Climbing mountains ranks among the most adventurous and addictive natural obsessions known to humankind. It drives people to dangerous, inhospitable places. It also unites outdoor enthusiasts of all ages and backgrounds, making them stronger, fitter and more confident in the process. Like some other addictions, hiking and mountain climbing runs in families. My parents introduced my sister, brother and me to the mountains. Now, my wife and I are doing our best to infect our son with the "peak bagging" bug.
Growing up in northwestern New Jersey, I became infatuated with the thought of running free on the Appalachian Trail back in seventh grade. By high school, I had joined the cross country team and discovered the adrenaline rush of running and racing on trails. When I interviewed to become a foreign exchange student to Switzerland and Germany, my first question was inevitable: "How close will I be to the Alps?"
It was there, in the Swiss Alps, that I first became acquainted with peak bagging, a kind of grown-up's game of King of the Mountain. To play, you simply climb and descend a selected list of mountains on foot. Some do this for the natural experience or for inward reflection. Some do it for the adventure or to spot a bear, moose or eagle. But most of us, if we are being honest, do it for the bragging rights, for the simple pride of saying, "Yeah, I did that." Similar challenges rage on throughout the world, from the Alps, Andes and Adirondacks to Colorado and the Catskills. I became a Catskill 35er by making 39 climbs on peaks ranging from 3,500 to 4,180 feet in elevation. Several peaks were done in winter and many were completely trailless. After doing it, I had an epiphany: doesn't New Jersey deserve its own peak bagging challenge? And so the West Milford Baker's Dozen and Winter 17er Challenges were born.
I lead 26 group hikes per year and have yet to find a landscape as inviting as West Milford's. Driving up Route 23 NorthÐafter passing countless big box stores, fast food chains and traffic lightsÐthe landscape suddenly turns all green. And steep. This is wild West Milford, home to over 100 miles of marked hiking trails and more 1,000-foot summits than anyplace else in the Jersey Highlands. Peek inside its 81 square miles and you will find four state parks, a wildlife management area, a nature preserve and the mysterious backwoods of the Newark Watershed.
The bedrock of West Milford's peaks is not limited to the typical grey Highlands Precambrian gneiss. You will be pleasantly surprised by their color, a purple mountain's majesty of conglomerate rock known locally as "Long Pond Pink." Also called puddingstone, it is speckled with white quartzite that looks like tiny gems when it is cracked open. Peaks made of this colorful, resistant rock make wonderful places to find caves, perched boulders, lakes, vernal ponds, and stunted pitch pines. The relative seclusion of these mountains provides a diverse habitat for black bears, coyotes, bobcats, eagles and even porcupines.
Another striking feature is the multitude of lakes, ponds, rivers and reservoirs that supply free drinking water to millions of New Jersey residents. Being 100% in the Highlands Preservation Zone, these natural resources are fairly well-protected. But Highlands residents, the de facto stewards of two watersheds, are not. With neither new commercial development nor compensation for the water it supplies, West Milford has few options for offsetting its tax burdens. The West Milford Baker's Dozen and Winter 17er Challenges promote sustainable tourism by encouraging people to hike locally and to support local business, especially in the Highlands Preservation Zone. By coming to our little paradise in northern Passaic County, hikers can save time, money and gas while investing in New Jersey's environmental and economic health.
So which summits offer the best views? Many believe that the view from Jeremy Glick's Overlooks (named in honor of the 9-11 hero who lived and hiked there) is number one. This hike in the northwestern corner of the township, passing two mountain top lakes and leading through a playground of steep ledges and jungles of rhododendron and mountain laurel, culminates with bird's eye views of Greenwood Lake. In the same vicinity is one of my favorites, Flagpole Vista on Bearfort Mountain. The dramatic view is ample reward for some tricky navigation and serious boulder climbing. You may see large mounds of bear scat along the way, a clear reminder of whose mountain you are on. To reach the peak, you must weave your way through a dark forest and up some steep ledges. Then suddenly, you emerge out on the open rocks to bright sun and an American flag whipping in breeze. From here you can see mountains, two large lakes and, if you're lucky, catch the orange sun reflecting off Manhattan's skyscraper windows.
Two other peaks in the northwest are Terrace Pond Overlooks and the secluded Boulder Pine Peak. Purple cliffs plunging straight down into the water lend a peculiar, almost prehistoric, look to Terrace Pond. The top of this hike, Passaic County's highest point, yields expansive views of a rugged landscape. And if skies are clear, you can see both High Point and Manhattan, each from different vantage points. Watch for snakes though, especially during warm weather.
Four peaks--Dunker, South Kanouse, Buckabear and Bearfort Fire Tower--are on watershed property, and you will need a one-year, $12 permit to hike there. Ever since an ATV rider was recently killed in an accident, officers have been patrolling more aggressively and issuing tickets to trespassers. Getting a permit is easy. Simply send a check along with your telephone, vehicle license plate numbers and a self-addressed, stamped envelope to: NWCDC, 223 Echo Lake Rd., PO Box 319, Newfoundland NJ 07435. For more information, visit their website.
South Kanouse Mountain is a quick climb that follows unmarked trails and woods roads. At the top is an aluminum Star of David with lights attached. For years, it shone throughout the holiday season, powered by a large boat battery. From this peak you can see beautiful Charlotteburg reservoir, the sheer cliffs of Green Pond Mountain and the former Craigmeur Ski Area.
Bearfort Mountain Fire Tower is a popular destination due to its view and the stunning scenery along the way there. The western approach leads you from "haunted" Clinton Road through dark evergreen forests, while the eastern approach ascends bright, sunny ledges. (Again, watch for snakes.) At the top, you can climb a windy fire tower for 360-degree views of Manhattan and Cedar Pond. The Dunker and Buckabear hikes also feature water views including Dunker Pond, Buckabear Pond and the massive Clinton Reservoir.
Author Bruce Scofield said it best when he called the peaks of the Wyanokies "mini-Adirondacks." Their pointy-topped, bare rock summits stretch from around Route 23 to Long Pond Ironworks and include Apshawa Overlooks, Wyanokie Tourne, Long Hill, Black Rock, and Buck, Assiniwikam and West Brook Mountains.
A good place to start in the Wyanokies is New Jersey Audubon Society's Weis Ecology Center where you'll find detailed maps, trail advice and a list of hikes in neighboring Norvin Green State Forest. The center also has raptor and reptile exhibits, a butterfly and songbird garden, camping, and numerous educational programs. On the trail, you never know what you'll find: stone chairs on a mountain top, giant metal tanks in the middle of the forest, ledge climbs, water crossings and abundant wildlife, including coyotes.
Speaking of wildlife, from 1972 to 1976 the Wyanokies' Long Hill became a veritable Noah's Ark when Warner Brothers opened Jungle Habitat safari park. The park's collection of lions, tigers, baboons, camels, elephants, giraffes and everything African attracted over a million visitors in just a few years' time. Although the park is long gone, you can still walk the old roads and see the remains of animal cages. Miles of single-track mountain biking trails now wind throughout the property, which is also the site of Rumble in the Jungle, a challenging bike race, organized by one of the West Milford Baker's Dozen sponsors, Town Cycle.
In the northeastern corner of the township are Long Pond Ironworks State Park and the restored iron making village of old Hewitt. In addition to restored houses, you will find giant furnaces once used for iron smelting, old mines, a reservoir, a waterfall and two water wheels. Here and in neighboring Wanaque Wildlife Management Area, are three special peaks, Big Beech, Horse Pond and Jennings Mountains.
Horse Pond is famous for its scenic route along and above Monksville Reservoir. The hike to Big Beech Mountain takes you through old Hewitt, up to beautiful views, and can be extended into New York State via the Highlands Trail. In fact, both the 150-mile Highlands Trail and the 2,175-mile Appalachian Trail pass through West Milford just before crossing into New York.
Unless you have good woods sense and are comfortable with off-trail ledge climbing and using a compass, you should skip Jennings Mountain, which is entirely off-trail and located on state game lands. But if you have the skills and desire, my advice is to climb it on a Sunday in late fall, winter or early spring. No hunting is allowed on Sundays (as of this writing) and you have relatively little chance of coming across a timber rattlesnake when weather is cold and cloudy. From the cedar ledges Jennings, you can see Bearfort and Big Beech Mountains as well as Greenwood and Pinecliff Lakes.
When I cross into West Milford, I suddenly smell the evergreens and feel the tensions of the day ease. It's good to be home. The people here are decidedly warm and unpretentious. A colorful mix of outdoorsy types, Broadway actors, athletes, working families and seniors give this town its distinctive hue. "Colorful" even describes the mountains on which we hike. So if you are looking for an adventure that is close to home and easy on your wallet, take the Baker's Dozen or Winter 17er Challenges. You may discover a whole new world, just north of the tension line.
The West Milford climbing challenges are described in Don Weise's book titled, West Milford Baker's Dozen: a Hiker's Guide to Climbing the Heart of the Highlands ' Greatest Peaks. A map, detailed descriptions and a fold-out tally sheet guide aspirants to the summits and help them track their progress. Each hike ranges from 1.5 to 4.5 miles in length and there is no time limit for completing the challenge.
The challenges have attracted national attention in the last year. Nicole Macagna of Syracuse, NY was the first to climb all 17 peaks in under 74 days. And last summer, Mike Walsh of Cary, NC completed the 13-peak Baker's Dozen challenge in a blistering 35 hours and 59 minutes. And this summer, legendary master's division trail racer, Bernie Boettcher of Silva, CO may take a swipe at the record.
After climbing all the peaks and completing the tally sheet located in the back of the book, the final step is to visit the book's seven "peak sponsors", local businesses who will sign or stamp a hiker's sheet. They may also ask you a question to confirm that you successfully climbed "their" mountain!
Those who climb all 13 official peaks will receive a certificate of completion and can enjoy bragging rights as official "West Milford 13ers." Weise's book may be purchased at numerous locations in West Milford and Ringwood. For more information on the book or guided hike schedules, email the author or refer to his website.
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Just off the old, now-vanished, Ledgewood Circle, a stone's throw from the mall, the Drakesville Historic Park pays tribute to Morris County's pedigree of innovative pioneers.