Appalachian Trail: New Jersey Section 5

Back to Jer-zThis past weekend we did another section in New Jersey.  We had skipped this section earlier this year because we were planning another hike with our friends and wanted to do one with more amenities and a shelter where there were guaranteed to be some thru hikers to interact with. Also the section we ultimately chose had the High Point monument and observation deck, so a lot of wow factor to impress them as well.

Above-trail pond

Above-trail pond

While this section we postponed does have a shelter, its about 3/4 of the way to one end, and would make for quite long and quite short mileage days instead of two balanced ones.  So the only other option was a primitive campsite halfway along.  So we opted to save this one for later.

That said, the primitive campsite was quite nice, and we are used to bare bones sites more than our friends.  Catholes, bear-bag hangs, and no water sources nearby are conditions we are accustomed to, but felt was not something that would be appealing to our friends who only go out on the trail with us once a year.

Fielden Stream at a rock cairn

Fielden Stream at a rock cairn

From regular weather checks, things were looking good for the weekend. The heatwave broke 2 days before we were to hit the trail. And despite a slight chance of rain Sunday afternoon, the highs would be in the low 70’s and the lows around 60. PERFECT backpacking conditions for late summer.  That would change. I must remember mother nature makes those rules, and not the internet.

We got to our end point at Culver’s Gap to meet our shuttle at noon. Our shuttle driver in New Jersey is awesome, and always has some murray beads for us when he picks us up. At this point, I noticed already that the temperature was a good 15 degrees cooler than forecast. I chalked it up to being in the mountains, and forgot about it for the moment. If it meant we wouldn’t be as sweaty and sticky, no problem there.

Fork Tree near Crater Lake

Fork Tree near Crater Lake

We arrived at the road crossing we left off at with our friends last year and began our 7 mile hike north to Buttermilk Falls campsite. Armed with lots of information on water sources on a mostly dry day’s stretch, we had loaded up on water.  Our shuttle driver confirmed there wouldn’t be much today in that regard. Though now the light precipitation had started and so he mentioned the spring that fed the falls might be running. Either way, we were well prepared.

After passing an entrance sign reminding us of the rules for the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area (and the Appalachian Trail), the route followed a pond for a short while. What was interesting about the pond is the trail was actually about a foot below the level of the pond, and the grass and soil at the edge of the pond acted as a levy or dam and kept it above the trail level (except for one area where it flooded over a bit). It did drain off the side of the mountain via a small pipe which was under the trail a bit farther along. I thought this was really neat.

Flooded ground, not a pond

Flooded ground, not a pond

The path then climbed quickly up the ridge and through a powerline clearing with great views west to Pennsylvania – though quite a bit overgrown in areas.  From there we bounced up and down the ridge line, enjoying occasional views to the east. I did want to catch a glimpse of Camp No-Be-Bo-Sco and its’ Sand Pond, which is the location of Camp Crystal Lake from the Friday the 13th movie series. I did manage one from a short path to the ridge, but the ‘official’ view was down a side trail down the side of the ridge, and it was lined with grass which was now very wet. I didn’t want to slide off a mountain into a lake, especially THAT lake! Jason is in that lake…

Slippery scramble

Slippery scramble

Speaking of lakes, as we approached Crater lake there was a creek where there were water signs and that’s good to know should we have needed it. There were many cars parked at that trailhead lot. An old pump there is no longer in operation and I assume it’s because visitors using it didn’t realize you had to filter.  As the rain was picking up and the temperatures continued to drop, I joked that we should hitch a ride from one of them to Mohican Outdoor Center for the night, just a few miles away. We had a nice stay there with our friends on the hike here last year. At this point the rain showed on the forecast but was supposed to stop by the evening. We don’t mind rain. In fact, every backpacking trip we’ve done this year has had rain, two of them torrential all night and day affairs.

Fielden doing the scramble

Fielden doing the scramble

But on those hikes we were more prepared for it and knew about it ahead of time. The weather predicted was the weather that happened. And the temperatures were much warmer. Once the temperatures drop to a certain point, hypothermia becomes a real risk, and one that nearly happened to me a year ago. So I don’t mess around with cold and wet weather for fun. Nor bring my loved ones out in it for fun. Things were definitely starting to deteriorate enough for me to consider the lodge. But we didn’t have far to go and with the rain supposed to stop in a few hours we continued on. A unique fork-like tree held the white blazes that pointed us in the right direction.

The wet rocks went on for miles

The wet rocks went on for miles

We had the good fortune of about a 1.5 mile walk along an old road before this, so now it was back on to ‘real’ trail. After a short steep rocky descent we passed what we thought was Crater Lake but was just in fact a flooded meadow. A bit farther on we of course came to the part where we had to go back up, and it was a rocky ledge scramble that allowed us to test our limits of how far our legs could stretch to push up the edge of it safely.  A father and son were doing an out and back day hike in the area and when we made friendly somewhat complaining-about-the-weather comments, he felt it necessary to remind us it was “better than the couch.” Duh. We’re the ones out here backpacking that would not be sitting on the couch tonight when he was!  It was a bit rude.

Wet scramble up Rattlesnake Mtn

Wet scramble up Rattlesnake Mtn

Once on top of the scramble the trail followed some wet ledges around the real Crater lake and then made the final climb up to Buttermilk Falls campsite. The last mile of our hike to the campsite was again a mostly flat old road and we were grateful for it. I would find out later that this peak that the campsite and the top of the falls trail met at was called Mount Paradise. It would also be the highest elevation on this hike – around 1,600ft – and one of the highest spots on the trail in New Jersey. On this day I’d say that “Paradise” was pushing its description a little, but it was a nice campsite. The falls are the highest in New Jersey, and I would like to visit one day but its a steep 2-mile descent to the falls and the road below. So we will drive there to visit in the future. Despite doing a much tougher hike a few weeks earlier, for some reason our bodies were not feeling as strong on this day.

A brief respite through a young forest

A brief respite through a young forest

In a brief respite of rain we got the tent set up and all of our things in it that needed to stay dry. After a few bad throws and a stubborn branch I got the bear bag rope set up, and just as we sat to make dinner it started to rain again. A family of 6 was now entering the campsite but they were just looking for the Buttermilk Falls trail, their route back to their car.  We helped point them to the blue blazes and they were on their way. Hopefully they were able to get down before dark.

We ate quickly and hoisted the bear bag up the tree. This section is known for heavy bear activity and in fact the shelter 4 miles north has a bear trap! If anything I’m thinking the bears don’t like being out in the all day rain either so there was a positive. I was in a bit of a funk at this point because now the forecast had changed that it wouldn’t stop until almost 10. But I tried to keep it positive, made myself laugh and was thankful that it also said it wouldn’t start again until 1pm the next day and we’d possibly be done by then.

Cairn and rock monument on Blue Mtn

Cairn and rock monument on Blue Mtn

We got to bed around 8 and about 2 hours later I was woken by howling winds and heavy downpours. Now I was really confused. I looked at my app and now rain was predicted 100% from this point until about 4 days later! I looked at the satellite and sure enough, the hurricane had created a large disturbance overhead about 100 miles wide and about 50 miles from top to bottom. What was worse, we were only about 20 miles into it.

Florence causing trouble (we're the blue dot)

Florence causing trouble (we’re the blue dot)

Had we chosen a section north, we’d be dry as a bone at least until tomorrow. This really set me off. Lows would now hit about 45 tonight and a high of 55 tomorrow. With an even longer day tomorrow and much more difficult terrain, I was miffed to say the least. These were dangerous and at the very least quite uncomfortable temperatures in the rain. Grumpy again, at this point I had trouble sleeping, drifting in and out of sleep for the next few hours until daylight.

Forecast changed overnight, thanks Florence!

Forecast changed overnight, thanks Florence!

When we were both up we made the decision to skip breakfast and take advantage of the first break in heavy rain to pack up the wet tent and get moving to stay warm. I will reiterate that we have lots of experience and lots of fun hiking in the rain, but I think it was a combination of disappointment in the changing conditions, and the worry of hypothermia that had me in this bad place. I was also worried we’d have none of the great vies. I decided to hike in my long john bottoms and both shirts, with my raincoat. I felt warm and dry for the time being. Today we had 3 summits and a big descent to tackle. It took much longer than usual.

High Point in the distance

High Point in the distance

The trail became one rock garden after another, split up by long walks on wet angled rocky ledges on the mountaintops. The ascents up several peaks were boulder scrambles, and many of the descents were roots and twisted iceberg rocks. It was tough going. However, there were still some fantastic views on both sides of the ridge. Despite the constant rain, it wasn’t so socked in that we didn’t get those. We had views to the west from Rattlesnake Mountain and Blue Mountain that stretched for 50 miles and reminded us of the Shenandoahs. I even got a view of High Point monument 20 miles in the distance. I had at this point shed my raincoat. As long as I kept moving, my body heat kept me warm enough.

Lichen these

Lichen these

We saw a few backpackers and a couple with their baby out for a short hike. All the extra work negotiating rocks and roots did have us pretty tuckered out however. Only once or twice were we met with a flat walk like the previous day. Though the ones we did go through seemed to be very young forests, perhaps the result of a fire in the past. We saw a family of turkeys as well. Not many humans were out in this on purpose.

We made the most of it and made sure to stop for water, snacks, and rest as much as needed, and talked about which restaurant we would reward ourselves at. The last few miles were view after view of Lake Owassa, Culver Lake, and the gap below. The walk off the ridgeline and descent to the gap was much quicker than expected and soon we were at the most risky part of the hike – crossing route 206. Boy do people drive fast here. Once we cleared the road it was a short .3 to the parking lot. Just as we arrived at the car mother nature decided to throw one more heavy downpour at us. This time we were armed with a car to protect us and we were off to stuff our faces on mexican food and visit the farmer’s market on the way home.

Lonely orange mushroom

Lonely orange mushroom

This section reminded me a lot of New York. Doesn’t look like much on the map profile but it was challenging. It also rewarded us with views and self-confidence that we can get through almost anything together. Let’s hope we get one dry hike before the season is over. Unless the hurricane comes at us full force in the coming days, I will be out ridgerunning again next weekend. At the moment it looks clear but if I learned one lesson this weekend it was that that can change and change again very quickly. And the ATC is already putting out weather advisories all along the trail as the storm has now began to affect the entire east coast with heavy weather. Stay tuned.

Miles day 1: 7.1

Miles day 2: 7.9

– Linus

Mattatuck Trail – Brophy Pond to Buttermilk Falls

Beaver Pond

Beaver Pond

While I sit here lamenting a hike-less weekend, I look forward to our first Appalachian Trail section-hike of the season on Friday and want to share some of the beautiful scenery I saw on the most recent hike.

Last weekend I decided to do part of a different trail. There was an AMC-led hike and it was on a section of the Mattatuck trail I have not yet tromped on. This trail as a whole is not fully complete in the sense that there are many gaps between completed / blazed sections. I am sure they eventually hope to connect it all but I am guessing there are private land issues that prevent that at the moment.

Small cascade

Small cascade

The trail starts in Wolcott, about four and a half miles south of Buttermilk Falls, and ends at its intersection with the Mohawk trail in Cornwall on top of the Mohawk ski resort. We passed this northern terminus a few years back when hiking that trail with my son “Jiffy Pop.” Altogether it is 36 miles long and traverses nine towns and some of the state’s highest peaks. It also goes through the White Memorial Foundation and Conservation center, where I will be doing my wilderness first aid training weekend at the end of April.

There’s a great section of the trail west of here with a massive cave that was once part of the famous Leatherman’s route, and the top of the cave is a formation known as the Crane’s lookout.  I did that a few years ago as well with Fielden Stream on a day hike and then had quite an adventure as I had decided to explore a bit further than her that day, and they were working on a re-route which caused me to miss my turn back to the parking lot. Luckily since she had finished the hike at the park headquarters, she met me farther up the road when I was able to connect to it via another side path. We made it just in the nick of time as a dense fog and dusk were setting in. Hopefully they have sorted that all out by now. I definitely recommend checking out the cave and lookout which are in the eastern part of Black Rock State Park. You can park at the headquarters and its about a mile east to those great formations.

Icicles of doom

Icicles of doom

On this hike we did an out-and-back to the west from the parking area on Todd Hollow road and then another to the east, for a total of about 8.25 miles. This also included a short side path to a beaver pond. Our leader Tom pointed out that this was really the nicest scenery along this portion of trail. It did include some road walking but there was a lot of beauty in between, including multiple groves of mountain laurel and small cascading streams through the Mattatuck State Forest. This time of year water is flowing abundantly from snow melt. Because of all the laurel it also reminded me of the Housatonic State Forest sections of the Appalachian Trail in Cornwall, and I’m sure its just as beautiful here  in the summer.

I brought my microspikes but did not end up needing to take them out of my pack. Though I feel it was smart to have them as the roadway where we started was very icy and the trail very well could have been the same or worse.

Laurel grove

Laurel grove

The first portion was just over a mile to the banks of Brophy pond, though a good uphill climb. I always find it interesting when climbing up to a body of water. The small beaver pond was just before the climb, and both ponds provided some nice views across the water. The Brophy Pond viewpoint had a nice little rock outcropping along the bank and is definitely a nice picnic spot. Whenever I head back to finish the section from here to Black Rock State Park in the future, I will lunch here! There were a few spots on this section of trail where the trees were also marked with red and white bands, which is apparently indicates the boundary of Army Corps of Engineers land.

We then turned around and headed back past where we started and continued east on the trail along a gated older portion of Todd Hollow road in Hancock Brook Park before entering the woods at a glacial erratic known as Ed’s Big Pebble.

Lower Buttermilk Falls

Lower Buttermilk Falls

Here is where the trail climbed through the many laurel groves and over several small streams and waterfalls past a large rock outcropping that likely provided shelter for Native Americans long ago. Its multiple overhangs and nooks would have provided adequate protection from the elements. It certainly made for a nice lunch and photo spot! Large icicles hung threateningly from its upper rim, making for some dramatic photos. The trail then continued through some pine and hemlock groves, thickening with mud along its route.

There was then a short winding road walk over a railroad bed before heading back into the woods a short distance to the incredible Buttermilk Falls, which is maintained by the Nature Conservancy. I had no idea they would be so incredible. It reminded me a little of Sages Ravine, as the trail wound through boulders along the edge of the multiple cascades. It was flowing thunderously down the ledges into the ravine below the trail, and we all sat in awe and took photos. Such a dramatic waterfall was even more unexpected because it was just a quarter mile in from the road, if that.

Upper Buttermilk Falls

Upper Buttermilk Falls

I will be bringing my family back here for a visit, as its easily accessible for all abilities. Upon reaching the crest of the hill that framed the falls, we turned back and retraced our route back to the cars. This hike provided an opportunity to take in some stunning late-winter scenery, waterfalls, multiple types of forest, and massive boulders. And it was also one of my longer hikes recently, so a nice way to build up to longer portions I have planned for the summer. The last time I did over 8 miles was in November on a trail patrol walk on the A.T. in Sherman.

Last night I also tested two new sleeping pads from Therm-A-Rest, in my quest to find the one best for my active sleeping habits! While not in a tent, the hardwood floor provided an adequate comparison to sleeping on the ground. I have not had much luck with inflatables as you may know from reading my blog. The first one I bought for next to nothing at an REI garage sale knowing it had a tiny leak and just needs patching. It loses air very slowly during the night, and was a good first pad investment to see if I was going to do this regularly. I will get around to fixing it but since this is something I certainly do all season now, I needed one that would stay inflated and retain its insulating qualities until I could fix that one.

Nice watering hole but no swimming allowed

Nice watering hole but no swimming allowed

The second I am hoping was just a dud because it broke on the first night and comes from a very reputable brand. I returned that one and recently managed to pick up the Therm-A-Rest Neo Air Trekker on the cheap in an online sale. So I compared that to their foam Z-Lite model last night by sleeping on each for several hours. I bought one for Jiffy Pop’s first backpacking trip last year so I thought I’d see how I liked it.

The foam has several advantages, and is my go-to if this inflatable doesn’t hold up. It also makes a nice seat on hike breaks when nature doesn’t provide a good flat rock or fallen log. In fact they make a smaller ‘seat’ version of this pad for that reason. And it’s got a nice R-value rating due to its coating. Some other advantages are you can pick one up for about $40 and can easily cut off a few panels if you’re shorter or to keep just your upper two-thirds cozy and warm and have it take up less space. It’s also very light.

Therm-A-Rest Z-lite and Neo Air Trekker

Therm-A-Rest Z-lite and Neo Air Trekker

But the profile of these inflatables is so much more compact and I was spoiled starting off with the first one, even if it had a small leak. So I wanted to give them one more try, but this time in an environment where another failure wouldn’t mean sleeping on the cold ground! I really liked this pad, even though it’s a little narrow. While it does have a bit of that ‘potato-chip’ crinkling sound, in my experience all inflatables have some sort of sound based on what material they are made of. Foam would be the only ones that don’t. I’ll have to see how much it keeps me and Fielden Stream awake on an overnight to see if it’s something I can use with her. The R-value on this pad is also a bit lower than my other inflatables, so that would be a factor to consider on colder hikes, but I do have a new lower-rated downtek bag that would hopefully compensate for that difference. I am happy to say it held up last night so its future is secure for now!

Total Miles: 8.3

— Linus