Happy May, trail heads. Now that I finally have that project for graduate school safely dispatched and out of my hair, I’m going to talk about a rail trail hike that I managed to squeeze in back in April.
“You’ve got to check this out for the blog,” my mother kept telling me over the phone this winter. “This” was the Columbia Trail, a rail trail that runs through a good chunk of Hunterdon County in western New Jersey – very close to where my mom’s family lived for a time and where my grandmother still hangs her hat.
Naturally, I was hot to trot for it – it’s a hiking trail, so why wouldn’t I be? – but the problem was (surprise) finding a free weekend when I wasn’t chained to a computer or tied up with running errands, or a free weekend where the weather was actually cooperating. Finally, the planets aligned, or at least I was able to put work obligations and graduate school projects on hold for a weekend. Better yet, the weather was nice – a little bit cool. So on Sunday morning after Mass let out, we ambled across the street from the church, found the trail and set out.
The entire trail is about 15 miles; it starts in High Bridge and continues east (sort of northeast) over into Morris County. The section that we hiked goes through High Bridge, Clinton and Lebanon, and our destination was the wildlife management area at Lockwood Gorge.
The Columbia Trail started out as the High Bridge branch of the Central Railroad in the 19th century. About a quarter mile in, we took a side detour to check out a short walking trail just above the Lake Solitude dam. The trail was part of the network of trails that make up the Taylor-Wharton Steelworkers Historic Greenway. This part of the state used to be big on mining, steel and ore, and that’s part of the reason the railroad was there – to carry all the ore. The Taylor-Wharton trails are good for a hike, but if you’re going to follow them all the way down to the river banks, wear boots – it’s a little swampy down there. (There could be a future blog posting dedicated to them – stay tuned.)
Back to the Columbia Trail. Being a rail trail, it’s good for biking, jogging and strolling as well as hiking (we’re not talking the Appalachian Trail here). It kind of winds its way through the passes among the hills – the Raritan Valley is an especially hilly part of New Jersey, so the vistas are pretty nice. And it’s among places like this that you really feel like a speck in the giant cosmic scheme of things.
After about an hour and a half of walking (and taking photos), we arrived at the bridge spanning the river in Lockwood Gorge. This is not the place’s original name – the place became known as Lockwood Gorge in the 1940s or so. Ken Lockwood was a journalist and columnist who had an outdoors column in the Newark Evening News for many years. He was also, from the sounds of things, a pretty keen fisherman. There’s a memorial for him down under the bridge, near a brook and waterfall that feed down into the river.
Lockwood Gorge is definitely a great scenic stop – it’s a long, deep valley (great view from the bridge), with lots of rock formations, some small waterfalls, and the river winding its way through. It’s also a really popular spot for fishing. Trout fishing season had just gotten underway, so there were lots of guys taking to the river with poles and waders.
Once you get to the bridge over the gorge (and the river), you’ve got two options. Either you can keep going straight ahead, or you can climb down to the river edge by way of a side trail (watch your footing, however). We went down to the river and parked ourselves on one of the wildlife viewing platforms on the banks, where we refueled with apples, trail mix and bottles of water with Dasani concentrate drops mixed in.
Instead of climbing back up toward the bridge, we took the approach road along the river toward the gorge’s designated parking area (where all those fishermen had parked) and then followed some of the local roads back to where we rejoined the trail.
Since it was now later in the morning, there were a lot more families with kids out near the High Bridge section, plus a lot more joggers and dog walkers – although there had been plenty of dog walkers out taking the trail when we were setting out. There may be some future postings about other sections of the Columbia Trail – it might not be the most strenuous of hikes (unless you’re trying to hike the whole thing in one day), but it’s definitely a good weekend walk. And that’s what we needed that day.
Whether any of those fishermen actually caught (and/or released) something remains yet to be seen.
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