Stone Mountain Reservation

The plaque at Washington Rock offers a free history lesson.
Located conveniently in the greater metro area and accessible by train, South Mountain Reservation can still surprise with its rough terrain and enough hiking trails to satisfy almost everyone. Combined with great views, places of historical significance, fishing and rock climbing places, the reservation offers plenty of entertainment for nearly anybody.

Getting there
The reservation spreads over several towns, but for the purpose of this hike, as well as for the easiest access, the entrance is in Millburn. Take Exit 50 B off I-78 and follow the directions to the Paper Mill Playhouse. From there, you should be able to see the train station. The Locust Grove parking lot is right behind the train station, across the street. Alternatively, you can take the Springfield Avenue Exit of Route 24, follow Springfield Avenue (Rt. 124) east, and do a left turn onto Millburn Avenue (after you pass a Shell gas station to your left), and follow it all the way to the train station.

South Mountain Reservation offers plenty of hiking trails of varying difficulty. The mostly used trails are wide grave roads, but this hike will avoid most of them. The hike is a little more difficult, but the extra effort will be rewarded by much nicer surroundings. Essentially, you will be following the yellow-blazed Lenape Trail for the first half of the hike, and then switch to the white-blazed Rahway Trail.

Start out from the end of the parking lot to your right. The trail gains a little altitude, but soon levels off into a picnic area. Ignore the blazes telling you to turn left here and follow the gravel road; instead, cross the picnic area and turn left into the woods towards the end. The trail is a little narrower now, and climbs steeply. You will gain most of the altitude here, so don't worry, once you are on the top the rest of the hike will be a little easier. The trail passes some residences to its right, with a rather desolate forest to your left. After a few minutes, the trail levels off a little and turns slightly right, going around a large stone structure. Then, it starts climbing again. As you come to the top of the hill, look for the blazes pointing you towards the left. Here you leave the woods road and follow the blazes. The trail here is barely distinguishable, so don't worry if you miss the turn; the woods road soon ends at a asphalt road; just turn left here and soon you'll rejoin the trail.

The forest if quite open and serene in early morning.
Follow the asphalt road. To your left, you will get a very good view of the metro area, with New York being you your extreme left, partially hidden by the trees (there are a few observation posts for New York along the road, in the other direction). The road is closed for cars, but open for bicycles. However, it is most frequently used by joggers in the mornings. Soon, you will come to a bend in the road. This place is called Washington Rock. During the Revolutionary War, Washington has posted sentries here, warning him when the British troops approached. The trail skims the left side of this area, crosses a sidewalk right in front of the observation platform and reenters the woods.

From here, the trail descends, but the rocky terrain makes for some difficult footing. You may spy bicycle tracks here as well; while cycling on the trails is illegal, the area is known for challenging biking conditions, and people often try to prove themselves here. In addition to the rocky footing, the trail is a little difficult to follow in this area. Overall, the trails in the South Mountain Reservation seem to have been abandoned in favor of the gravel roads. They are indistinct, with the blazes being too far apart and mostly worn out. The trail crosses several gravel roads, and from time to time may be difficult to follow.

After about fifteen minutes, you will arrive to one of the most beautiful places in the whole reservation - the Maple Falls Cascade. Here, a stream drops 25 feet over basalt rock, and over time, it has carved a steep, narrow canyon. You will arrive right over the canyon, turn right and follow the edge until you are able to cross on the other side. Especially on sunny spring mornings, this place is stunning.

Following the trail further, you will cross several more streams (two of them potentially difficult), through a relatively open forest. This place reminded me strongly on my early hikes in the Carpathian Mountains back in Europe, so I may be a little biased here, but if you are able to get here before the crowds arrive (a foggy, drizzling weather is probably the best for that), you will find this area to be one of the most calming in the whole New Jersey.

After climbing onto a small hill, the rail levels off and then slowly descends. For a while, it runs parallel to a gravel road, but once you clear a small structure that reminded me on a miniature Stonehenge, you will reenter the woods, only to emerge on a crossroads with a small bridge later on. For this part, the trail remains relatively rocky and wet in places.

The Rahway River.
On the crossroads, cross the bridge and head left, towards the large post that marks the beginning of the white-blazed Rahway Trail. This trail starts out much easier, as a flat woods road. After several minutes, you will arrive to a fork. The trail turns left here, but remember this spot, as you may return and turn right instead. The trail will lead you to the Rahway River, turn left along the bank, and then cross the river about 100 feet downstream. During a dry summer, it is relatively safe to cross the river on a string of rocks, but unless you want to risk bath, you should return to the fork instead and take the other trail. This will lead you to the South Orange Avenue, along which you can cross the river more safely and later return to the trail.

For the first part, the trail follows the river on its west bank, about 30 feet above. The trail maps the slope of a hill, and is a little slanted. It may be slippery and quite dangerous when wet, and I would recommend great caution, or even avoiding this trail altogether. In wet conditions, the alternative is to turn left onto a gravel road at the initial crossroads, before starting on the white trail. At one point, you will need to cross a fallen tree, which is a little risky even in dry conditions.

After you cross a stream, the trail levels off and soon comes to another crossroads. You will be able to cross the river here much more comfortably, and then hike on a relatively flat terrain along the east bank. The trail runs parallel to a gravel road, but offers a much better view of the river and the series of lakes, created by a few small dams. After following a wide left turn of the river (this part offers the only sandy surface that I know of), the trail actually joins the road in order to cross a stream, only to enter the woods again. In this part, the trail is indistinguishable from its surroundings, and quite unremarkable. I would recommend you stay on the gravel road until you cross another bridge (the white trail rejoins the road at that point), and only then follow the trail again. After you cross yet another narrow bridge, you will have to walk for only a few more minutes on relatively flat terrain, in order to emerge on the other end of the parking lot.

Update (March 26, 2014): I haven't lived or hiked in New Jersey for about 10 years, but I am still getting updates on the hikes and trails described here. It has come to my attention that the US Army Corps of Engineers are considering building a flood dam in the reservation, which would significantly impact the park. For more information on this project, as well as possible alternatives, please visit this site.

Difficulty: 7 out of 10. Not too much of an elevation change, but rocky footing and potentially difficult stream crossings.
Orientation: 4 out of 10. The trails apear to be abandoned - they are indistinct, and the blazes are worn out.
Beauty: 6 out of 10. One or two very special places, but the rest is too much within civilization for my taste.

Time table
Net time Total time Notes
15 - 30 min 15 - 30 min The first section of the trail is almost all climbing, until you reach Washington Rock.
15 - 25 min 30 - 55 min Going down on rocky and wet footing, this section covers the distance between Washington Rock and Maple Falls Cascade.
45 - 75 min 75 - 130 min The trail goes up and down, but relatively gently, and crosses a few streams, until you reach the crossroads where you switch to the white trail.
15 - 25 min 90 - 155 min Get to the river, cross it and follow the trail until you reach another crossroads where you cross the river again to get to the east bank.
30 - 55 min 120 - 210 min The trail follows the river, remains relatively flat and offers little challenge until you return to the parking lot. You can save some time following the gravel road instead.
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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