Mahlon Dickerson Reservation

The view from Headley Overlook.

The largest reservation in Morris County is relatively unknown. While there are some busy days when the trails are full of hikers, bikers and horseback riders, all too often you'll be able to find some solitude here, or at least the escape from the hectic world. Offering a lake, a scenic vista, multiple streams, swamps, a railroad bed, but also playgrounds, a softball field, picnic tables and trails for horses, the reservation is a boon for everybody who is willing to get out of the house.

Getting here
Take exit 34B off I-80 and go on Rt. 15 North. After four miles, turn right onto Weldon Road. About three miles further, turn right onto the Saffin Pond parking lot. Driving here, you'll pass the Saffin Rock-Rill sign. You may want to stop here (drive down a dirt road and at the fork turn left) to pick up a park map; the information stand at Saffin Pond is sometimes out.

This hike takes full advantage of the reservation. It includes all major attractions, and it circles nearly the entire park. While it is relatively long, the hike is not too strenuous, and the hardest part will be a river crossing. Still, there will be several shortcuts a tired hiker can take.

A small sign shows the highest point in Morris County.
Start down towards Saffin Pond on the teal-blazed Highlands Trail. You will stay on this trail until it leaves the park, so get used to the diamond-shaped blazes. The first part of the hike is very rocky, which is actually an advantage, as you'll be forced to jump from rock to rock, avoiding small streams feeding the lake. There is not too much water, however, even after heavy rains, but in case you are unable to cross it, go instead on the gravel road on the other side of the lake and then cross over at the dam.

Once you pass the lake, the trail will temporarily become a gravel road, turn left and start a gentle climb. After a few minutes, you'll come to a T-intersection, where you turn right. In this section, the trail is in a shallow gully, which eventually transforms into a streambed. While it keeps descending, the going will be slow as the trail is not in the best condition, and you'll often have to walk on the edges, in order to avoid the small stream in the middle of the trail. After ten to fifteen minutes, you'll come to a relatively open area where the terrain changes from dirt to flat rock. The trail turns left here and starts its final descent towards a large stream.

The next ten minutes will be very wet. The trail becomes one large pool of water, as it winds its way along the stream. As you come to another T-Intersection where you'll turn left, the trail gains a little slope, and will remain relatively dry until you reach the stream crossing. This crossing is the most difficult part of the hike. In 2003, we had one of the rainiest years in recent memory, and the ground was saturated. As a result, as of now the stream is quite deep, and many stepping-stones are submerged. If you have the slightest doubt whether you'll be able to cross the stream, bushwack your way upstream instead, as the trail will later cross back to your side.

The Ogden Mine Railroad Bed is very easy to walk on.
If you cross the stream, the trail regains its dry and pleasant character and climbs up a slope. At its highest point, a white-blazed trail joins from the right. This trail leads to the Beaver Brook hike, described separately on this site. The Highlands Trail starts descending again, crosses a smaller stream and then crosses the main stream, this time on a simple bridge. Then, the trail starts climbing again, passing next to a very impressive rock face. I always slow down here, as this section of the hike is usually deserted, and the rocks are awe-inspiring. After one more stream crossing on rocks (this time a relatively easy one), the trail starts climbing. You'll cross the yellow trail and in a few minutes you'll come to the first scenic overlook. Go on, and after you descend slowly you'll climb a steep but short section and find yourself on the Headley Overlook. Due to the easy access from a nearby parking lot, this overlook tends to get crowded, but there's always enough space to sit down and enjoy the view of the woods for a moment.

After you decide to go on, the trail becomes a gravel road and descends onto a parking lot. Turn right here, following the blazes, pass the lot and the softball field and notice that you are joined by the white-blazed Pine Swamp Trail. On the fork, turn right and descend down into the forest on a wide gravel road. This part of the hike is very easy. While there are several long ups and downs, the trail remains wide and easy to step on, until it descends sharply and comes to a wet area. After you cross it and climb a little, the Highlands Trail leaves to your right. Ignore it at this point and continue on the white trail.

The scenery now changes. Pine trees become dominant, and the section you are in feels several degrees colder. You'll pass through a small swampy area, which feels like lifted from a fairy tale. The fallen tree trunks and boulders are overgrown with moss, fern is everywhere and small pools of water border the swamp. After a wide left turn, the trail becomes a wide woods road again and starts climbing. At the fork, the trail turns left and climbs some more. Soon, you'll come to a small sign, telling you that you've just arrived at the highest point in Morris County (I wonder whether other counties have similar signs). The trail then starts descending, and in a few short minutes you'll come to another T-intersection.

Sunset over Saffin Pond.
At this point, the white trail turns left. Ignore it and instead turn right, onto the unmarked trail. In a few minutes, when you come to a fork, take the right trail. This trail is not maintained, but judging from the tracks it is heavily used by mountain bikers. As such, the trail is clear of any foliage and it is well defined. It winds its way down the hill, and as you come to a wide swampy area, it ends at the Ogden Mine Railroad Bed. Turn left here, and the last leg of your journey will be a pleasant one, on a wide, flat gravel road. The road passes very scenic swamps on both sides, which also feature beaver lodges. Take your time and stroll back to the parking lot, which at this point is ten to fifteen minutes away.

Difficulty: 6 out of 10. Relatively long, but there are very few steep ascents. Half of the hike is on gravel roads.
Orientation: 5 out of 10. Markers are far and between, and the trail is not too obvious at times.
Beauty: 6 out of 10. Different sights to please everybody, but the only truly spectacular sight is the swamp.

Additional resources
Park profile at Morris County Park Commission
Park profile at
Hike description at NYNJTC
Hike description at NY-NJ-CT Botany - includes park history
South part of the hike description at 25 Great Walks in Morris County
North part of the hike description at 25 Great Walks in Morris County
Short hike description at Morris County Hiking Trails

Time table
Net time Total time Notes
75 - 120 min 75 - 120 min Getting to Headley Overlook is the hardest part. It involves the only steep ascent, several potantially difficult stream crossings and a flooded trail.
60 - 120 min 135 - 240 min With a small exception, the hike from Headley Overlook to the Morris County high point is on gravel roads. However, there are still several ascents, and expect to be tired.
30 - 45 min 165 - 285 min The last part is relatively easy. The unmarked trail stopes largely down, and the railroad bed is very pleasant to walk on.
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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