A big, beautiful footbridge

| 28 Apr 2017 | 12:39

The rickety planks across the Wanaque River washed away a long time ago. Even the trail conference seemed to give up. Its most recent maps include the warning: “Bridge out: difficult crossing.” And so we too gave up on this favorite section of the Highlands Trail, which starts just south of the picturesque ruins of the Long Pond Ironworks in West Milford, N.J., and continues several rocky miles to Big Beech Mountain, near the New York border. When swollen by rain and snowmelt, as it was on our most recent visit, the Wanaque is truly frightening. It roars toward the Monksville Reservoir in a kind of fury. It has force enough to turn a giant waterwheel, like the one still perched beside the river, awaiting restoration after a useful life turning out guns that served in the American Revolution, War of 1812, and Civil War.

Once or twice, when water levels were low, we were able to pick our way to the opposite bank even without the bridge. But when the water was high, we had no choice but to turn back. That’s hard to do, once you’ve struck out with your lunch packed and your heart set, even when confronting a frank danger like the Wanaque. A long-distance hiker bent on completing all 150 miles of the Highlands Trail, from Riegelsville, N.J., on the Delaware River to Storm King Mountain on the Hudson, would have to look for a detour. There is no fallen log to scooch along further upstream. There is no line of exposed rocks to hopscotch across. We’ve looked.

Hurricane Irene in 2011 overwhelmed every mountain stream, rearranging the hiking landscape in big and small ways. Recovery has been slow but steady, thanks to the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference volunteers who do the blisteringly hard work of rerouting trails. The bureaucracy in Trenton took its time, though. According to the timeline in Trailwalker, the trail conference’s newsletter, the organization applied for a grant and permit to rebuild the bridge over the Wanaque in early 2012 but didn’t get final approval until April 2016. But once the the volunteers and contractors got the go-ahead, progress was quick, and by November the job was done.

Climate change is tough on infrastructure. Water advances, and we must make room for it. The old bridge was 30 feet across but, because the riverbanks were so badly eroded, the new bridge had to extend 70 feet. As I stood in the middle of this engineering marvel, impressed by its sturdy construction, grateful to the benign forces that built it, I still felt unsettled by the powerful surge of water below.

We happily continued on to Big Beech Mountain, which, at only about 1,100 feet, sounds much grander than it is. But it’s plenty high for New Jersey, and is shapely in the way a mountain should be, with steep sides climbing to a neat, knob-shaped top. Since I was here last the viewpoint on the summit, facing Greenwood Lake to the west, had grown in. I could barely make out a silvery snatch of water through the trees. But the view just short of the summit, which looks east, is as wide and stunning as ever. It overlooks Tranquility Ridge County Park, which resembles a ring of fire in miniature: a circle of small, pert hills, like volcanoes. I want to hike the trail that winds through them. A small lobe of the Monksville was also in view. Really, it’s an astonishing sight, with no cars, houses, factories, quarries, landfills, or other cleared spaces, just a short length of road and power line far in the distance. All this heavily wooded parkland keeps the water pure for some of New Jersey’s biggest cities downstream.

The trail was quiet. Maybe other hikers had also gotten out of the habit of visiting this section. But this relentlessly sawtoothed spine of rock, which continues north to Sterling Forest, was, for all its beauty, never especially busy. You can make a loop by continuing to the Lake-to-Lake Trail, but the map tagged two more dangerous crossings in that direction. Should we? Not today, anyway. Let’s quit while we’re ahead, we decided, before following our tracks back down the mountain.


Trailhead: Long Pond Ironworks, Greenwood Lake Turnpike, Hewitt, N.J.

Trail: Highlands Trail

Blazes: Blue

Miles: About 5 miles round-trip