My mind cleared quickly from a mental morning fog as I put down the first step of maybe 75,000 that day at the Millburn train station. Beginning in Morristown, I was stepping off the NJ Transit #0404 train transfer from Summit, arriving in the dark but on time at 6:32 a.m. Already, too much to comprehend for the beginning of a long, yet fast-paced; chaotic, yet calming day. I braced myself for I didn't know what. I looked around to see vague images of zombie-like creatures approaching in the dark. It was actually a good sign that we were about to embark on another crazy walking adventure with a sufficient number of like-minded, walk-challengers.
Being Columbus Day, an ersatz holiday these days for many, traffic was blessedly light but I had been warned that the Millburn train station lot was restricted. We began directing traffic to the small Locust Grove parking lot (South Mountain Reservation) which is conveniently located near the station. Car lights lit up the area. Soon it was time to gather and lay out the plan for the day to our group of about 40 starting walker/hikers. A respectable number, this being a Monday and a the Lenape34 being a brand new event. We were to discover later that at least 10 additional walkers would join us along the way.
We were off and walking by 7:10 a.m., just about sunrise. To those that would walk, the basics were given in the form of a few ground rules and cautions, trail maps for everyone, and a schedule of times and places to be in the next thirteen and one-half hours. Many would be attempting to walk 34 miles today through the most notable parks and towns of Essex County, following the Lenape Trail. Not exactly a simple walk in the park on any day. But, we were of to a good start with a beautiful day in that would warm to 70s.
The initial one-half mile of the Lenape Trail heads up South Mountain on a challenging incline of a few hundred feet elevation. While its not a long stretch its a bit intimidating to start. At the top of the mountain the trail flattens out joining Crest Drive which is paved but has been closed to traffic for years and leads to the Washington Rock lookout. With the altitude challenge, our group of 40 severely split into several groups even at this early stage.
While I wanted to be in the lead group, I was more useful sweeping the tail end of the group. I had a unique knowledge of the trail having walked the entire 34 miles in 3 previous segmented walks. I knew this was going to be a tough day. Only a week before, my original estimate of 12 hours had to be changed to 13 and one-half. About 50% of walk would be on natural trails and 50% on roads and sidewalks. Walking the natural trail at about 2.0 mph pace would reduce our overall average speed to about 2.5 miles per hour for the entire event.
Pacing and working with a group is important to succeeding at the ultimate goal. Of course, the beauty of this event is that its up to you to decide how you want to attack the course. Overall, this day is not for stopping and taking in the sights. There is a mission to accomplish and a timetable to shoot for along the way. From our youngest 12 year old hikers to our oldest 76 year old veteran, there is a determination that is unspoken but leads us all. However, I was able to catch up on things with my old friend, Massoud Messkoub during a few miles of walking. He is an accomplished marathon runner who is attempting to run a marathon in every state!
Hiking South Mountain
After the initial climb up South Mountain the trail leads to the prominent lookout point of Washington Rock. You could clearly see several miles ahead toward Summit. This was an important observation point during the Revolutionary War where British Soldiers were spotted while trying to make their way past Hobart's Gap. They were driven back preventing them from getting closer to Morristown, the headquarters of the the colonial troops.
The stone wall along the ledge and lookout shelter are still grand remnants from the Olmsted Brother's design as they carried forth their vision of a grand wilderness park on the outskirts of the booming urban area around Newark.
The trail ahead for the next 3 or so miles was directly in the woods and wound slightly up and down on the westerly side of the mountain near the summit. There were a few water cascades which were dry today and appeared simply as rock formations. You could also notice remains of several small building foundations and rock walls which were probably remnants of work done by the Civilian Conservation Corps who were active in the reservation in the 1930s. Just how the these workers get the material to build to this area and what exactly was their purpose?
Hemlock Falls, a 20 foot waterfall approached after about an hour walking. There was some confusion as to the familiar yellow-marked Lenape Trail we had apparently stayed on the old trail for a section which was re-routed slightly before the falls area. The falls is a popular area for visitors and is close to the parking lot, field, picnic area and, most importantly, a port-a-john beyond. We had gone more than a couple miles though a standard hiking trail. Now, the challenge was to find where to cross the open fields, then South Orange Avenue, to pick u the trail again.
Although I had walked this with Dave Hogenauer, of the South Mountain Conservancy, a few weeks ago, we could not find the trail blaze on the other side of the street. Eventually we figured it out after losing at least 15 minutes or so, and we were once again on our way toward Northfield Avenue.
Once we picked up the trail after crossing Cherry Lane, the path seemed a little easier, with less climbing with a wider more inviting trail. There was one outcrop shelter and lookout area that seemed to have survived the years mostly in tact. Our pace picked up. and soon we were at the pedestrian walkway over Northfield Avenue, a major spot where several left and a couple would join us.
Don't Listen to the Park Police
Once on the other side of Northfield, there is a nice easy section of natural trail that runs for almost a mile into a parking lot. I had worked with Steve Marano, the driving force behind improving the trail, to re-route our walk away from the trail near this area so that we would drop down a connecting street to Pleasant Valley Way and walk that parallel street to avoid some overgrown and poorly marked trail. I then made the mistake of asking a park cop to guide us to Cedar Avenue. Instead, he led us to another street that took us down the mountain and back out to Northfield. We had walked an extra mile or so and lost more time.
At least we we on a straight run down Pleasant Valley Way, heading toward route 280. Looking up the powerlines that run along 280, you could barely see the overgrown Lenape Trail. At least the street route we had walk had saved us some time by not having to deal with the toughest, least maintained part of the trail.
Whole Foods Lunch Break
On the other side of the highway the trail turns down normal, nicely maintained community streets, zig-zagging its way to Eagle Rock Avenue and soon to our lunchtime base camp - Whole Foods - at the Essex Mall. It was around 12:00 noon, five hours walking, ten miles, and we were about an hour behind. This did not bode well for finishing on time. But there was no need yet for concern as I knew we would be picking ups some speed on the next few miles.
Whole Foods was a well deserved half-hour stop for lunch and a time to check on other groups to get a feel for how the whole event was going. Nearly half of the entire group had already had lunch and left and the remainder sat with our 20 or so for lunch. The Whole Foods store was perfect with bathrooms, water fountain, big outside tables and plenty of healthy choices for lunch. We took full advantage of the one-half hour break. Some looked a little tired due to the long challenging hike we had just completed.
When it was time to go, we signaled everyone to move en mass as we crossed the parking lot into Eagle Rock Reservation. We lost sight of the trail markers as we crossed Prospect Ave and continued toward the Highlawn Pavilion Restaurant (formerly called "The Casino") area. But it didn't matter as we knew where the trail opened up behind the restaurant. What we realized then was that there were a few others who had somehow not known we were leaving. We waited for several minutes but did not know how to connect, so we decided we better continue and hopefully join-up later.
Eagle Rock Reservation & Verona Park
Due to the time constraint, we did not get to look out over Eagle Rock at the NYC view, the 9/11 memorial or the Highlawn Pavilion restaurant, some of the more spectacular landmarks in Essex County. Eagle Rock's trail was wider and mostly flat or descending down the mountain toward Verona. It was not nearly as rough and natural as South Mountain. Soon we were following yellow blazes in Verona's picture-perfect neighborhoods as we turned into Verona Park, a gem of a small manicured park. This has got to be one of the most active and well-loved parks in the county. It was a beautiful day and lots of people were taking advantage of it. But we were just passing through on our way to the other side of Bloomfield Avenue after finishing about 12 miles.
Rail to West Essex Trail
There was an old rail line passing through west Essex County that went into Passaic County and probably Paterson, a major industrial hub of the past. It was long ago abandoned and converted into an early "Rails to Trails" project called the "West Essex Trail". This flat wide dirt road is surrounded by a canopy of trees but borders the yards of neighborhood houses along the way. Its interesting to see how some have set out their yards to include access to the trail. There were fine fences, private picnic areas, and even a natural-vine swing rigged with a tire which we made sure to test out.
One of the more interesting features of the trail is right after a pedestrian bridge crosses over Route 23 in Cedar Grove we came upon the Peckman River with a gorge, some rapids and a large pool cut out from the granite. This, I had learned in my previous visit was Devil's Hole, now off-limits, but once favored as the old favorite swimming hole for many generations. It was an interesting break in the trail and a sign of other interesting areas to come.
The Lenape broke off about a half-mile ahead to the right and we began to walk up a rough trail, still easily marked by yellow blazes. The terrain became rougher and soon we were walking on a narrow peak in a beautiful hemlock forest with towering pines that looked over a creek about 50 feet down. We had seen variety along the way, but this reminded me of hiking in the woods in Maine. That section quickly gave way to rough trail again for another 1/2 mile which then led out to a guard rail and the open spaces of Ridge Road surrounding the Cedar Grove Reservoir.
A Reservation for Hawks
The trail runs along the Ridge Road sidewalk for about 1/2 mile to the top of the reservoir in Little Falls. Then heads south along the heavy-duty steel fence in the woods on the eastern side into Mills Reservation. This long section of several miles is a nice hike along a well maintained natural trail, similar in its raw beauty to South Mountain.
Near the end in Mills Reservation, there is an impressive rock outcrop called Quarry Point. Looking from several hundred feet above you could see a distance of several miles South to the left and a sheer rock wall on the right, maybe 1,000 feet in front of us. Birds and birdwatchers can be observed in the distance at the Montclair Hawk Watch, an Audubon bird sanctuary where hawks can be observed along with other migratory birds such as warblers, falcons, and occasionally a bald eagle. We were told by a friendly mountain biker that there also a beautiful view of the New York skyline from Hawk Watch. We probably overstayed our rest here but it was worth the extra time. Next, were were heading for the end of the trail out of the Reservation and the last of our "hiking" in the unspoiled woods.
The Lenape Trail continued for a mile or so after Quarry Point and down a sloping hill into Upper Montclair, one block away from Upper Mountain Avenue. Our next destination was the nearby Mountain Avenue train station where the Lenape Trail crosses the rail line. The NJ Transit Montclair-Boonton line runs along this track with hourly trains to Secaucus and New York. Having walked about 20 miles to this point, this was a natural point of departure for some heading back. It was about 4:30 and we were behind schedule with a couple walkers were nursing physical pains and blisters. But, we continued forward into Montclair, headed for Brookdale Park.
Several of the remaining walkers in my group had re-set their goal to Brookdale Park, completing a respectable 22 miles as we arrived at about 5:30. Even though our pace was picking up on the streets and park paths, we knew we were more than one hour behind and would have to deal with the darkness in another hour or so. Karen Kelly, Rob and Benjie were what was left of the group that we missed back at Whole Foods. They were trying to track us down so we could regroup for the final tough miles through Newark. Jennifer, met up with Peter and EJ and started walking ahead. Gary and I waited for the last group to show up before he headed home. So it was Karen, Rob, Benjie and I determined to continue walking and deal with any other problems along the walk
Across the Garden State
While the walk, now along streets was faster, the familiar yellow blazes of the Lenape Trail are a little harder to see and can appear on various creative places besides trees, like telephone polls, street signs and even on sidewalks and walls. Ideally, a yellow blaze is supposed to be within sight from the last one you are viewing. but, that's always the case. In this section of the walk we had a few spots that were hard to figure out crossing open fields and lots, our map helped us logically figure it out. But, what made it even more difficult was that we were losing light making navigating even more difficult. By the time it became dark, we were making our way on the footbridge that goes over the Garden State Parkway. There was still another 10 miles to go and it was about 6:30, with the temperature going down, clouds building and a wind beginning to blow.
After crossing the Parkway, we were probably in Bloomfield or near the border of Nutley. We picked up the trail blaze and headed straight ahead up an incline and then to the foot of some big powerlines that looked very imposing in the dark. We lost the trail mark but I remembered that part of the clearing in this area led down an narrow strip of partially cleared land. This is right of way for the old Newark Aqueduct that sends water down from the reservoirs in Passaic County. This long patch of land was left out of the residential development that surrounded it, but you could guess that following this would take you eventually to Newark. The big problem right now was that there was no street light and little help from a cloudy sky. It was time for Karen and I to get out our trusty headlamps to help see the way. But the first couple of drops fell from the sky signaled a whole different issue that we might have to deal with.
The Weather Puts a Damper on Things
It was time to improvise a new strategy. In Nutley, by the high school, we decided to head directly down Franklin Avenue with the hopes that the weather might clear. If not, we had a better chance of ducking into a store or fast food restaurant. Rain started coming down more steadily as we walked and Rob and Benjie decided to drop off and call their backups for a ride.
Karen and I kept going through Nutley and to Joralemen Street in Belleville before the rain started coming down hard. It was around 8:00 p.m. and we decided to duck into a Dunkin Donuts and see if we could wait it out. After a cup of coffee and donut, it looked like the rain had slowed but not entirely stopped. So, we started walking again down Franklin Avenue and got about 1/4 mile further before the rain and a strong wind picked up. The weather was looking ominous and the rain was not letting up so we headed into a Wendy's to see one more time if it would improve. By now, it was close to 8:30 and both the weather, time and available light were getting worse. Finally, as we sat thinking about the situation we heard a pounding noise on the building and outside. Bouncing on the ground were hailstones the size of marbles. It was a very good thing we were inside for this unexpected surprise.
Time to Head Home
It was time to call in a favor and get rescued or at least picked up and assisted to get back home. Our walk for the day had ended in Belleville, six miles away from our destination of Penn Station, Newark. I called Steve Marano (Nutley native and coordinator for Lenape Trail) and asked if he could provide Karen and I a ride to our Newark train stations so we could get the next train back. My train left from the North Broad Station at a little after 9:00 and I was back home shortly after 10:00 p.m. that evening.
I was relieved to know that several individuals had already made it to Penn Station and everyone was safe. Karen and I were probably the last ones left. But the distance we covered, under the circumstances still made it feel like a sweet victory. There's nothing quite like a full day of experiencing an entire trail as diverse and interesting as the Lenape. We were under the pressure of time, weather, and physical endurance and remarkably, there were few complaints from anyone - young or old - and plenty of admiration for those that toughed it out as far as the could, in spite of exhaustion and sore feet.
The 34-mile Lenape Trail proved itself to be a challenging and worthy walking adventure. It was not as far as our 50-mile NJ2NY50 Walk, but in many ways just as difficult with elevations to climb and uneven natural trail to travel, and finally darkness and freaky weather. Our one-day adventure, from sunrise to well past sunset, had taken us from trains to wilderness, from woods to neighborhoods, from paths to streets to highways, from small towns to cities, and from a passing familiarity of places to an intimate connection with grand parks and reservations that make up this diverse Essex county. We were happy to be a part of this unique challenge and grateful to be able to help re-vitalize a unique and important trail in our own distinct way.