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Surprise Lake Loop in the Jersey Highlands
This hike is a strenuous workout with a reward of great natural scenery, one of the most memorable in the Jersey Highlands.
Moderate to Strenuous
Allowed on leash
Views, Public Transportation
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From I-287, take Exit 55, and turn north on County 511, following signs to Wanaque. Drive 12.5 miles around Wanaque and Monksville reservoirs, where County 511 becomes Greenwood Lake Turnpike, passes the lower end of Greenwood Lake, arriving at a traffic light intersection opposite the Hewitt Post Office. At this intersection, turn right following County 511, which becomes Lakeside Road. On Lakeside Road, drive for 3.6 miles to a marina with a parking area on the left (uphill) side of the road. Park in this turnout, but leave room for boats and other cars to maneuver. Do not park in the parking area on the right; it is only for patrons of the marina.
New Jersey Transit Bus Route #197 goes by the marina at the trailhead. Click here for schedule information.
The views from Bearfort Mountain east over Greenwood Lake are spectacular. Surprise Lake and West Pond are beautiful spots for lunch or rest. The Bearfort Mountain puddingstone bedrock is striking and geologically unusual. The start is steep--550 feet in 0.8 mile up the east face of Bearfort Mountain to a lookout at 1,220 feet-- and there are enough 25-foot ridge and hollow ups and downs, with a scramble or two, to stress-test your body from beginning to end. The half-mile of ridgewalk on the west side of West Pond is relatively level with a slight grade up to the high point of the hike. Taken at your own easiest speed, with time out for views, this hike is one of the most memorable in the Highlands.
On the southwest side of the parking lot opposite the marina, about 50 yards from the road and just south of the state line, look for the blue-on-white blazes of the State Line Trail. The path heads down into a ditch, climbs to the southwest within sight of houses, and crosses a small stream. The loose cobbles and boulders on the path are pieces of puddingstone, the metamorphosed purple sandstone with quartz pebble inclusiions that forms the bedrock of Bearfort Mountain.
Throughout the 19th century, the forest on this mountain was clear-cut at least twice to supply fuel for nearby iron works. The terrain is too steep and rocky for farming, so there will be no old stone fences or other signs of husbandry near the trail.
At 0.2 mile, the path parallels another brook, then crosses it and passes an unmarked woods road leading to a back yard. At 0.3 mile, the trail meets a woods road coming in from the left and turns right to climb more steeply up the side of Bearfort Mountain. The path is rocky and severely eroded, and, though wide enough, it probably is not a woods road. It has been widened and deepened by hikers for a least a century.
The first edition of the New York Walk Book, published by the Trail Conference in 1923, calls the Surprise Lake walk "easy of access" and "quite a resort of climbers in the district." The route has been changed slightly in some places to avoid over-hiking, but the old eroded path is still visible and inviting. Hikers can help trail maintainers by following blazes carefully and staying on the trail.
Because the soil is thin and dry from rapid water run-off, there are not many wildflowers near the trail on the way up. But nature is irrepressible; in early May, we did see a starflower, some pussytoes, and early lowbush blueberry in bloom.
At 0.5 mile, the trail steepens through rock outcrops and ridges, and turns left to begin a switchback put in place to moderate the slope. The old trail goes steeply straight ahead, but be sure to follow the new path. The trail continues to swtichback, turning left under a small cliff and crossing a seasonal stream.
At 0.7 mile, the State Line Trail meets the trailhead of the Ernest Walter Trail, marked by yellow blazes on a rock, and nearby on a tree. Turn left here onto the yellow-blazed trail, which heads steeply up rocky ledges, and may require some hand scrambling.
At 0.9 mile, the yellow trail emerges onto a glacially smoothed puddingstone rock outcrop, with wide views over Greenwood Lake. This viewpoint was called Lookout Rock in 1923, indicating that it was already a popular hikers' destination. Sterling Mountain is seen to the north, Horse Pond Mountain to the south, and Little Bear Mountain directly across the lake with Big Beech Mountain behind it.
The yellow trail leaves Lookout Rock to the right (west), climbs down a short steep ledge into a hollow, and crosses a small stream on fallen logs and submerged stones at 1.0 mile. Tectonic forces heaved these pluddingstone ridges up on edge, and time exposed their layers to differential erosion, creating a series of narrow ledges and hollows along the northeast-to-southwest folds. For the hiker, this makes walking along the ridges farily level and easy, but going across the ridges leads to rugged 20- to 50-foot up-and-down climbs. On the exposed dry and thin-soiled ridgetops only pitch pine, stunted chestnut oak, and scrub oak will survive, but the moist protected hollows can support a mixed hardwood community of maple, beech, black birch, some tall chestnut oak, red oak, and often hemlock and occasional white pine.
At 1.2 miles the trail reaches Surprise Lake, a deep glacial pond almost a half-mile long that you would hardly expect to find on top of a mountain. This is a great place to rest, have a bite to eat, and take in the scenery. Although wildflowers are not abundant around these open rocks, in late May, along an unmarked path into the woods north of the overlook, we have seen pink lady's slippers blooming. Migrating songbirds will stop on this ridge, as they do on other Highlands heights, for berries and water.
As the yellow trail leaves Surprise Lake to the right, it immediately passes the trailhead of the Quail Trail (orange blazes), which angles off to the left toward Warwick Turnpike. After passing the Quail Trail, the yellow trail crosses a wetland with a small stream running out of Surprise Lake, and begins a gradual climb.
At 1.4 miles, the trail passes through an impressive tunnel of rhododendron that in a good year produces spectacular blooms in June. At 1.6 miles, the trail crosses Cooley's Brook, the major stream outlet from Surprise Lake, and on the other side of the brook climbs a steep two-level rock ledge where hands and knees may be required.
At the top of this rise at 1.7 miles, you can see back through trees to Surprise Lake, Windbeam Mountain to the east, a bit of Monksville Reservoir, some of the Wyanokie Plateau and on a clear day a few Manhattan towers.
Coming off the last rock of this viewpoint, the Ernest Walter Trail passes the trailhead of the white-blazed Bearfort Ridge Trail and turns right (west) across low ridges to reach at 1.8 miles a junction with a view trail (unmarked) heading right to the West Pond overlook. A short side trip to pristine West Pond, 0.1 mile north, is well worth taking the time. There is no easy access to the shore of West Pond.
Returning to the Ernest Walter Trail, continue to the right (west), climbing down a steep ledge to cross Green Brook, the outlet from West Pond, on stepping stones. Over hundreds of millions of years, this watercourse and its predecessors have eroded the gap betweeen the north and south sections of Bearfort Mountain, through which Native Americans, colonists, and now motorists on Warwick Turnpike have traveled.
After crossing the brook, the trail climbs a ledge on the other side, and, at 2.1 miles, turns right (north) to follow the ridgeline along West Pond, seen occasionally through trees. The path ascends easily along glacially smoothed open puddingstone outcrops, with occasional jumps across eroded joints. The path continues straight ahead over the smooth rocks, and yellow blazes appear often enough.
At about 2.5 miles, the trail reaches the highest elevation of the hike at 1,410 feet, and at 2.6 miles the Ernest Walter Trail climbs off the ridge to the right, ending at a T-junction with the Appalachian Trail (AT) and its tall rectangular white blazes. Turn right onto the AT and follow it across several 20-foot ridges until it meets the western trailhead of the blue-on-white-blazed State Line Trail at 2.9 miles. The AT departs to the left at this junction, and you follow the State Line Trail to the right (east), again over rock outcrops, until at 3.2 miles it begins its descent off Bearfort Ridge. The trail soon passes a substantial rock cairn. Cairns like this one usually inidicate an important turn or junction, but at this spot the meaning is obscure and probably obsolete.
At 3.4 miles, the State Line Trail passes the yellow-blazed trailhead of the Ernest Walter Trail you took uphill to the right to Lookout Rock. You can now retrace your steps on the blue-on-white-blazed State Line Trail, down the slope of Bearfort Mountain and past the cliff face. Follow the switchbacks to the steep, eroded, rocky footpath, coming in sight of houses, crossing the two lower streams, and arriving at the marina parking area at 4.1 miiles.