Black River County Park

Your first look at Kay Environmental Center.

Combining history with one of the most varied pieces of nature in northern New Jersey, the Black River area is perfect for hikers who look for something less strenuous and more entertaining. Families will love hiking here, as will wildlife observers, but even those who look for some good old-fashioned long-distance walking will not be disappointed.

Getting here
For the purpose of this hike, you will leave you car at the Cooper Mill. Take I-80 to Exit 27 and turn onto Rt. 206 South. Eight miles later, in Chester, turn right onto Rt. 513 (this turn is right before a shopping center). Slightly over a mile farther, the parking lot will be to your left.

This hike is an extension of a well-known and described hike to the Kay Environmental Center and back. The total length is almost doubled to seven miles, and the difficulty is a little higher. If you simply look for a nice afternoon walk, follow the directions to the environmental center and the alternate return path that I describe.

Start towards the mill. It is open and operating from May till October, but the park remains open all year long with the exception of several workdays around Christmas. At the mill, notice the box with a small learning panel. You will pass several more on the route, each offering an interesting piece of history or local nature. Make your way across the bridge, following the blue blazes of the Black River Trail. The river of the same name will remain on your right, and its waters will quickly transform from a swirling stream into a lazy river. The first part of the trail may be a little muddy, and the surface is a little uneven with lots of roots sticking out, but as soon as the trail leaves the last bridge it becomes a wide and very pleasant woods road.

One of the more exciting sections of the Black River.
The trail passes Kay's Pond and turns sharply left, around an abandoned mine. While the mine is fenced, you may notice a small exploratory hole nearby; you'll notice several more of them along the hike. For larger holes and more mining history, you may consider a hike at Mount Hope. After this turn, the trail becomes a little uneven again, as it winds its way between a hillside and the river. Soon, you'll cross a series of bridges, and the trail turns left, away from the river. A few yards farther, it forks.

Turn left at the fork, following the blue blazes, but notice the other trail; you will be returning this way. The trail now starts ascending, and this climb will be quite long and potentially tiring, even though it never gets too steep. The forest is now a little more open and very typical of northern New Jersey. Because this route is heavily used, seeing a deer or a fox is rather unusual here.

After you turn right behind the remains of an old wall, the trail opens up even more, and trees disappear, leaving you surrounded by impassable undergrowth. You'll soon arrive on crossroads; turn sharp left here and enter the open field. The house in front of you is Kay Environmental Center, and the field is the one you will be circling around if you decide to return from here. Make your way to the parking lot and notice where the trails continue; you want to get onto the blue-blazed Bamboo Brook Trail. Before you go there, however, see if the center is open (I found it always closed, but I tend to hike at really weird times) and ask for a permit to visit the otherwise restricted Natural Area. Permits are free, and getting one will grant you access to a beautiful side trail.

When you decide to go on, the blue trail leads downhill next to an open field. When you reach the bottom, it turns left and almost immediately right again, when it hits a road. If you want to return back, turn right instead of left and follow the wide gravel road along the field. The road will soon make a right turn and then come to a crossroads. If you go on, you will come to the same crossing where you turned sharply left; instead take the first left unmarked trail and turn left again on the red trail. The trail soon turns sharply right and a few minutes sharply left. Instead of a left turn, go straight on the green-blazed trail.

Portions of the trail are extremely easy to walk on and are suitable for all hikers.
If you decide to take the longer route, stay on the blue trail. Stay on the road until it merges into Pottersville Road. Turn right here and follow the blue blazes on the telephone polls. After a few minutes, the trail reenters the forest on your left. There are signs warning that this portion of the park is open to hunting, and the empty cartridges I found prove this, so you may want to consider wearing hunter orange during hunting season.

The forest has now an entirely different character. It looks messy, with thick undergrowth and twisted trees. It looks abandoned, save for an old car body on the side of the trail. As you go on, the path becomes rockier, and after crossing another trail is starts climbing rapidly. When it levels off, the surface changes to gravel again, and the forest becomes more open. After a short descent, the trail meets the red-blazed Conifer Trail. Turn right here, following the red blazes.

The trail descends back to the road and crosses it, and you'll find yourself in an entirely different world. Suddenly, you'll be surrounded by tall pine trees, in a beautiful and wild area. Fallen trees are everywhere, there's a thick but low undergrowth and enormous trees loom over you. The last time I visited this area was during a very windy day, with gusts approaching 50mph. I was freezing on the field, open to the wind. Here, I heard the wind and saw the trees bending, but not even a breeze penetrated at my height.

As you go on, the trail descends in this forest, and you'll be traversing the hillside on the most pleasant surface, old pines. After you cross a small stream, the trail goes up again, reaches a top amid a mixed forest and descends again towards the Black River. The first time you approach the river there is an easily accessible boulder right over the water, overlooking a particularly wild section of the stream. It is large enough for two or three people and offers comfortable seating if you want to take a break. It is also the best opportunity to observe the river, as the trail climbs up from here, following the river from a distance.

The Cooper Mill works even today, and during season it grinds 400 pounds of flour per hour.
For the next twenty minutes or so, the trail goes through a series of ups and downs (more ups than downs, to be precise), on a very soft dirt surface. At times, the trail is very narrow and a little skewed, as it stays in the middle of a hillside. I was surprised to see hoof prints here, but don't ride horses, so I can't judge how safe the trail is. After a sharp right turn followed by an almost immediate left turn the trail starts climbing steadily, with small periods of being relatively level. Soon, you'll arrive to another sharp right turn, with a gravel road with green blazes going straight. Turning right here will eventually get you to the field next to the Kay Environmental Center; go straight instead.

The green trail is a wide gravel road, slowly descending back to the river. The walking is very easy here, and you'll be able to get back to the blue trail in ten minutes or less. At one point the green trail turns left; go straight instead. If you turned left, you'd cross the Black River into a restricted area. You may gain access here to get a permit at the Cooper Mill or Kay Environmental Center, and by all means you should do so, even though it would add almost two miles to your hike. Without a permit go straight instead, and soon you'll come to the blue trail again. Turning left here will put your on your way back to Cooper Mill.

Difficulty: 5 out of 10. Relatively long, but no serious elevation change.
Orientation: 7 out of 10. Trails are obvious, but markers are sometimes worn out.
Beauty: 8 out of 10. No vistas, but very varied forest, nice river and lake, and very varied wildlife.

Additional resources
Park profile at New Jersey Skylands
Hike description at New York New Jersey Trail Conference
Short hike description at 25 Great Walks in Morris County
Park info at Morris County Park Commission - includes directions and a printable map, albeit outdated

Time table
Net time Total time Notes
45 - 60 min 45 - 60 min Getting to Kay Environmental Center is relatively easy, even with families with children. The only problem may be a long ascent towards the end.
30 - 45 min 75 - 105 min The second part, getting from the environmental center to the red trail is relatively fast, thanks to an asphalt road you'll be walking on for a while. Later, however, you'll experience a steep ascent.
75 - 135 min 150 - 240 min Getting back to your car requires you walking through very varied terrain and several ups and downs for 3.5 miles. Expect to take several breaks to enjoy your surroundings.
Methodology: The lower number is how long it took me to finish each part. While I'm in mid 20s and in a relatively good shape, I tend to stop often to take pictures or simply enjoy the view. It is very likely that your time will be close to mine. The upper limit is my time adjusted to the difficulty of the trail and various distractions. I assumed a family with children in my calculation. I believe that the upper limit is rather extreme. I have not taken into account the time spent for an extended break.

© Jozef Purdes, 2003

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