Bearfort Ridge

Lichen is rampant on some spots.
Bearfort Ridge is located in the Abram S. Hewitt State Forest, under the administration of the Wawayanda State Park. While its rough nature and difficult trails are far from unique, the ridge offers something you won't find often in New Jersey: a bare and unprotected trail.

Getting there
Take Exit 55 off I-287 and turn onto Route 511 North. After about 20 minutes of driving, crossing the Wanaque Reservoir and circling around the southern edge of the Greenwood Lake, you will arrive to a shopping plaza on your left (the dominating stores are Staples and A&P Superstore), keep straight where Route 511 turns left. After crossing the second bridge, park the car to the right side of the road. Parking space is limited to four cars on two extended shoulders, so be early or you'd have to park at the shopping center and hike another half a mile. Another solution is to go a little further to a slightly larger parking spot and hike up the blue-marked trail, which, however is not covered in this text.

The following hike follows the one described in 50 Hikes in New Jersey. You will climb up the ridge, follow it for another 1.5 mile and then circle around Surprise Lake. The whole distance is about 8 miles, and while the elevation differential between the lowest and highest point of the hike is about 600 feet, you will end up climbing about twice that height. The terrain varies from very steep to flat, so good shoes are a must. If you are afraid you'd hurt your hands (there are a few spots you will have to climb), you may consider gloves as well.

After you park the car, cross the bridge and turn left onto the Bearfort Ridge Trail, marked white. A vandal tends to paint those marks over, but the trails is well-defined, and the forest service repaints the markings quite often. After an initial ascend, you will come across a woods road and a trail with pink/orange markings (Quail Road Trail; never could quite make out the color). This is a fairly simple trail that leads you underneath the ridge to Surprise Lake, and you may consider using it on your way back if you are too tired.

Looking south over some rocks.
Continue up on the white-marked trail. After some initial climb and a few flat sections, you will come to a sharp right turn. Here, the blue-marked trail, which I have mentioned in the driving directions, joins the Bearfort Ridge Trail. After this point, the serious ascend begins. This early into the hike, however, the elevation of some 400-500 feet should not prove too problematic. After about 20 minutes of hiking, you will come across a large boulder on your left; note the heavy lichen growth here. Also note how split the rock is into several pieces: Bearfort Ridge is quite exposed to the weather, and such splits will become quite common.

After a few more minutes, the trail turns right. At this point, the forest changes from a mixed one to consisting largely of pines, and the trail steers up above the tree line. Here, notice the large flat rock to your left. If you climb up, you will get the only good view south on this trail. Across the road, you can observe the Bearfort Mountain. If you climb down the other side of the rock, you will come to a lovely protected area with some pine growth; my favorite place on this hike.

Once you decide to go on, you will make one more short ascend and find yourself on the top of the ridge. While you will get a nice view east from time to time, the best view will be available at the end of this trail. This part of the trail is relatively unprotected from the sun, with only small pines growing on certain places. While the sun is more than welcomed in the winter months, in summer this place gets awfully hot; another reason to arrive early in the morning. The trail surface is mostly hard rock, with patches of moss across and along the trail. The rocky surface is split from time to time, and will require you to do some climbing. One of the hardest climbs comes after you cross a small stream, which flows under the rock and you can only hear it. The climb up the bank is not as hard and dangerous as the climb down on your way back.

On some places, the split rock created real wonders of nature. About an hour into the hike, you will come to a large swampy area to your left. Here, the rock split and created a huge rectangular slab to your left, about three feet from the main rock. This is the most exposed area on your hike, and quite windy; yet, you should stop here for a while and enjoy the sight. As you continue, you will run into other interesting rock formations, but none is as impressive as this one.

The trail follows the bare rock on the top of the ridge.
The trail abruptly ends in another 40 minutes or so, and offers you the so far best view east. To your right, you will observe the Surprise Lake, while hills upon hills are the main feature to your right. You will also notice the absence of any civilization marks. Turn left here and follow the yellow markers of the Ernest Walter Trail. For a short distance, these marks are mixed with the red marks of another trail; I found it much easier to follow the red marks.

Negotiate your way through a real roller coaster of steep ascends and descends. Be very careful here, as some descends are very steep. Always look for the yellow markings, as the trail is not too well defined, and the markings are quite sparse. After about 20 minutes, the trail gets a roughly northern bearing, and you will arrive to the West Pond. A side trail goes down to the water, and I highly recommend you take it. This small lake is much more picturesque than the Surprise Lake, and the lack of people and other signs of civilization allows for a little meditating.

As you continue on the yellow-marked trail, you will come to a T-junction with the Appalachian Trail, marked with large white markers. Turn right onto the Appalachian Trail here. After about five minutes of ascending, you will cross a small ridge, with the Surprise Lake right in front of you. The trail turns sharply left here, and is easy to miss. After another five minutes, a blue-marked trail, the State Line Trail, leaves the Appalachian Trail to your right. Take this new trail.

This trail descends gently through the woods. After a rather uneventful twenty minutes, look for a large rocky ridge to your right. You will climb this ridge, following the yellow markers of the Ernest Walter Trail, but the markers are sometimes hard to notice. The ascent to the ridge is relatively easy: while quite steep, the rock is formed into easy to negotiate steps. Once on the top, follow the markers on the rock for about five minutes to the highest point of the trail. From here, you will get the best view of the whole hike. You will be able to observe the entire Greenwood Lake and Sterling Forest on the far shore. This view makes the whole trip worthy, so take your time. In summer months, you can see people boating on the lake, while in winter months it is absolutely empty. On a sunny day, you can ignore the wind here and simply enjoy the view.

Once you decide to continue, follow the markers closely, as they are spread quite widely. After another ten minutes on the ridge, the trail starts to descend through a thick rhododendron jungle until you arrive to the Surprise Lake. The lake itself is a little disappointing after the previous views, but you can sit down for a while if you want. Once you leave the lake, pay close attention to the trails. The yellow markers are parallel to the pink ones of the Quail Road Trail for a few yards, then turn to the right. Please be aware that you have a steep climb up and the whole Bearfort Ridge Trail to negotiate, so if you don't feel like it, simply take the woods road down to your car. While the Bearfort Trail looks quite different from the other direction, the last descend is a real pain. If you decide to stay on the Ernest Walter Trail, cross a small stream and head up the hill. Once on the top, you will find yourself at the beginning (or end?) of the Bearfort Ridge Trail. From here it is about 1.5 - 2 hours to your car.

Difficulty: 8 out of 10. Lots of steep ascents and descents, relatively long.
Orientation: 7 out of 10. While most of the time the trail is well defined, the yellow markings are inadequate.
Beauty: 7 out of 10. Some great view, few people and a very unique trail.

Other resources
Official site of the Abram S. Hewitt State Forest
Another hike description, pictures

© Jozef Purdes, 2001-2003

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