I spent this past weekend hiking through Essex County, New Jersey on the 36 mile Lenape Trail, with some fine folks.
New Jersey is the most densely populated state in the US, and Essex County is the 2nd most densely populated county in the state. There are over 6000 people per square mile here. We hiked almost 40 miles through this crowded area, and for many of those miles, there were no other human beings within earshot. It was amazing.
On Saturday, we stepped off into South Mountain Reservation, at the beginning of the trail. Or the end. Depending on how you look it.
The trip began with a mile of steep, intimidating climb, followed by 10 miles of ankle-twisting, rocky trails through the woods.
It’s early springtime here, so the forest floor is not yet fern-covered, but skunk cabbage and monkey fungus are already thriving. The cherry blossoms are still blowing away on the breeze, and the dogwood flowers are on their way in.
We walked among the tree trunks, far below a not-quite-yet-canopy of bronze and lime-green baby buds. Down here the brambles and prickly bushes are going green. Down here, the local critters are living their best lives. And so are we.
This is the understory. The lower layer of the ecosystem. This layer plays a crucial role in the forest’s energy flow and nutrient cycle. It is biodiverse and influences the forest’s capacity for regeneration. Down here, things are really happening. Spring is really springing.
Recent rain made the brooks extra babbly. And Hemlock Falls was fast flowing. We sat and listened to the sound of the water, and I enjoyed a snack. Nuts and seeds from my nut sack— the trail food/bad joke that keeps on giving.
By mile eleven, as we walked on the neighborhood sidewalks of West Orange, our toes were tired, our words were slurred, and every backyard play set looked like a possible porta-potty.
We stopped for lunch at the opulently decorated Chit Chat Diner, with its panoramic view of Manhattan. Sitting on the soft cushioned banquette while waiting for our table was heaven on the hips.
With full bellies and empty bladders, we paused for foot care and solemn remembrance at Eagle Rock Reservation’s 9-11 memorial. More woods and rocks, and rocks and woods.
The Olmsted designed park in Verona was a welcome sight around mile 15, because we knew what was on the other side. A brief stop at the Towne Scoop for cups and cones of cool refreshment.
Next was a hike up commerce-busy Bloomfield Avenue. Sidewalks so steep that I felt just like my 1979 Cutlass did on this very hill in 1985. Sluggish. Backfiring. The reward for today’s climb was a wondrous walk through a huge, sweeping meadow where the Sanatorium used to be. Empty space. So very much wide open empty space. Right here in our crowded county. I took my deepest breath of the day on the narrow footpath between those tall grasses.
On the way down the mountain we had an encounter with a gorgeous creature, unfazed by our existence. A bold red fox. (I’m coming to join you Elizabeth! It’s the big one!) After a steep decline that the toes won’t soon forget, we headed home for a good night’s rest.
While visions of yellow blazes danced in my head, my legs throbbed. Just a little.
On Sunday morning, we began again in Cedar Grove where we left off. Here, the trail merges with the West Essex rail trail for a short time. We were lulled into a false sense of ease by its wide, level, gravel path.
It’s hard to pick a favorite part of the trail, but what came next might have been mine. A berm between a brook and a swampy area. So many evergreen trees. Exposed roots. Soft dirt. A deep silence. We all agreed that this was one of the loveliest spots on the trail. We could really feel the sense of forest. Something primordial and ethereal. We were bathing in it. Taking it all in. I will go back there soon.
After a trip around the Newark-owned reservoir, we walked through an invasive man-made bamboo jungle. Then we were on to another climb, through Mills Reservation. We kept our eyes peeled for the yellow blazes. We became so tuned in to the color yellow that every young leaf and errant daffodil beckoned us their way.
We paused up on top of the mountain looking out at two cities, Newark to our south, NYC to our east. We watched the hawks and Turkey vultures overhead. I pulled out my nut sack. So many bad puns. So many earworms.
We descended into the Presby Iris Gardens, where one lone early bloomer greeted us. A tiny burst of purple amongst rows of green leaves and metal markers.
In the town of Montclair, we explored two hidden parks before emerging into Olmsted’s Brookdale Park. Civilization. People running, riding bikes, playing pickleball.
We stopped for lunch at the world famous Holsten’s Ice Cream Parlor, where Tony Soprano was (spoiler alert) served onion rings. I knew those onion rings would be a bad idea in an hour, but they were a great idea in the moment.
Through a Bloomfield neighborhood and over the Garden State Parkway pedestrian bridge. Up another steep hill into Nutley. It’s all downhill from here. I said. Mostly.
It wasn’t the first time I said that. Nor the last.
We took a foot care stop in the tiny park near the Nutley Museum. A change of socks can change the mood and mindset. Here we received a surprise gift from a friend. A bit of Trail Magic. Access to an actual toilet in the museum! One less porta-potty to answer!
We walked through our local park, on our daily walking path, but with a different attitude and at a much slower pace. There was another big hill before we entered Belleville and walked along the gas line property.
As we headed into Newark, we knew the end was nigh. Branch Brook Park is home to the most cherry blossom trees in the country. It’s not Washington DC. It’s this (yet another) Olmsted park in Newark, New Jersey!
Only 5k to go. 5k filled with cherry blossom lovers, picnicking, taking photos, biking and fishing. The sounds of children and salsa music playing. Newark was alive with all of the hope that spring can bring.
As we neared the last mile our pit crew drove by, beeping and cheering. It was so kind of them to drop my car off at the end of the trail, near the architectural marvel that is the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart.
And then, just like that, we were there. Below the cathedral’s twin gothic towers. Here, on the pavement, we are the understory. Nourished by the journey. Our energy flowing. Feeling regenerated. Rejuvenated.
Down here, where the journey ends. Or begins. Depending on how you look at it.