Stairway to Heaven

The ridge, looming in front of you is more difficult than it looks like.

Stairway to Heaven is one of the most fulfilling hikes you are likely to take in northern New Jersey. The westward view, without any doubt the best you can get on a hike in this area, is the prefect reward for a relatively difficult climb. Combine that with a very varied scenery, and you'll get one of the best hiking experiences you'll ever get. I rank this hike among my five most favorite, for a good reason.

Getting there
Getting to Stairway to Heaven is relatively simple, finding the correct parking spot can be rather difficult, though. Take Route 23 West from I-287. Once you get a right-turn sign for the Hidden Valley Ski Area (Rt. 515), take it. Drive an additional 2.5 miles after the road merges with Route 94. Just before you get to a large farming complex to your left, there is a small parking lot on you right, hidden among some bushes. This parking lot offers space for five or six cars, but I have seen cars parking on the side of the road (a relatively open grassy area) as well.

The hike
Start walking away from the road. From the beginning, follow the Appalachian Trail white markers. The first part of the hike leads through a wide field, slowly approaching the ridge. The sight is impressive, especially after you realize that you will climb the ridge in front of you. On a sunny autumn day, the whole ridge is very colorful, slightly decreasing the rough feeling you'd get otherwise. Don't let the colors fool you - the hike will be difficult.

I don't envy the builders of this wall for climbing the ridge every day.

The false impression you get will only be enhanced when you enter the forest. The trail slopes down gently, among tall trees and virtually no undergrowth. This park-like environment abruptly ends by a huge outcropping of rocks, and the trail turns sharp right. In this area, the markers are sometimes hidden behind rocks and trees, but the trail is relatively well visible, as it starts traversing up the ridge.

The first half of the traverse is relatively gentle. You will gradually climb up, with the slope to your left side. Later on, however, as the trail slowly turns left, it starts to climb more rapidly. You will come to a relatively empty area, with lots of tall trees but little undergrowth and only a few rocks. In this section, the usually well-defined trail loses this quality, and you'll have to follow the markers more closely.

After a lengthy and relatively steep climb, the trail turns right and levels up. Soon, you will come to a rock wall. The trail traverses up this rock wall, and once it reaches the top, it levels up. After another right turn, you may notice a blue-marked trail leaving the main trail to the left. This leads to a small stone ridge, with quite an impressive view. The rocks form a sort of a balcony, which is often visited by families and less-experienced hikers, who don't feel like climbing any higher. You can stop here and enjoy the view, before you go on with your climb.

Don't worry; the rest of the climb is relatively short and uneventful. As soon as you leave the blue trail, the area opens into a small valley, and the Appalachian Trail turns right. Watch out for the markers in this area; some hikers tend to go straight. You will know that you reached the top of your hike once you see a small mailbox. In there, you can find a guest book. You can sign it if you want. Here, you will leave the Appalachian Trail and turn right, onto a blue-marked trail.

The Blue trail will lead you along the top of the ridge to the south. After a series of gentle ups and downs, the trail turns slightly left and descends into a valley. Here, the trail crosses an old stone wall and turns sharply right. Once again, watch for the markers, as the turn is not properly indicated. This section has its own magic. The trail leads you between the stone wall on your right and a swamp to your left. Tall trees, clear of any undergrowth grow here, while leaves cover the ground. I am not into tree-hugging, but if I ever started, it would be here.

Looking straight down from the ridge.

The trail soon starts a relatively steep climb, which can be difficult when it's wet. Once on the top of the rocks, the trail turns right, following the ridge. To your right, you can spy out views of the surrounding area, while to your left the ridge falls steeply down into a small valley with the swamp. After 10 to 15 minutes, you will come to a large grassy area to your right. Climb down from the rocks (a small rocky wall, about five feet high) and walk across the grassy area. At the end, you will come to a large flat rocky overhang. Sit down and enjoy the best view of the northwestern New Jersey you will ever get.

On a clear day, you can see as far as the High Point Monument on the horizon, right in front of you. The mountain range in front of you is the Kittatinnies, reaching almost as far as the Delaware Water Gap (which you can still spy out with a telescope to your left). To your right, you'll see southern New York state, with the 4000+ feet tall Catskill Mountains. This spot is a favorite picnic spot for people, so you may want to come here in late fall if you want to be alone.

Sunset at Pinewheel Vista.

Trail update
July 13, 2003
Some good news for a change: the heavy rains in June 2003 did not erode the trails any further. In addition, the trail appears to have been recently cleaned, and the white blazes repainted.
July 27, 2002
During my last hike here, the trail was quite eroded, possibly a cause of the dry spell in the entire northeast. Watch where you are stepping. In addition, a small stream developed in about two thirds of the climb up, but there's nothing to worry about. Finally, the blue markings have been recently repainted, making it nearly impossible to get lost.

Difficulty: 7 out of 10, due to a steep climb up.
Orientation: 7 out of 10. Markers are sometimes hidden behind trees and rocks, and are spread relatively thinly.
Beauty: 8 out of 10. The view from the top is simply incredible.

Additional resources
Hike profile at LocalHikes

Time table
Net time Total time Notes
7 - 10 min 7 - 10 min Leaving the car, the first part is relatively flat. Within five minutes or so, you'll enter the foret. This part ends when you turn right, to walk alongside the hill.
40 - 80 min 47 - 90 min This is the hardest part of the hike. Depending on the weather and your conditions, your time will greatly vary here. This part ends after you cuccessfully climbed the Stairway to Heaven and came to a trail intersection, with a mailbox.
20-30 min 67 - 120 min This part has a few ups and downs, but remains relatively level until you get to the end of your hike - the lookout.
45 - 90 min 112 - 210 min Descending back is relatively easy, thanks to the stone steps on the most difficult parts of the trail. You may want to visit the other lookout, however.
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 uppor limit is rather extreme. I have not taken into account the time spent for an extended break.

Additional notes
On some older maps, the Appalachian Trail is marked about half a mile south from its current location. You may run into the markers when on the Blue trail - simply ignore them. Also, due to the difficult climb, sturdy shoes are encouraged.
The following is a composite panorama picture I have taken on the top; click on it for a larger view. I appologize for the lower quality; will replace it as soon as I climb up there again.

© Jozef Purdes, 2001

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