Corrections or additions?
This article by Mary Jasch was prepared for the May 21, 2003
edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Whistle Stop to Tranquil Trails
The Paulinskill Valley Trail, an abandoned railroad
bed converted to hiking path, offers 27 fun miles of vignettes and
vistas just a little more than an hour’s drive north of Princeton
on Route 206. Small towns, farms, mountains, lakes and rivers, gardens
of wildflowers, 19th century railroad memorabilia, black dirt,
Indian shelters are all found here — all nature’s bounty put to
human use and the visible remains of other lives from other times.
It’s a linear park widely used by those who come to walk the dog,
jog, ride horses and bikes, seek serenity, or watch birds.
One of New Jersey’s rail trails, this path was once the route for
the New York, Susquehanna, and Western Railroad that brought coal
from Pennsylvania to New Jersey and New York. It is now part of
Valley State Park headquartered in Sussex County. The state acquired
the land in 1994 and created the park specifically to administer two
multi-use rail trails, the Paulinskill Valley and the Sussex Branch.
You can enter and leave this trail at many points along its 27-mile
length. There is designated parking provided by Kittatinny Valley
State Park; also, wherever the trail crosses a road, you will find
at least one parking spot. The curious hiker who likes to dilly-dally
and take in all the sights, can complete a four-mile stretch of the
Paulinskill Valley Trail in less than two hours.
Today my hiking companion, Kathy, and I pick up the trail at
Park in Blairstown in Warren County and head northeast for a four-mile
jaunt to Swartswood Lake. The part of the trail that leads in the
opposite direction — southwest to Columbia on the Delaware River
— meanders past the Blairstown airport, where hikers may be
to stop for lunch at a great diner, eccentrically situated beside
a runway. The trail leads on to Vail with its old freight stations,
and then under the grand Hainseburg viaduct, an immense railroad
that spans the Delaware River.
Most of the trail is cindered, offering the clean air exercise buff
a pliable gentle surface, but here the path is a soft dirt levee.
Walking northeast, we find blue, white, and even yellow violets
through last year’s dead leaves, wild roses leafing out, and the first
fragrant blooms of the honeysuckle hang in the air. The blueberry
bushes are in bloom, soon to offer fresh fruit to tantalize the
Bright green blades of daylilies stand a foot tall, and spring-fed
rivulets spill over flat rocks down from the highway.
An old chipped cement mileage marker left here from railroad days
reads "JC82" — only 82 miles to Jersey City, the terminus
of the defunct rail line.
Alongside of us, the Paulins Kill, a trout-stocked river, parallels
the entire length of the trail. On its ride from two headwaters in
Sparta and Lafayette to the Delaware River, it crosses the trail
sliding under rail bridges, rushing over falls, slinking through
and swirling in quiet pools. This devilish, teasing stream can be
counted on to treat the walker to many moods.
An iron bridge just off the trail leads out to a surprisingly forceful
waterfall at the first crossroad, where an old house rests in cradled
privacy. A willow tree puffs its green-tinged branches over the wide
sheet of water and dead trees ride the crest. Hurrying toward the
Delaware River, the river is placid on one side and roiling on the
other. Here the intensity of the falls can wash stress away and carry
it downstream in the water’s froth.
The trail eases from the highway now — culture-cleansed —
except for the pile of duck chow on the shore where the mallards
Green tendrils of half-eaten skunk cabbage — could be bear —
squirrel up from the small overflow pond on the left.
Farther up, the view across the river frames small farms with red
out-buildings. Common mergansers float near the opposite shore as
one of the group flaps, runs, and slides, as if into first base, while
a great blue heron flies low, scoping the stream. A white swan with
wings spread sails slowly along as another great blue heron glides
in, sees us, and lifts up again toward the sky. Soon enough, we see
a troupe of Canada’s finest float by.
We strut across a variety of railroad bridges, like
this iron one with closed sides and a new bed. Ancient telegraph poles
line the path, some punctuated by pileated woodpecker holes. Along
the stream edges, the mix of conifers and hardwoods reminds me of
There are no signs of poison ivy, but there are purple-leafed rosettes
of soon-to-bloom spring flowers, and wild violets and trout lily
A merganser skims the river upstream, then the current carries it
down. Why fly when you can ride? This trail is a birder’s heaven.
An eroded cement slab sports a "W." It’s a "whistle
that once signaled the train to sound its whistle at an upcoming road
Now the river turns to white water. It’s loud. The air is at least
five degrees cooler now, here between a rock wall and the rushing
The flat path rolls on through a quiet landscape that is suffused
with a sense of another era, of other bustling lives. We walk on
Stillwater and Swartswood, through ruins of Swartswood Station and
the Swartswood creamery and ice house, where farmers left milk and
the ice they cut from the frozen lakes to be taken to the city.
and Sussex counties were fully developed by the railroad," says
Roberta Bramhall, a trustee of the Paulinskill Valley Trail Committee.
"This gave the farmers outlets for their milk and winter
to harvest the ice from local lakes."
In Swartswood, the trail runs over stepped rock in a gorgeously lazy
Bramhall says that other railroad evidence to be found along the trail
includes the ranks of telegraph poles, metal battery boxes that
the movement of the tracks, and concrete battery boxes near roads
that operated crossbars at intersections.
We walk on through great rock cuts made by steam shovels on the
This rock was used as fill to raise and level the track bed.
Trees shade the path for over a mile and tiny frogs leap from our
footsteps. This is the most "civilized" part of the trail,
with plenty of houses and the usual joggers, walkers, and bicyclists.
The path rises above Paulinskill Lake, easily seen through the trees.
Another walk that begins from the parking lot at Route 519 and Halsey
Road in Hampton meanders just over three miles through luxurious
upland forest, rock cuts, and the backyards of businesses and homes
to Warbasse Junction Road in Lafayette Township. Some railroad
remain, like the signal base at a whistle stop before Halsey Station.
The station was to the right. A mileage marker here reads "JC68"
and garden escapees like periwinkle creep to the trail blooming blue
through the woods.
Kathy and I enjoy this path. We see the backyards of small homesteads,
one with Hereford cows, through skinny trees of black cherry, red
oak, and red maple that hug the path.
The old railroad bed runs lower than the surrounding land and a
river flows over it. Railroad ties that once held churning wheels
now support vivid green mosses.
Detours the state built rise up alongside the muddy trail. They are
in just the right places and sometimes afford views that, otherwise,
the walker would not see.
When the trail nears Halsey Road, where it intersects Route 206, it
backs up to industry. A line of grand old trees frames a strip mall,
their buttressed bole bottoms swollen in water. A sign says it is
now 1.7 miles to Warbasse Junction Road. For the walker who has
the gentle grades of a railroad line this is an easy path and the
miles seem to click by effortlessly.
Next we spot horse prints along the trail, preceding
us all the way to Warbasse. Marge Barrett, Paulinskill Valley Trail
Committee president, says she often used to ride here. "The cinder
base recovers easily," she says. "When I couldn’t ride
I started walking." Barrett also organized a bird count on the
trail and has listed, by sight or sound, over 125 species to be found
here. Plus, she says, there are over 600 vascular plants along the
trail — that’s almost 25 percent of all vascular plants in the
The rock cuts create a tropical garden-like effect. Water drips over
thin sheets of shale, where ferns anchor themselves, their lush fronds
hanging down nature’s wall. Bright green puffs of moss thrive in the
shaded, wet habitat.
The trail leaves the woods and goes back to civilization as a trio
of Schnauzers greets us. As we approach Route 94, a pair of mourning
doves jumps together on a wooden fence rail surrounding a hillside
pasture, where horses sun themselves in corrals and goats and llamas
pause in their routines to watch us pass.
One of many cattle passes still cross under the trail here. It was
only a year ago that the park built up the trail’s surface and laid
down gravel to make it passable in many areas.
The woods change character again with Eastern red cedars growing
An ancient inland lake once covered this land that became a marsh,
then a strip mine for humus and peat. The water that flows through
here is known locally as Hyper Humus Waterway, named for the company
that literally "bagged" the land, mining the peat and
it for the nursery trade. The company went out of business in the
early 1990s and the land is now owned by Scott, the fertilizer and
grass seed people.
At the juncture of the dirt road stands a "wolf tree," a
marker from bygone days. You can recognize such markers, usually a
big old tree, standing alone, with prominent horizontal branches.
Even though these big trees may be surrounded by underbrush today,
they are left from the days when a single tree was left to stand as
a boundary while the surrounding land was cleared for farming.
even the wolf tree’s horizontal branches were pruned to serve as local
Now a dramatic rock outcrop rises on our left. Legend has it that
traveling Lenne Lenape Native Americans slept in rock shelters in
these parts. Even then the trail offered a natural route to travel
north on their sojourns; just as later, the railroad chose it as a
perfect spot to lay tracks. Now, third generation users are walkers,
cyclists, horses, and dogs.
We walk over the West Branch of the Paulins Kill, whose headwaters
are uncertain but originate somewhere in these swampy lands. We cross
on a rusty iron trestle that park personnel tell us is consistent
with the type of bridge that was built from the 1880s all the way
to 1963, when the railroad chugged out.
This abandoned railroad bed was sold to the city of Newark, which
wanted to put a sewer pipe in it when Tocks Island was being planned,
explains Barrett. "We named it the Paulinskill Valley Trail
it follows the Paulins Kill for most of the way, and the trail is
in the valley. The state kept the name and we were pleased." The
friends’ committee was formed in 1983 to help the state purchase the
land. Now it organizes hikes, horse-back rides, and bike rides on
the trail year round The schedule is posted on the website and some
events are listed below.
Through fertile valleys, along farmsteads, crop fields, and ponds
that smell of salt, the trail runs along on a berm built by the
For a leg stretcher and the sheer pleasure of movement, a walk on
the Paulinskill Valley Trail is about getting lost in the details
"I like anything that creeps, crawls, flies or grows," says
Bramhall. "I love to be out and study nature. If I walk alone,
I feel very safe. I’ve met happy people in the realm of whatever their
hobby is. For families with kids who ride bikes, it’s very safe."
She stresses that the cinder base is conducive to all uses —
prohibited motorized vehicles.
The walk on this quiet amiable trail relaxes us. For a few hours,
the rest of our lives are miles away. Kathy and I step off the trail
refreshed and ready for a new onslaught of daily living. Most walkers
will agree with Bramhall when she says, "For me it’s a
No matter how I feel when I start out, I always feel great when I
leave. I find my peace and serenity outdoors. I can always renew my
spirit by taking a walk on the trail."
Valley State Park, Box 621, Andover, 973-786-6445. Stop by the park
office in Andover to pick up a map and ask about parking. Park office
directions: Take Route 206 North to Andover Borough. Turn right onto
Limecrest Road (County Route 669). Park office is 1.1 miles on the
or on the web at community.nj.com/cc/pvtc. PVTC
offers a new hiker’s map through its website. You can also sign up
for guided walks on wildflowers, wildlife, and railroad history.
PVTC Outdoor Events
and Natural History Walk. Meet at 8 a.m. at Kittatinny Valley State
Park in the Twin Lakes parking area on Goodale Road (County Route
623), 0.6 mile east of Route 206, north of Andover. Free; no
Junction Bike Ride, 11:30 a.m. (preregister at 973-887-4332).
Corrections or additions?
This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com
— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.