NJ Hiking: South Mountain Reservation

“I’d rather let the flowers
keep doing what they do best.”
– Yusef Komunyakaa, Audacity of the Lower Gods

Sometimes it’s enjoyable to hike the trails that are familiar. And some of those familiar hiking trails in New Jersey have more areas to explore on each adventure through the seasons. That’s what led me to visit South Mountain Reservation between West Orange and Milburn, NJ, multiple times. It’s even better that I’ve had the opportunity to enjoy this county park with different groups of friends.south mountain reservationWith about 2,000 acres to explore, it’s a wonderful park to wander through — because it’s in a convenient location sandwiched between I-78 and I-280, parts of it get crowded as it’s a short drive from densely populated areas of Hudson and Essex counties. The northern end of the park near 280 is home to Turtle Back Zoo. Trails are well marked and maintained, and the Lenape Trail is an almost 6-mile loop through the park’s main sites.

south mountain butterfly
You might come across butterflies in the summer

I haven’t seen much in the way of wildlife at South Mountain Reservation, and I’d chalk that up to the busy highways nearby and the popularity of the trails. Also, I’ve never been in the park in the early morning or evening when some animals are more active. I wouldn’t be surprised to find a black bear wandering around though as they are common in the New Jersey suburbs.

A colorful dragonfly at Hemlock Falls

On my first trip, my friend suggested hiking to Hemlock Falls to the north of the park. Unfortunately, in pleasant summer weather, the small parking lots are crowded, but we found parking at Bramhall Terrace, which does not offer any decent views.

hemlock falls
The view above Hemlock Falls

We took a bit of a half-assed approach to hiking through South Mountain Reservation on the way to Hemlock Falls — at one point we left the trail and wandered along the rocky stream that led to a spot overlooking the 25-foot waterfall. It was likely better that we didn’t park as close to the waterfall as it gave us more time to explore a bit of the trail. It was also a hot summer day, so a shorter hike wasn’t so bad before stopping in Orange for some takeout and beer at one of my favorite New Jersey breweries, Four City Brewing.

hemlock falls
Hemlock Falls in summer

On my second trip, almost a year later, we started hiking again from Bramhall Terrace, but headed in a different direction. We headed south and found Washington Rock, which was Beacon Signal Station 9 during the Revolutionary War. It was also used as a lookout point during the War of 1812.

south mountain reservation
Along the trail near Hemlock Falls

From Washington Rock, we headed down the hill and around to the northern end. We took the outer trail rather than the Lenape Trail before cutting across to make our way back to the parking lot in a roundabout way.

washington rock
The view of Milburn and beyond from Washington Rock

The third trip was more organized. I joined a meetup.com group that planned a late autumn loop hike (it was planned for 6 miles, but we ended up with a shortcut of 5.5 miles because it was about to rain). This trip showed me the Lenape Trail loop and the Locust Grove parking lot, which is right near the Milburn train station for visitors from New York who want to get out of the city for the day. The parking lot is small and popular, but the public library across the street offers free parking on weekends for non-residents.south mountain riverAutumn along the Lenape Trail in South Mountain Reservation is beautiful — there’s a lot of great color, though we were there in late November, so it was mostly gone by then.

From Locust Grove, we took the trail up the hill to the right (there’s another in the middle that’s a shorter route to Washington Rock). The trail takes hikers farther up the road from Washington Rock, so we had to backtrack, or we could have walked up Crest Dr. a little farther to connect to another trail that would lead back to the Lenape Trail.south mountain reservationThe trail from Washington Rock to Hemlock Falls is moderate — it’s rocky and winding, but not challenging on elevation gain. And the hike back to the parking lot is almost entirely flat, making it the quickest part of the day.

That easy end of the hike was beneficial on that fall afternoon as we hurried back to the parking lot as a thunderstorm rolled in. We encountered light rain on the final half-mile or so — the downpour started as I reached my car and my hiking companions headed to the NJ Transit station. It began to hail as I started my car (I decided to wait for the hail to subside before driving to Bull N Bear Brewery in Summit).autumn south mountainMy last trip through South Mountain Reservation was a similar trek on the Lenape Trail, though with a slight detour. It was a day after New Year’s Day, and it was unseasonably warm. The trail was a bit muddy, which made hiking a little slower at times, but it was still enjoyable. Hemlock Falls was also more scenic than in the previous summer as there has been more precipitation to feed it.

hemlock falls
A bit fuller waterfall in winter

On the way back to the parking lot, my friend and I took a detour through the Fairy Trail. This is a kid-friendly part of the park as it is full of fairy houses, some of which are much more elaborate than others. Certainly, it would be more picturesque in spring or early autumn, but we didn’t mind mid-winter.

fairy trail
This fairy house was more elaborate than most

The downside to hiking at the beginning of a new year during a pandemic is that there aren’t as many restaurants open for a late lunch in Milburn. I should have planned the food options better for the time we were hiking.

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