Story and photos by Mary Jasch
Swartswood Lake is like a step back in time, a secluded grand retreat, with sparkling water and amenities galore, cradled in the northern mountains of far away. The lake is a 550 acre hole dug out by glaciers, and is surrounded by 10,000 acres of Kittatinny Mountains, its watershed. The mountains and the Neldons Brook are its headwaters. The lake spreads out into shallow coves and Little Swartswood Lake before it rides the dam then empties into the Mill Brook.
A public access boat launch on Route 521 is quiet and remote.
The staff members in the park office are informative and friendly. While you're gathering literature, check out the office/museum with a stuffed bear, skulls and preserved specimens of local fauna.
Take a quick walk to the beach through the esplanade, complete with red maple allee, picnic area on wide lawns and volley ball courts. Stroll through the beach house, a grand entrance to the lake. Across the sand trucked in from South Jersey, floats crystal-blue Swartswood Lake.
Swartswood is a treasured lake, maintained and restored continuously by the Swartswood Lakes and Watershed Association. It's predicted lifespan is 100,000 years, a long time for a lake, for there is little to accelerate its progression to bog status in the countryside of Sussex County.
Swimming is closed after Labor Day, but a walk on the beach feels like the shore--hot, with blasting sunshine. It even smells like a beach. There are benches and grass to sit on, under straight-boled trees of sycamore, willow, basswood and hickory. There are hemlock, maples, oaks, all with lichen-covered trunks in the picnic grove. A family could spend the day here on the beach, picnicking, playing on the swings, and later retiring to camp, spent from a day of healthful play at a lake scoured by ice, surrounded by mountains, away from the highways and smog.
Take a drive around the lake. From the park office where you can get maps of the trails and area roads, take a right onto Rt. 619, then left onto Rt. 622. On the right is a dirt public access road to Little Swartswood Lake, a 200 acre glacial lake. Enjoy the water's edge and small remote picnic area.
Walk a few feet further down the road to the streamflow in culverts between the two lakes. It's a botanist's dream. Cattail, button bush, red-spiked cardinal flower, blue-spiked pickerel weed, ferns, and a little purple loosestrife. How long will it be before it's a monoculture of loosestrife? Or will the richness of native species hold it at bay?
The town of Swartswood surrounds the T intersection. Right before it, on the right, is the Swartswood Deli with one booth, where they also sell trout worms, crawlers and mealworms. The natives are friendly too.
On the right of the T-intersection is a church that lost religion. It's now a municipal court, where this author once experienced "Judgment Day."
Back on the road, turn left onto Rt. 521. A short way down on the left is the Mill Pond Keen's Grist Mill, circa 1838, built from native limestone and slate. Here at the bottom of the lake in solitude, a fisherman from Jersey City catches a bucket load of sunnies.
The lake rides the dam and empties into the Mill Brook at the Mill Pond Keen's Grist Mill
Continue down and make a sharp left onto Rt. 612 and see the hillside crop fields above zigzag streams, barns so old and added onto they're spilling over the barnyard.
At the T, turn left onto Rt. 619. The landscape is impossibly beautiful--idyllic country where an old man smiles as he rides his tractor in the sunshine. There are sweeping meadows with giant rolls of hay and a silver-grey barn. Looks like playland. If only.
Turn left into one of many public accesses. From some you can get a walleye's view of how the lake people live.
There are no motors allowed on Swartswood Lake, so if you're seeking peace and serenity, you'll find it there. A canoe, kayak or rowboat is perfect. The lake is gorgeous, the ride is gorgeous. Explore the surrounding towns of Swartswood, Middleville and Stillwater for a further glimpse into country life.
The Division of Fish and Game calls Swartswood Lake "one of the best walleye lakes in the State of New Jersey." There's a healthy lake trout population, channel catfish, large and small mouth bass, chain pickerel, and panfish. In winter there's great ice-fishing, but the Park doesn't check the ice. Ice safety is a personal responsibilty. Fish to catch through the ice are pickerel, perch and brown trout.
For more information about Swartswood State Park, call the park office for more information at 973-383-5230 or check the NJ State Parks website.