High Mountain

Morning fog in the forest.
High Mountain Preserve Park is one of the best places to hike in northeastern New Jersey. In fact, I have yet to find a place as pristine and quiet as High Mountain, north of I-80 and east of I-287. The park offers very varied terrain, ranging from wet and muddy valleys to bare hilltops and anything in-between. With about 12-15 marked trails and twice as much unmarked trail, the park offers better hikes than you'd expect to find in the middle of urban sprawl.

Getting there
Take Exit 53 off I-80 and drive east on Route 46. After about half a mile, turn right onto Riverview Drive towards Wayne (basically turn right as soon as you pass the first bridge on Route 46). After about a mile, turn right onto Valley Road. Drive three miles and turn right onto Hamburg Turnpike. After another mile, turn left onto College Road. Drive for a mile (ignore the Visitor's parking) and park at Parking Lot 6, upper tier (Tier A). This lot is often empty, so you can park close to a sign pointing towards the start of the Red Trail.

As I mentioned, the park offers lots of unmarked trails. For the purpose of this hike, however, we'll stay on marked trails and will cover the eastern half of the park. This hike will lead to some very wet but geologically interesting areas, will offer a limited view at the Pompton Lakes, an excellent view at New York and lots of ups and downs. The hike is about 5 miles long, the total elevation differential about 600 feet, and it should take no longer than 3 hours to finish.

Start on the red trail; cross the road and head right up the hill. Soon, the trail will level and you will come to a maze of trails leaving the Red trail in each direction. Just keep going straight. Here, you will notice the bane of this park for the first time: dirt bikes' and buggies' tracks everywhere. While motorized vehicles are prohibited here (for a good reason - some trails are hardly usable because of them), you have a very high chance of running into them on weekend afternoons.

As you wind your way through a relatively dense forest, notice the number of unmarked trails leaving the main trail. This is indicative to the absolute abundance of trails in this area, many of which are used by mountain bikers, who still have the permission to use the park. After about 15 minutes, you will come to a crossroads with the yellow trail. You will return on this trail, so you can ignore it for now. Go on for another minute or so until you arrive to a fork in the trail. The red trail goes right, but you'll take the white trail that starts here.

Almost immediately, you start to lose ground. You will also notice that the dirt parts of the trail are quite muddy, while the flat rock sections may be wet from time to time. This is one of many trails that double as streams in this area. Once you hit the bottom here, you will come to a vet area with countless small streams to cross. Watch out for those big inviting rocks in the middle of the streams: many of them are loose, as I found out the hard way.

This low-lying area is known for its flora. The park features over 380 plant species, 18 of which are on the endangered lists. You can find many of these plants here; especially in middle and late spring you will be overwhelmed by the plant smells and sights here.

You will come across a rather dull pond.

As you go on, the trail will make a sharp right. To your left, you will see the North Jersey Country Club; the closest you come to civilization on this hike. By now, you would have noticed that the park is unusually quiet. While lying in heavily populated urban area, the car noise is almost non-existent and if you manage to come early, you will not hear any planes either. As you continue on the white trail, you will leave the golf club behind and come to a small pond that feeds the golf club's streams. This area serves as a resting point for many hikers, even though I tend to pass it.

Soon, the white trail gains a little elevation, and you will enter a very interesting geological area. On both sides of the trail, you can observe small hills made of basalt, which crumbled through the ages and covers the gully the trail leads through. If you manage to come here early in the morning, this part of the trail seems like the end of the word: very quiet and pristine. Later in the day, however, it doubles as a highway for dirt bike riders.

After about twenty minutes, you will come to a wide unmarked trail going steeply up to your right. This is a small shortcut that may save you a few minutes of walking, but you may want to ignore it if you are here for the first time. Just go on for another minute or two and turn left onto the yellow trail.

You can avoid the next part, which adds about 30 minutes and 200 feet of elevation to the overall hike. Continuing on the yellow trail, you will soon come to the top of a hill, with a limited view to the west. More interesting than the view, however, is a small swampy area you will cross before. If you are a botany buff, this small swamp is worth your visit. The top of the mountain with the limited view is only two or three minutes of hiking after you cross the swamp.

Here, you can rest for a while and return the same way you came. The yellow trail goes on for another couple of miles to a small waterfall, which does not warrant the additional hiking. Once you turn back and negotiate the potentially slippery way down, stay on the yellow trail. Soon after you pass the white trail, you will turn into the woods and then sharply right. On your left, you can see some residential buildings through the trees to your left. As soon as you make the sharp right turn, the trail starts to gain elevation.

From now on, the trail will be much more pleasant. The rocks and the mud are gone, replaced by large stone slabs and grass. The trail gently gains altitude until you come to another bunch of unmarked side trails and start going down again. Soon, you will hit the red trail again; ignore it and continue on the yellow trail, which now starts climbing more steeply. The last leg before hitting the mountain top is quite steep, but relatively short.

The top of the High Mountain is flat and relatively open. Follow the occasional trail makers on the ground, or a general southwest direction. The top is crisscrossed with dirt bike tracks, suggesting that this is a popular spot for the riders. The tall grass prevents picnic in this area, but a few traces of campfires suggest that people tend to stay here for an extended period of time. As you come to the south end of the mountain, you will get an excellent view of northeastern New Jersey and New York City.

The way down is very steep and treacherous. The trail consists mostly of loose small rocks, sometimes covered by old leaves, which makes for a very unstable combination. The way down should take you about 20 - 30 minutes, the slowest part of the hike. After that, however, you will come back to the red trail, where you turn left and get back to your car in about 15-20 minutes.

Difficulty: 5 out of 10. Fairly easy for hikers, but too much mud to bring children along.
Orientation: 9 out of 10. Very well marked; the abundant unmarked trails should not confuse the hikers.
Beauty: 6 out of 10. Lots to see, but the rampant illegal use of motorized vehicles is very damaging.

Additional resources
Park page with hiking maps at NYNJTC
Hike profile at LocalHikes
An article with additional information
Reviews of the park for mountain bikers

© Jozef Purdes, 2001

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