This is the first of a 3-part trip report describing the two week, Appalachian Trail section hike I took in April 2011, beginning in southern New Jersey and ending in southern Connecticut. Covering 173 miles and spanning 14 days, I’ve broken the trip report out by state. This is part one, detailing the logistics of my shuttle, an overview of my planning efforts and gear selection choices, and a journal of my first week hiking 68 of the 78.3 miles of the Appalachian Trail through New jersey
As I often do, I hiked this section solo.
The Shuttle Plan
My trip started at the point where the Appalachian Trail crosses the Mohican Outdoor Center’s (MOC) dirt access road, about 10 miles north of the Delaware Water Gap on the border of Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
The MOC is a compound of buildings and tent sites owned and managed by the New York-New Jersey Chapter of the Appalachian Mountain Club. It is a convenient and secure place for section hikers to park and for AT thru-hikers to spend a night, catch a shower, and pick up mail drops, as they head north on remaining 890 miles of the AT to Maine and Mt Katadhin.
My shuttle plan for this trip was to park here, spend the night camping before a 15 day section hike, and then hike 173 miles north to southern Connecticut where I’d catch a shuttle back to my car. My section hiking friends Wystiria and Sherpa live in Connecticut and planned to pick me up and drive me back to MOC, about a 3 hour drive from their house.
Once back at my car, we would switch vehicles, while I shuttled them south 100 miles to Port Clinton in Pennsylvania, so that they could hike back to their car and drive home. Amazingly, this shuttle scheme worked exactly as planned, and saved all of us a boatload of money since trail shuttle drivers charge between $1.00 and $2.00 per mile.
The catch was that I really had to make it all 173 miles through New Jersey, New York, and to southern Connecticut for the plan to work, which was not a sure thing at all. I’ve had problems with leg tendons on 65+ mile AT section hikes in the past, although I had managed to hike across Scotland 173 miles the previous spring in the TGO Challenge without incident. Regardless, it wasn’t a sure thing that I’d make it all the way on this route, but I did ultimately with no issues, which is a major physical victory for me.
In preparing for this trip, I researched the weather history for New Jersey and determined that temperatures were likely to be in the low forties (F) at night for this time of year. Gear wise, this meant bringing a three-season gear list, but augmenting it a bit to hedge against cold weather.
So in addition to my NeoAir sleeping pad, I packed a cut-down Gossamer Gear nightlight sleeping pad that could be used as a sit pad in camp or as extra insulation under my torso at night, a Montbell Thermawrap jacket as an extra thermal layer mainly for camp, and an isobutane stove and gas canister so I wouldn’t have to fuss around priming an alcohol stove.
In actuality, the weather on this trip was far colder: temperatures dipped into the 20’s most nights, with only one night above 40 degrees during the entire two weeks I was on the trail. I adapted by wearing the Montbell jacket in my sleeping bag, a Western Mountaineering bag rated for 20 degrees, and was toasty warm throughout the trip. Actually, I’m rather pleased with how well my clothing and sleep systems worked together in the colder than expected temperatures.
In preparing for this trip, I anticipated spending some nights in AT Shelters, and brought an ultralight tarp, a MLD Grace Duo (9.6 oz, seam sealed), so I wouldn’t be burdened by a heavier shelter. This turned out to be a wise choice, as I ended up sleeping in shelters every night I spent on the trail (11 nights). In the end, I never used the tarp except on the night before my hike at MOC. I also spent 2 nights in cheap motels at town resupply points.
Although mostly dry, the weather for this entire trip was rather grim and chilly with only three days of sun over a two week period. While this made for lots of atmospheric photos, it wasn’t particularly inspiring. In addition, there was a brisk breeze for the entire trip, and much more wind exposure than I’d anticipated since the trees had still not sprouted leaves.
Luckily, I’d brought along a new wind shirt for testing, a 2.6 oz Montbell Tachyon (in a Japanese XXL), which proved to be an invaluable part of my daytime and camp thermal system. I wore it in all kinds of different combinations with my other base, thermal, and rain layers and I am totally sold on its utility for exposed conditions. It is a marvelous addition to my three season clothing system, and I’ll write a review detailing its wonderful qualities in the next few weeks.
Route and Resupply Planning
I did the initial plan for this section hike on a Sunday afternoon, mapping out my shuttle options, potential resupply points during my route and making sure that there were adequate water sources along the way. As usual, conditions on the ground were far different from those on my original route plan, and adapting to these differences is one of the aspects of the hiking experience that I rather enjoy.
To assist in my real-time revisions, I relied on David Miller’s AT Guide, which I found to be an invaluable resource for planning resupply stops. If you ever decide to hike a section of the AT that requires a town stop, this book is worth its weight in gold (I just brought the pages I needed.) This is particularly the case in New Jersey and New York, where the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) maps available are downright awful and must be augmented with information about town resources, food availability, road names and distances.
The same holds for water sources: there is not enough detail on the ATC maps to figure out where you can find water on the AT, but David’s book details all of the reliable sources available. It’s a treasure.
The Journey through New Jersey
Day One: Mohican Outdoor Center to Brink Road Shelter (14.5 miles, 500 ft elevation)
After a chilly night camping out at MOC, I ate a quick breakfast and was eager to start hiking. I planned to take the first few days easy and get my hiking legs back after a long winter of hiking in the White Mountains. Although I’d been doing some local hikes near my house, I hadn’t broken the 10 mile per day mark for at least 6 months, and felt the need to build up my endurance gradually (this lasted exactly one day!)
The first day’s walk was rather flat, ascending a ridge and then walking along it to a shelter. The New Jersey AT is known for its dense bear population, so I was admittedly nervous about a bear encounter and wanted to stick to shelters and their steel bear boxes for night-time food storage.
After a short climb through pitch pine, two things became apparent. First the forest along the top of the ridge had suffered from a hard winter with many blow downs. Further examination of the tree tops revealed dense crowns with lots of branches, a sign that the weather on the ridge top is normally severe, resulting in a pattern of breakage and regrowth.
Second, there was ample evidence of past fire disturbances, something that I would see along the entire section of the New Jersey Appalachian Trail. Likely caused my lightning, there was abundant evidence that past fires had swept the ridge repeatedly with burned trunks and branches still evident. There is also a lot of dead wood and high fire risk on the trail in New Jersey: something to be aware of if you walk in these woods. (If you think being able to “read” a forest’s history like this sounds interesting, read Tom Wessel’s Reading the Forrested Landscape.)
Because of the constant risk of fire, there are a number of fire towers along this stretch of trail and I met one of the fire watchers hiking up to the Catfish Fire Tower for his shift. We talked about the fire history of the region and he told me about some fires that I’d see along my route the following day, near Culver Gap.
The ridge along this section of trail is bordered to the east by steep cliffs that overlook farms, rural homesteads, and summer camps that line the lakes below. Birds of prey nest along the cliffs and I observed a mated pair nursing a chick. They were large enough that they could have been eagles or turkey vultures, but I kept my distance to avoid stressing them. A freshly killed porcupine lay nearby, which I assumed was their handiwork.
I made good time on my hike, establishing a 2 mile an hour pace, which I was able to sustain through my entire journey. Walking in trail runners again instead of the plastic mountaineering boots I wore all winter was liberating. My feet were happy, even on rainy days.
By 3:30pm, I arrived at the Brink Road Shelter, a small and weathered 6 person shelter where I stopped for the night. I tanked up on water at the spring behind the shelter and cooked a hearty dinner with Ramen noodles, miso soup and several big shots of olive oil. It’s a very satisfying meal in colder weather with all the major food groups: salt, fat, and carbs!
After dinner, I checked my route for the following day and fell asleep shortly after sunset. I never have problems sleeping on hikes, and sleeping and waking with the sun is a real pleasure for me on such trips.
Day Two: Brink Road Shelter to High Point Shelter (19.5 miles, 600 ft elevation)
The next day was cloudy and rather grim, with rain forecast for the evening. I knew this because I’ve started to use my Android phone a bit on hikes, for the first time, mainly to check the weather forecast and keep on top of my email. I’m careful to keep my use in check to save the battery, but it is useful to have some contact with the outside world, especially for making motel reservations from the trail or coordinating shuttle pickups.
I set out early, as usual, with the goal of picking up a snack along the way in Culver Gap. I had plenty of food, 4 nights worth, but grabbing a quick bite along the way would increase my resupply flexibility without increasing my load. Moreover, I’d heard from a hiker I’d met the previous day that there was a sandwich shop right off the trail at Rt 206 and I figured I could pop in and out without losing much time.
When I arrive at the sandwich shop I walked right in, ignoring the sign above, and was sharply remanded by the owner to take my gear outside and put it on the hiker bench. I thought it was a little over the top because there was no one else in the shop except me, but I wanted a coffee, so I relented to his demand. I guess it’s a problem that’s vexed him over the years when the thru-hikers arrive in town.
While I was waiting for some bagels to toast, the owner starting ranting about how the Democrats were the cause of the pending government shutdown and funding deadlock. Poor guy had obviously been listening to too much Rush Limbaugh talk radio. I nipped this thread in the bug, explaining how it didn’t matter if you were a Democrat or a Republican: we all wanted what’s right for the country and we’re all in this together. He jerked forward when I said this and I could see the confusion and anger drain from his eyes. I think I helped mellow him out. Honestly, I’m really getting sick of the us vs them mentality in politics these days. We are all citizens and in this together. Let’s stop shoving each other around on the playground like bullies. It’s lunacy.
I inhaled my coffee (with extra sugar), wolfed a bagel, and stashed the other one in my pack pocket for later. I wanted to get out a move on to get out of the wind and avoid the pending rain forecast for that afternoon and evening.
After a few hours, I met a fellow section hiker on the trail carrying a huge backpack. The thing must have weighed 80 lbs and he was bent forward trying to keep it balanced. The first words out of his mouth when he saw me were “I can’t avoid bringing my creature comforts with me when I go backpacking.” It was odd greeting: it’s not like I wear a sign saying “Lightweight Backpacker,” when I’m hiking.
He explained he’d been hiking for two weeks, starting at the Connecticut-New York border and hiking south along the AT, aiming for the Delaware Water Gap as his final destination. Along the way, he’d lost a toenail to frostbite, “in the mountains,” of New York State and bought a new pair of boots from an outfitter, because he’d tried to tackle the peaks wearing the wrong shoes.
His story made sense when he explained it, but after thinking about it, I can’t help wondering which mountains he was talking about. The highest peak along the New Jersey-New York AT is 1,500 feet, and who in their right mind would break in a new pair of hiking boots on a 160 mile hike after getting frostbite? I’d quit and drive home to prevent gangrene or other complications.
By 3:30 pm, I’d made it to the 0.4 mile side trail to the Rutherford Shelter, which is a favorite of readers DripDry and Revlee. Problem was, it’s a steep 0.4 mile descent from the ridge to get to the shelter, and you need to climb back up the next morning. I decided to walk another 4 miles to the High Point Shelter to avoid another climb the next day, and I hiked there for another two hours.
By now the sky was getting dark and ominous.The wind had gotten colder and it was downright unpleasant out. To top it off, the High Point is in some kind of park, making me wonder about the privacy of the shelter and whether it was too close to the road. Shelters close to roads can be magnets for homeless vagrants or teenage partiers.
But everything turned out cool in the end. When I arrived at the shelter, it was already inhabited by another section hiker named Mike, who is also into Lightweight Backpacking, so we had a lot to talk about. An electrician from New Paltz, NY, he was just out for a 6 day hike to finish the state.
Moreover the High Point Shelter is rather nice, and looks a lot like the MashiPacong Shelter shown above. It is surrounded by fresh water streams on three sides, making it easy to get water and is secluded and hard to reach, despite being so close to the High Point park.
Mike and I had a lot to talk about and had a nice conversation as we ate dinner and prepared for bed. This was the only time on the entire trip that I had to share a shelter with another hiker: the other 10 nights that I slept in them I was alone.
Day Three: High Point Shelter to Pochuck Shelter (13 miles, 500 ft elevation)
I woke the next morning to drizzle, and as I lay there, my first thought was that this shelter might make a good place to hang out for the day and take a zero (rest day). I got out of my sleeping bag and trundled outside to look at the sky, only to see an enormous black cloud overhead. I got back into my sleeping bag for a snooze, as it started thundering and a heavy rain began to fall.
While I had the option to hang out for a while, poor Mike had two high mileage days to do to get to a shuttle pickup at the state line, so he packed up and left. I lingered in my bag for another hour, before the rain stopped, and then decided to head north as well, figuring the rain had abated.
No chance. About a mile north, the rain really started to come down, accompanied by fierce winds. I bundled up in my rain gear and continued hiking, coming to several miles of farmers fields. Hiking in the rain across fields is awful because there is little protection from the wind and the rain. It had stopped thundering at least, so there wasn’t any lighting danger to worry about at the moment, but I did experience several hours of horizontal blowing rain.
By and large, the AT runs along the borders of farmer’s fields in New England, adjacent to stone walls or tree breaks separating the fields. That was the case here, but I was still plenty exposed since there were still no leaves on the trees.
The wind was really blowing during this storm and I could see the tree tops bending overhead in the howling wind. At one point I was startled by a large CRACK, when a big dead tree in the tree break fell over about 10 yards ahead of me to my right. It was blowing all right!
Luckily, I have a pretty good rain clothing system and walking in the rain is something I don’t actually mind that much. After hiking The Long Trail, you learn how to deal with rain. I recalled how I’d walked through Hurricane Ike a few years ago in northern Vermont, near the Canadian Border, which was far worse than what I was experiencing then, and had lasted for days.
Still after a while, I started to cool off and my rain jacket began to wet out, despite a recent application of DWR before this trip. I put on another layer under my rain jacket and put on my MLD rain mitts and polypro glove liners and soon warmed up again. Paired together those gloves make a huge difference in rain walking.
After the reserve area, I was only about an hour away from another shelter on Pochuck Mountain, and followed a long boardwalk through a swampy area to the base of the mountain. Water is not available at the shelter, and hikers are advised to get it at an abandoned house at the foot of the mountain, per the AT Guide.
If that sounds sketchy, it is. But worse, the water wasn’t turned on this early in the spring, so I had to backtrack into the swamp and refill the 5 quarts I like to camp with. After that I had to climb Pochuck Mountain with the extra water weight to get to the shelter.
When I arrived I was chilled. I set up my bivy and sleeping bag in the shelter, took off my wet gear, and got into my sleeping bag to warm up. It was only 3:15 pm, but I stayed in my bag for the next 17 hours until the following morning. I was happy again once I warmed up and tucked into some food.
Day Four: Pochuck Shelter to Wawayanda Shelter (11 miles, 1,000 ft elevation)
The weather was sunnier the next day when I woke up but the temperature was still brisk. I broke camp and continued hiking to the top of Pochuck Mountain, coming to a graveyard of old automobiles in the woods. You see this kind of trash all over New England and have to wonder how it gets there. For example, seeing dead refrigerators in the woods is an inexplicably common sight.
I dubbed this area “The Pochuck Mountain Campground”, since you could sleep in the rusting car bodies if you wanted to. I got a laugh out of it. The Pinto Wagon looked like the best bet.
From here the trail snakes around a number of different housing developments that about the trail. Luckily, I didn’t have any loose dog encounters. They scare me more than bears when I walk past residences next to the trail.
The highpoint of the day was my arrival at the Pochuck Boardwalk a few miles later. This is a beautiful wetland with a boardwalk running through it, spanning nearly two miles. The sun was out and the song birds were singing. This is a really nice place to walk.
It’s funny, because the AT traverses a part of New Jersey that most people don’t know exists. This area is a massive breeding ground for avian species with a vast amount of wetlands set aside for their protection. Walking the trail here really changed my perception of the state for the better.
After the boardwalk, the trail passes over a bike path, crosses some rail road tracks and passes through a cow-filled field before reaching the base of Wawayanda Mountain, where it climbs steeply up a boulder strewn slope into Wawayanda Park. We’re not talking small boulders here, but giant ones, the size of school buses. It reminded me of the White Mountains in New Hampshire.
From the top of the ridge, it’s a short walk to Wawayanda Shelter, located in a state park. The shelter is dry and to get water you need to go to the park headquarters a short distance away and fill up your reservoirs at a spigot outside.
Afterwards, I walked back to the shelter, set up camp, cooked dinner and crashed. It had been a pretty easy day, but I was looking forward to reaching the state line the following day and doing a resupply over the border at Greenwood Lake in New York.
Day Five: Wawayanda Shelter to New Jersey/New York State Line (11 miles, 1,000 ft elevation)
When I woke the following morning, it was snowing outside the shelter, so I went back to sleep for a bit. This eventually turned to freezing rain and finally stopped by the time I’d finished my breakfast tea and packing my gear.
I’d decided the night before to walk into Greenwood Lake by taking a blue blazed trail into town called the Village Vista Trail and to get a room at a hiker friendly motel called Anton’s by the Lake. Hiker friendly lodging customarily means free shuttles to and from the trail, and as well as laundry services. I needed a shower and my clothes needed a wash, and I was willing to spring the $85 bucks for a room to clean up and get indoors for the night.
It was about 10 miles to the side trail and I made good time until I got to a very rocky section above the lake. With the freezing rain earlier that morning this section was treacherous and I fell a half-dozen times, slipping on the wet fungus covered rock.
Just before the state line, I had a particularly nasty fall slashing open my right palm all the way down into the meat of my hand. It wasn’t that serious, but it bled for a while. I put a bandage I carry in my first aid kit over it to keep it clean until I could dress it properly in town. A week later it’s almost completely healed, no doubt aided by the increased metabolic activity of my hike. Normally, a wound like this takes 2-3 weeks to heal.
When I fell, I also trashed one of my hiking poles, bending it rather badly. It is still usable, but won’t collapse anymore. I’ve broken 4 metal poles in the past couple of years in falls like this.
When I found the trail head to the Village Vista Trail I followed it down the ridge to Greenwood Lake, which is a seasonal town that caters to summertime visitors. I easily found the motel I planned to stay out and checked in, took a shower, and did a load of laundry, which was free BTW. A nice perk.
Then I went roaming around town looking for food to resupply with. Unfortunately there isn’t a decent food store in town and the only store that even came close to having decent hiking food was the town CVS (a pharmacy). I ended buying a loaf of bread, a can of cashews, fig newtons, Oreos, and a bunch of candy bars: enough food to get me to Fort Montgomery, two days north, where I decided to try to get better food.
Then I went to dinner across the street at an awesome pizza place called Planet Pizza. They have great food and I pigged out. My metabolism was really starting to kick in.
Afterwards, I walked back to my motel and repacked my gear before turning in for the night. Only problem, was the heat in my room didn’t have a thermostat so I couldn’t turn it off when it got to hot. I ended up just turning it off for the night and sleeping in my sleeping bag on top of the king size bed. The rooms in Anton’s are pretty nice for $85 night, but the lack of a Thermostat seems like a major oversight.
The following morning, I got a shuttle back to the trail a few miles north of where I’d left it and started hiking north through New York State.
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