you can see the Catskill Mountains to the north and the Poconos to the west. The tower is typically staffed from March through May and October through November, when the woods are driest.
Continue along the ridge, often dropping down to a shelf on the north side, with excellent views in the late fall. Flaming-red low-bush blueberries decorate the ridge top. You’ll get beautiful views from the rock slabs before turning right at a faint orange blaze on a rock, indicating the Rattlesnake Trail, which heads down to Mohican. A speedy half-mile descent leads to the trailhead. A left turn returns you to the lot.
Sunfish Pond Loop via Garvey Springs & Douglas Trails
● 5.1 miles
image from njmonthly.com
This scenic loop takes you to Sunfish Pond, a glacial ridgetop lake that has been designated a National Natural Landmark.
The wide trail up the mountain is a gradual climb through open forest, providing unusually broad views through the trees. Look for wild game—including bears, which are prevalent.
After a bend in the trail, a small waterfall appears in a gorge on the right. Pass the descending blue-blazed trail that goes off to the right.
In a few minutes, turn right and ascend the orange trail again. After 45 minutes Sunfish Pond appears straight ahead, perched atop the ridge. Turn right on the AT and follow a rocky section around the shore of the mile-long pond.
Leaving the pond area, a woods road takes you down the ridge, past a swampy pond and a recent fire scar. Follow the blue-blazed Douglas Trail for another 2.5 miles to Old Mine Road.
Follow the stone road, then take the right fork where the blue and green trails converge. When the trail splits, continue on the blue trail to the parking lot.
Sunrise Mountain Pavilion to Culvers Gap Fire Tower
● 3.5 miles Each way
● Easy to Moderate
image from pjwetzel.com
A highlight of this hike is Sunrise Mountain Pavilion, one of the state’s best areas for watching eagles, hawks, kestrels, falcons, vultures and other raptors soar. In North America, birds migrate in north-south routes called flyways; this particular spot, on the Kittatinny Ridge, is on the Atlantic Flyway.
After a short walk from the parking lot to the AT, you’ll reach the ridge and Sunrise Mountain Pavilion. The raptors ride the updrafts along the ridge; the best places to see them are along the ridgetop. The birds are often lower in the sky and easier to observe in the morning, when the ridge is heating up from the sun.
The ridgeline trail is considerably rocky. Step carefully. In about a mile, the yellow-blazed Tinsley Trail intersects the AT. There’s a beautiful grove of white pines to the left on the ridge.
The trail crosses to the right side of the ridge, offering long views of mountains and forest. In another 1.4 miles, you can detour onto the brown-blazed Stony Brook Trail and a blue-blazed trail to get a look at an Adirondack-style log shelter. There are 225 such shelters along the AT; this one, the Gren Anderson Shelter, was built in 1958 and is one of the oldest such structures.
After checking out the shelter, double back to the white-blazed AT and turn left to continue the hike. When you reach the green-blazed Tower Trail on your right, the Culver Fire Tower will loom before you. A picnic table provides a perfect spot for lunch. The view is excellent; for an even better view, climb the six flights of the 47-foot fire tower.
Now reverse your trek to return to the starting point.
High Point State Park
● 2.6 miles
● Easy to Moderate
image from njurbanforest.com
This is a short hike to your destination, High Point State Park Memorial.
The trail up to the memorial is a bit rocky, but worth the effort. The first highlight is the observation platform, a large wooden deck suitable for hawk watching. The deck affords a spectacular panorama spanning the Kittatinny Valley, Pochunk Mountain and Wawayanda Mountain to the east; the Delaware Water Gap to the southwest; the Catskill Plateau to the northwest; and the Pocono Mountains to the west.
Dominating the scene is the High Point State Park Monument. It was built as a veterans’ memorial.
After leaving the observation deck, turn onto the red-and-green blazed Monument Trail. You’ll delight as the monument comes closer, growing more impressive with every step. A walk around its base provides a breathtaking 360-degree view of the surrounding area.
Turn back and retrace your steps to the car, or take the road for a faster walk.