It’s a good thing that we are biologically programmed to forget painful experiences. But what about exhausting or uncomfortable ones? You conveniently forget how much work goes into a tough walk. Or, at least that was my thought as the three of us finally finished out LENAPE34 walk, fully exhausted, at North Broad Street Station in Newark after 10:00 p.m. – 15 hours of nearly non-stop walking. Five other walkers had already made the entire journey at least an hour before.
The day started in Millburn at the train station and Locust Grove parking lot of South Mountain where we met at daybreak to kick off the 2nd annual LENAPE34 - Origins Walk. This year everything was going in our favor. The unusually warm weather put the starting temps in the low 60s with the promise of low 80s later in the day.
I had some reservations about repeating this walk mainly for two reasons, First, it’s a very difficult walk that's 50% through natural trails complicated by a short amount of daylight. Second, the Columbus Day holiday date is difficult for many to make, but has its advantages in scheduling. The FreeWalker survey on this hike showed that it was one of the most popular and challenging and still in demand.
Last year’s walk was a challenge. For most of that day the weather cooperated but turned vicious as the sun went down. Those that lasted got soaked by rain and pelted by a strange hailstorm. Many of us were forced to abandon the final Newark goal. But that would be no excuse for 2011.
South Mountain Reservation
The starting group of 22 of us began walking at the head of the Lenape Trail. We would follow the old southern section of the trail from Millburn, which starts with a climb of a couple hundred feet to the top of the ridge at Washington Rock in South Mountain Reservation. After about a half-hour of climbing we reached the Washington lookout just as the sun was fully rising. The distant view was a great way to start the day.
The lookout’s historical legend claims it was used to eye British troops amassing around Summit during the Revolutionary War. While there is no doubt that the original Lenape Indians roamed the area, there is little knowledge of their particular settlements.
Eventually, the 2,200 acre park came together through a series of land grants. The property was studied by Fredrick Law Olmsted, of Central Park fame, and delegated to his sons who took over the development in stages over the years. A good deal of construction work--trails, foot bridges, shelters, etc.—was carried out by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930's. Today the park still serves it's original purpose as a natural jewel and retreat away from city life.
Walking South Mountain Reservation trails is similar to walking the Appalachian Trail or any natural trail. Its route is not always direct and has been changed occasionally over the years. Yellow trail blazes keep you on the trail most of the time. Ideally, the next blaze should be seen in the distance as you approach the one near you. In fact, our young walkers Jazly, Sophie and Rebecca were able to lead us on the trail for much of the Practice and L34 walks.
There are three points along the Lenape Trail that can be troublesome. Hemlock Falls is popular and easy to spot 2 miles into the hike. But, the trail can be confusing as several trails meet in that area. Shortly after the Falls, there’s an open field areas and shortly after that another where you need to have some idea where the trail picks up; or poke around to find the next yellow blaze. Luckily, several of us knew the trail tricks here so no time was wasted. Still, our pace was necessarily slow in the woods and we were already about forty five minutes behind schedule at the end of the reservation.
The Lenape Trail covers much of the reservation and ends at the Mayapple parking lot area on Cedar Ave at the perimeter of park. Here about a third of our 22 called it a day.
Next, we followed a detoured route down Cedar Avenue to Pleasant Valley Way a couple miles until we again picked up the marked trail at the Rt 280 underpass. The Lenape officially continues to the power lines below Rt 280 but due to land access issues, overgrowth, and faded markers we chose to avoid problems and take the street for about a mile and a half, as we did last year.
West Orange and Lunch
We had already split into a few groups - our group, the young fast walkers (Jen, Pete, Ana-Maria, Shaun, and Miguel), and the trail runners (Anthony, Dave, and Mike) - with our group now tracking behind. We began to pick up some time knowing that we had a fairly easy walk until we reached Eagle Rock Avenue and lunch at Whole Foods. Our game plan was to take a short lunch and start to get back on track, but with great food, comfortable tables outside and nice weather we succumbed. Now, we were about an hour behind as we went back on the trail.
Eagle Rock to Verona Park
Eagle Rock Reservation is a geological wonder with great views of the city skyline all the way to NYC and not difficult to walk. The natural trail parallels a road and does not seem as long a walk as it does on the map. Soon, we came down the mountain and started zig-zagging through the neighborhoods of Verona. Usually, telephone poles on these streets are painted with yellow trail blazes, much as you would see painted on trees in the woods.
Our next stop, Verona Park, might be the nicest park per square foot in Essex County. It always seems active and well populated with a variety of things to do and see. But the topper this year was that the park bathrooms had a few oriental rugs! Now that's class!
The trail led us through the park and to the busy intersection of Bloomfield Ave and Pleasant Valley Way. By now, my group had dwindled down to Karen, Jay and Rob as I called the other groups to get a fix on where everyone was. The faster young group now came to be known as the “Jack Rabbits” and were deep into Mills Reservation miles ahead. Roger join up with this group and walked with them for a while. Meanwhile, Lynn and Claire who started in Verona were a mile or so ahead.
West Essex Trail
The West Essex Trail was created upon an old rail bed that once served Paterson. It was an early success for the Rails-To-Trails organization and for the neighboring towns. Mostly a hard-packed dirt trail, it has plenty of open land on once side, including Hilltop Reservation, while bordering residential backyards on the other. Nature and neighbors seem to blend together with tree houses, tree swings, border plantings and makeshift access to the trail.
The Lenape Trail piggy-backs on the West Essex Trail crossing over Rt 23 in Cedar Grove and then through some interesting sites like Devil’s Hole, a gorge on the Peckman River used as a swimming hole, and a Hemlock forest, like a little patch of Maine woods. Eventually, it reaches the Cedar Grove Reservoir, the furthest point north in Essex County. Here we caught up with Lynn and Claire as the six of us began heading south for the final 18 miles.
Reservoir and Mills Reservation
The Lenape has access to the land bordering the reservoir and then merges into Mills Reservation. There’s some elevation up and down the trail for several miles in the woods that looks and tracks something like our earlier South Mountain hike. At the southern base of Mills is Quarry Point, a lookout on elevated cliffs with a distant view. On the other side of the cliff is the Montclair Hawk Watch, an Audubon bird-watching spot. Today, there wasn’t a bird in sight, but maybe a dozen watchers.
The trail proceeds down the mountain to Upper Montclair where Lynn and Claire left our group. At the Mountain Ave train station we had our first SAG break. Tom Landes, a veteran biker and our senior “extreme” athlete, had set up a card table with water, fruit, and snacks Yon arrived on the NYC train in time to join us and help us pick up the pace. Some neighborhood homes here were showing signs of an early Haloween (or was the grim reaper an omen for our walk?). Most of the Jack Rabbits were already at Brookdale Park a couple miles ahead.
Brookdale Park and Walking Through Essex Towns
Brookdale Park is another popular park that serves the Montclair and Bloomfield area. Last year, this became the end of the road for many walkers who were hoping to go further but settled for the 22 or so miles at this point. Darkness was coming quickly when we arrived this day after 6:00 p.m. and the Jack Rabbits had taken off long ago. Our SAG Master, Tom, served us a “dinner” of homemade chile and bread. We gladly took advantage of the break as we called ahead to check in with the rest of the survivors.We also had a welcomed visit from Susann and Tim who came to provide encouragement.
By the time we were ready to leave around 6:30 p.m. it was dark and the walkers ahead were either in Belleville or had already reached Newark. Rob decided to take a ride with Tom back to his car as our group grew smaller and our SAG support became a fond memory.
Soon Karen, Jay, Yon and myself came upon an oasis for weary walkers, Holsten's Confectionery (an old-fashioned soda fountain store that was the location for the filming of the final Soprano's episode!). We knew that with 11 miles to go, we had several hours of walking ahead and we needed something special to keep us going that far and they had it - homemade ice cream.
With the darkness we could no longer easily see the yellow trail blazes. Fortunately, my headlamp helped illuminate the signs and was especially important while walking along the dark woodsy areas that followed..Eventually, the trail goes back to streets and sidewalks until the last set of big parks. At Belleville Park we lost our way and were forced to find a path that followed a river in the dark until we reached the entrance to Branch Brook Park.
My iPhone “Maps” app was a big help in getting us acclimated to where we were since it picks up a GPS reading and you could see what roads were nearby. Of course we were in a very populated area, but these are big dark parks and losing more time by being lost was the last thing we wanted to do.
Branch Brook Park
Branch Brook Park was fairly well lit for the first section and the trail mostly ran near the road where there was some traffic. Still, it was getting late and the park became less inviting as we continued. Yon decided to bail out at the Branch Brook Light Rail station about ½ mile into the park at “9:11 p.m.” as I looked at my watch (Humm, should I be concerned at that?) After a brief discussion, our group of 3 decided to soldier on. We were all very tired and probably willing to do anything the majority agreed to. But, we had enough in the tank and 11 hours of inertia to just keep going.
With at least one hour and possibly up to two hours ahead, the only thing left to decide was whether we should continue to Penn or go to North Broad Street where we needed to be to catch the train home. We decided to take Bloomfield Avenue directly to downtown Newark and make our decision as we got closer. Meanwhile, we heard from the Jack Rabbits had made it all the way to Penn Station.
Final Stop - Newark
My recommendation to walkers making it this far is to consider taking Bloomfield Ave which shaves off about ¾ mile from the total. Although it wasn’t real late, this section of Bloomfield Ave. is intimidating anytime in the dark with its grated-shut stores, grafitti and few shops open. After passing a few locals with no problems, we picked up the pace and headed to downtown Newark. Badly needing a bathroom at this point, we found a Burger King open near North Broad Street and made our last minute phone checks and decsions.
Our next train out was at 10:32 and it was about 10:10 p.m. Penn Station was another 1 ½ miles ahead, and if we got there we would need to get back to North Broad Station – at least an extra hour in total. We did a quick huddle and decided that this would be our endpoint. Jay and I caught the 10:32 and Karen got a ride home, Still a Newark finish. Not the glorious one I anticipated at Penn Station, but nevertheless a satisfying one. Next year its all the way to Penn Station!