If there were awards handed out for the best-hidden treasures, Merrill Creek Reservoir would certainly receive one of them. It is actually pretty well known in its immediate area, and even hiking books that cover the entire New Jersey tend to mention it, but finding the place may not be too easy. Once you do, however, you will be treated to one of the most beautiful hikes for beginners, as well as varied wildlife, different terrains and one of the cleanest trails around.
Take Exit 4 off I-78 and turn right (north) onto Country Road 638. Once you hit the town center, you will come across a flashing stoplight (4-way stop). Turn right here and follow CR 638. You will now cross one of the few remaining farm areas in northern New Jersey, and the ride itself is quite the sightseeing tour for city folk. When you hit the intersection with Route 57, cross it diagonally and drive into the narrow Montana Mountain Road. After some climb through a forest, the road levels out and ends at a fork. Turn left here. On the next crossing, turn left again (follow the first marker to the reservoir you'll see). At a fork, turn right and keep towards the right until you get to the parking lot next to the information center.
The information center is one of the best equipped I've seen in New Jersey. It looks brand new, is very clean, and offers an exhibit on the local wildlife, as well as other facilities. Every time I have been here, the place was deserted, which makes me wonder whether anybody visits the place at all. You can pick up a map at an information table near the parking lot, or in the center, at the info window. You may want to check the aerial picture of the whole area above the window, which will give you a much better idea of your hike than the map.
The reservoir is set among beautiful nature.
For the purpose of this hike, we will follow the black-marked Perimeter Trail. We will later leave this trail and follow the Orange and Blue trails instead, in order to complete a close mapping of the shore. Following the perimeter trail only would yield a 4.5 mile hike; with the addition of the orange and blue trails you get about three miles extra. The terrain is largely flat and very even, ideal for jogging or brisk walk. I've seen people with dogs on the trail as well, but there is a strict order to keep the dogs on leach all the time.
You start out walking down to the boat ramp. Walk away from the information center entrance and enter the forest where you see the green and black markers. The green markers soon leave to the left; you take the right path on a fork. Within a minute or so, you'll be crossing a parking lot. The trail continues at the other end, as a wide gravel road. This first part of the trail is very easy and has its beauty. You will first cross a field from which you get the first good view of the lake. This field is full of wildflowers during season, and if you get sunny weather and a light breeze, there is hardly a more pleasant place in the whole state.
After a very short walk through a wooded area, you will emerge on a small dam. This dam will give you probably the best view of the lake (some say the Main Dam is better but I disagree), and you may want to sit on the edge here for a couple of minutes just to enjoy what you see. So far, I was always lucky and came here on very windy days. If you are like me and enjoy windy, crisp days, you'll find that this place is ideal for catching some air blowing directly at you. It also allows you to watch some nice sunsets across the lake.
View from the main dam.
As you continue on, you will cross another small patch of forest (this time combined with a very shallow ascent), after which you come to the main dam. There is an entry onto the dam, and I would recommend you take it, as the alternate route goes steeply down and then steeply back up. The dam is relatively long, and offers plenty of opportunity for a quick picnic, with its large boulders serving as chairs and tables. It curves slightly, you when you enter it you won't see how far it actually goes.
Once you leave the dam on the other side, the trail leaves the gravel road and instead turns sharply right onto a much more narrow path, and disappears into the forest. Watch closely for this path, as the first few yards lead through an open grassy area, and are easy to miss. As soon as you enter the forest, you will be surrounded by pine trees, which gradually give way to a mixed forest. The feeling here is quite similar to that in other forests in New Jersey, but the transition from a wide open gravel road to a narrow dirt pathway is very sudden, making you feel like miles away from civilization.
The next half an hour will see you walking through the forest, crossing other trails, some of which are better defined. It is easy to loose orientation here, so remember one rule: as long as there is no other indication, go straight; otherwise tend to stick to the reservoir and take the right path. The big exception is when you come to a wide woods road, which goes directly down to the water. On your left, you will see the edge of the forest and a grassy space. Turn left here, and a few yards up the hill, take the right path that leads back into the forest. Almost immediately, the trail splits again. In order to complete the circle around the lake, you should stick to the left trail. If you want to get to the observation deck at the waterline, however, turn right, but be prepared for some sharp descent and a subsequent ascent on your way back.
Dead trees still show the extent of the original forest.
If you go on, the trail will wind its way through the forest for another twenty to thirty minutes. The terrain is relatively flat, and the trail is pleasant to walk on, and you may meet many joggers who take advantage of it. The forest goes on until it emerges on yet another dam. Once you cross it, you will come to a small parking lot, which is a very popular local spot for bird watching during migration times. Follow the path away from the parking spot across a small open hill and onto another dam. Once you cross it and reenter the forest, the scenery changes.
The forest is much darker here, and the footing on the trail is not as easy, with a couple of roots and lots of small ups and downs. The trail is largely right at the waterline, and can be a little wet and very narrow at times. To your right, you will see many dead submerged trees. Especially near sunset, they are well lit and offer some interesting patterns. Soon, however, the trail leaves the shoreline, and you will arrive at a wooden bridge.
Large grassy areas provide for plenty of resting places and great views.
Cross this bridge, and assess your remaining strength. Here, you have two choices. You can either cut across and be back at the visitor center in twenty minutes, or you can continue mapping the shore and take another hour or more. If you decide to take the short route, turn left once you cross the bridge. After a few yards, look for a green trail leaving uphill, sharply to the right. Be ready for some ascent and rocky footing, but soon you'll be back on a well-groomed gravel road. Following the trail back to the visitor center, you will pass a wildlife observation blind and ruins of an old farm.
If you decide to stay along the shore of the reservoir, turn right when you cross the bridge. For the next twenty minutes, you will remain on the relatively rocky orange trail. Once you start climbing, you come to a crossroads with the blue trail to your right. Take this trail, and soon it becomes wider and easier to walk on once it emerges on the edge of the forest. You are up to a short climb now, after which the trail descends back. To your right will be a wide-open grassy area, sloping towards the reservoir. I like to walk a little down here and find a spot among the tall grass to sit down and enjoy the view. Most of the year the undergrowth is tall and thick enough to completely hide a sitting person.
As you go on, the blue trail turns sharply left and disappears back in the forest. After a short detour to another observation blind, the trail comes to a fork. Turn right here, following the blue markers. You will pass a mixed forest with small patches of pine trees and three farm ruins. Towards the end of your hike, the trail approaches the waterline one last time and offers you a view of the main dam. After that, it climbs slowly, emerges from the forest and approaches the information center from the back.
Fishers at the reservoir.
Difficulty: 5 out of 10, Quite long, several rocky sections.
Orientation: 6 out of 10. Excellent map, but markers are sometimes missing and other times don't properly indicate turns.
Beauty: 9 out of 10. If you don't mind meeting lots of other hikers, this is one of the most beautiful wals I know of.
Park profile at New Jersey Skylands
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.
|20 - 30 min
|20 - 30 min
|The first part is relatively simple and ends when you reach the middle of the main dam. You'll walk on level gravel roads, and the only time you'll stop is to enjoy the view.
|30 - 50 min
|50 - 80 min
|This section starts at the main dam and ends when you reach the parking lot. As you leave the dam, the trail becomes a woods path with its usual ups and downs, but the footing will remain relatively good. Add 10 minutes if you want to stop at the observation deck.
|30 - 50 min
|80 - 130 min
|While this section is relatively short (it ends at the bridge), the footing gets a little difficult, and the short ascents and descents are a little steeper.
|70 - 140 min
|150 - 270 min
|The last section is very rocky with several long ups and downs, and finding the trail may be a challenge. The shortcut will take only 20-40 minutes, though.
© Jozef Purdes, 2003