Crossing the Delaware
Four days ago, I crossed the Delaware River and left Pennsylvania behind. I knew this would be a big milestone, but I hadn’t realized just how different the Jersey trail would be! The glaciers carved this landscape into a patchwork of cliffs, lakes, and valleys that’s a real pleasure to walk through. It’s been one of my favorite sections of the trail so far. Today I’m taking a zero at Greenwood Lake, New York, and I feel a world away from the PA mining towns I was hiking past a week ago. As for the South, it feels like a distant dream.
The two days out of Hamburg saw the worst weather I’ve had on the trail. Every few hours a thunderstorm would bring torrential rain, with a light mist in between storms. I couldn’t see a thing from Pulpit Rock or the Pinnacle, and had to imagine the views from memory. I got soaked to the skin on my way down into ‘the Eck,’ where I found a dozen hikers crowded into the Eckville shelter waiting out the rain. There was just enough of a dry spell for me to set up my tent at a boulder field near Dans Pulpit before it started pouring again.
The next day, Saturday, I kept on down the ridge to Route 309, where there’s a restaurant and a hostel at an otherwise lonely mountain crossing. I’d had a box sent to the hostel, so I spent some time there hanging out in the dry before I walked over to the restaurant for lunch. I’d never gone in before, though I’ve driven past quite a few times, and I was really pleasantly surprised by how good the food was! If you have the chance, make sure to stop by Thunderhead Lodge.
The rest of the day was a challenge, as I’d come to the rockiest of the Pennsylvania rocks, a half-mile scramble along jagged cliffs called the ‘Knifes Edge’. In good weather, this makes an excellent day hike, with unbroken views of the Lehigh valley. In a rainstorm, it makes for an excellent opportunity to twist your ankle. I picked my way through the rock slabs as carefully as I could, and breathed a sigh of relief when I came out safe on the other side. The weather even started to clear, and by the time I reached Bake Oven Knob I got the panoramic view I’d been missing for the past two days.
The Poisoned Land
The rain wasn’t done with me yet, and I got caught in one last thunderstorm as the trees thinned out towards Lehigh Gap. Plants struggle to thrive here because the mountain is covered in mine tailings, thanks to the operations of the Palmerton Zinc Company. It makes for great views, but at the price of an unhealthy feeling, as if the mountain is under a curse that will take generations to lift. Apart from one spring at the George Outerbridge shelter, all the water here is poison.
I camped in the cursed land that night, just before the gap. Quaking aspen and sheep laurel grew there, with a few pitch pine and bear oak filling in the gaps. A far cry from the dense forest of birch, oak, and hickory that cover the rest of the mountain. I could see far north to the Lehigh Gorge and the Poconos, and on Sunday morning the valleys were covered in mist with gentle peaks rising above. It was beautiful.
On the other side of the gap is a steep, steep climb through huge boulders, which is better described as a rock climb than a walk. I think it may be the toughest part of the trail so far, worse than Dragon’s Tooth. From the top of the jumble of rock you can see Palmerton laid out like a postage stamp, next to the continued devastation of the zinc mines the next ridge over.
The wildlife seem to like it here, though. There’s deer and field sparrows and prairie warblers, and I stumbled on a whole family of turkeys crossing the trail. After a few miles, the forest closes in and the water’s safe again. There’s a ski resort, where I stopped and had some lunch. And then there’s many miles of boring, rocky ridgetop all the way to Wind Gap and beyond.
Around noon on Monday, I came to a very special place that’s easily overlooked. This is Wolf Rocks, the southern edge of the glaciers during the Ice Age. The glaciers are what gave the northern landscapes their northern feel, what made lakes and humpbacked peaks and slabs of granite out of so much of the northern Appalachians. And, though Delaware Water Gap is a more visible border to the land of the glaciers, it really begins here, six miles south. This rocky ridge with a view of the Poconos is the start of the geologic North.
Finally, four long days out from Hamburg, I reached Mt Minsi and descended into the village of Delaware Water Gap. In this pretty little town with a bakery and a handful of old hotels, I set up my tent at the church hostel and prepared to enter New Jersey. The next morning, I’d cross the Delaware and finally be done with Pennsylvania.
Crossing the Delaware
I ran into a few old friends at Delaware Water Gap — Woodstock, who I’d toughed out the snow on Roan Mountain with, and a guy named Dingo who I hadn’t seen since the Nantahala. So it was harder than usual to get back on the trail on Tuesday, as I kept hanging around the bakery chatting with people. But I did get out eventually, and walked across the Delaware River on the I-80 footbridge. The rapids flowed down below while trucks thundered by, making the concrete walkway rattle. A sign on the pavement reminded me that here on the state line I was less than 900 miles from Katahdin.
After a short roadwalk, I turned into the woods and climbed up a mountain stream back to the ridge. Soon I was at the trail’s first glacial lake, Sunfish Pond. I sat in the sun on a rock and watched a water snake slither along the shore. The weather on Tuesday was perfect, and I enjoyed clear views across the Poconos to the west and the Jersey Highlands to the east whenever the trail climbed to bare rock along the ridge.
At midday I stopped at the Mohican Outdoor Center, an AMC-run lodge at a former boy scout camp. I talked with some flip-floppers I’d met the day before as I sorted through my latest supply box. Then it was back out onto the hot, sunny mountain, for another ten miles on the trail.
I’d decided to aim for Crater Lake that evening. It’s another glacial lake along the trail, and I’ve known it for years as a secluded swimming spot hidden away on the mountaintop. I arrived late, around seven p.m., but still in time for a dip in the lake to cool off from the 90-degree day. The water was cool and clear, with schools of tiny trout nibbling at my toes. On my way there I’d encountered a porcupine along the trail, and I startled a beaver as I came out onto the lake’s north shore. The evening brought a deafening chorus of frogs, almost drowning out the whippoorwill nearby.
As I was eating my breakfast on Wednesday morning, I encountered a woman who was out early walking with her dog. She was originally from Latvia, and came out to Crater Lake often because it reminded her of the forests and ponds back home. Like me, she’d first found out about it by word of mouth, and fallen in love with the place. As I gazed out over the water one last time, I felt deeply grateful that I’d had this chance to spend time here before moving away.
Rain on the High Point
I ran into Woodstock again that morning, and we walked together for a while. The sunny weather didn’t hold up, and we were caught in another soaking downpour for about an hour. At lunchtime, the town of Branchville appeared along the way, and I spent a good two hours hanging out at lakeside restaurants eating lunch. It kept raining through the afternoon, though, and there were no more views that day. I set up my tent in the wet, near a rock face that might have been an overlook in better weather.
I’d been looking forward to the view from High Point, so I was quite disappointed when it kept on raining through the night and Thursday started with mist and scattered showers. I stopped in the park visitor center, but decided not to make the detour up to the high point monument — I wouldn’t get the 360 view I remembered from my previous visit, and it would just be a steep, rocky hill. So I turned along the AT and left Kittatinny Ridge for good, after 150 miles of traveling its crest.
Highlands and Swamps
After leaving the ridge, the trail crosses the limestone and shale of the Great Appalachian Valley for the fourth and final time. To me, these valley crossings are some of the most interesting parts of the trail. The environmental contrast with the ridgetops is striking, as you pass through pastoral landscapes that you never see in the deep woods. Of course I love trekking through the rugged wilderness, but leaving the mountains makes a welcome change from time to time.
By this standard, the Kittatinny Valley did not disappoint. In fact, it’s the most dramatic and varied lowland landscape I’ve seen so far. You start by climbing rolling ridges of slate, filled with glacial ponds and bogs, flanked by cliffs and jumbled piles of huge rocks. Then you come out into a narrow, flat valley covered in marshland, where the Wallkill River slowly flows north towards the Hudson. Next comes the steep ridge of Pochuck Mountain, whose rounded lumps of granite rise above the valley. And finally, you emerge into a wide, swampy plain full of reeds and cattails, which the trail traverses on a boardwalk to the valley’s edge.
This whole area is teeming with wildlife. I saw a fox soon after I came off of the ridge, and someone I met in Unionville (a great stop for a bagel) had seen three bears. The marshes are full of red-winged blackbirds and waterfowl, and there are beaver ponds in the highlands. By the time I reached the boardwalk, it had started to clear, and I got a sweeping vista as I walked among cattails and reeds, water rushing underneath, with skunk cabbage, green ash, and willows in the wooded swamps.
Of course, the mosquitoes were vicious in the marshland, but it was worth it for the scenery. I actually decided to spend Thursday night there, in a secluded grassy spot next to Wawayanda Creek (pronunciation: “way-way-yondah”). I put on all my long sleeves and a head net and did my best to ignore the biting bugs, while I listened to the crickets and the frogs and watched the snails amble along the blades of grass.
The Mountain that Shouldn’t Be There
On Friday morning — yesterday — I packed up and climbed a steep rock face to Wawayanda Mountain and crossed the Highlands. There were more bogs and ponds, and an open forest of beech and sugar maple with sunlight filtering in. Every now and then a cascading brook would plunge down across the trail. I thought I’d have an easy walk to the state line and Greenwood Lake.
Then the rocks changed from striped granite to pebbly brownstone, and I reached the ridge. This is a long, thin mountain, called Bearfort Mountain in New Jersey and Bellvale Mountain in New York, that carries the AT north across the state line. Its geology is very weird. In the middle of a belt of granite — the ancient rock that makes up the highlands — it’s a chunk of much younger sediment bound together by ironstone. The rock dates from a time when the northern Appalachians were newly formed, and the high peaks eroded away the earlier sands of the sea. It’s preserved thanks to a fault block that dropped the granite deep below the surface, leaving the pebbly white-and-red “puddingstone” on top.
I got to know this weird rock very well, because the trail climbs up and down its face for miles going north. Blazes are painted on stone, and the path climbs up and down with each massive slab. Some climbs are so steep, there’s even iron rungs. But the views are amazing. Hills curving away like waves towards the horizon, the long fjord-like trough of Greenwood Lake to the east, and — though it was too hazy to see it well yesterday — the Manhattan skyline in the distance. It may have been slow going, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Late in the afternoon, I arrived at the road crossing near Bellvale Creamery where Andrea was waiting for me at the trail. She drove up to meet me so we can pack up my last few resupply boxes before she leaves to do the Long Trail next week. We had some amazing ice cream on the mountain and drove down to the fancy little lake town of Greenwood Lake. I’m looking forward to arriving in New England next week, but in many ways, it feels like I’m already there.
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