Seventy-two miles of the Appalachian Trail wind through the northwest corner of New Jersey, and the comments hikers leave in shelter trail registers tend to express a common emotion: surprise.
“A lot of people write something like, ‘I didn’t realize New Jersey was this nice,’” says Monica Day, who, with her husband, David, has led the West Jersey Trail Crew since 2000. Sneer at their stomping grounds and you’ll get a lively tongue-lashing from people who spend a lot of time swinging sharp, menacing tools.
“It’s nice!” David says. “We don’t have 7,000-foot peaks and things like that, but there’s an awful lot of pretty.”
The Days should know. David, now 65, and Monica, 64, have spent the past 40 years hiking all over the state, from the Pine Barrens in southern New Jersey to the mountainous northwest corner (their favorite). Now that the Highland Park residents have retired from their careers in computer programming, they go hiking at least once a week in all seasons. “That’s another great thing about hiking in New Jersey,” David says. “There are only a couple places that are no-go in the dead of winter, and almost everything is accessible with boots or snowshoes.”
Scenic beauty, however, isn’t what most hikers expect from the Garden State. Maybe it’s that nickname, which evokes flat plots of carrots rather than civilization-ditching adventure. Or maybe it’s because many people—residents and visitors alike—experience New Jersey largely through its turnpike, which spans 12 lanes in some places. “The standard joke about New Jersey is, ‘What exit are you from?’” Monica says. “People think it’s all just petrochemical farms.”
But there’s also Sunfish Pond, the Days’ favorite destination. Cradled in a glacial cirque located 1,000 feet above the surrounding valleys, its spring-fed water is as crystalline as any you’ll see in the Sierra Nevada, and its forested shoreline feels like wilderness. There’s the Dunnfield Creek Trail, which climbs along a protected trout stream that cascades down the mountainside. The Terrace Pond North Trail scales a precipitous rock ledge that overlooks rolling green mountains where only a few roofs poke through.
“Many people don’t realize just how much like wilderness New Jersey can be,” Monica says.
And New Jersey trails can be spankingly steep. Whereas the Pacific Crest Trail and other western routes set grade limits so they’re accessible to horses, “There’s no such rule here,” David says. The Red Dot Trail up New Jersey’s Mount Tammany gains 1,500 feet over a half-mile. (By comparison, the famous Tuckerman Ravine Trail up Mount Washington in New Hampshire maxes out at 1,000 vertical feet per mile.) “We have trails that get there with a real attitude,” David says.
Then there’s the cumulative effort. Climbing 100 vertical feet might not feel like much, but repeat that up and down ten times—as trails tend to do in New Jersey’s rolling mountains—and the strain adds up.
The state’s trail crews have turned many of these otherwise impassable places into really cool hikes. The Days and their crews built a 110-foot suspension bridge over Pochuck Creek and 1.5 miles of boardwalk spanning the surrounding floodplain. Stand in the middle of those wetlands, where hawks soar overhead and red-winged blackbirds trill from the reeds, and you’ll feel immersed in New Jersey’s answer to the Everglades.
“We’re not like the Rockies,” David admits. “We don’t have Pikes Peak. But we’ve got serious piles of rock, and you can get up on them and, you know, do some real hiking.”