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March 18, 2016

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Destination: MORRISTOWN, N.J.

Jersey Journeys

Building trails amid New Jersey's highways, cities and suburbs

By Jeffrey Gold -- Associated Press


Al Kent, the inspiration for the Liberty-Water Gap Trail, walks along a portion of the trail next to a cement plant and freight rail lines in Morristown, N.J. (Mike Derer -- Associated Press)

Two hiking trails that will eventually cross the state will include plenty of opportunities to walk on asphalt and savour the aroma of speeding diesel trucks.

This IS New Jersey, after all -- the most densely populated state in America. You got a problem with that?

Trekking purists need not fret, though. The fledgling trails will also include bits of wilderness and scenic vistas amid the state's highways, cities and suburbs.

One such area is the 250-kilometre Liberty-Water Gap Trail, which begins along the Jersey City waterfront in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty and finishes at the Delaware Water Gap along the Delaware River, across from Pennsylvania.

The other is called the Capital to Coast Trail, an often flat 88-kilometre track that traverses the state's narrow waist by dipping above and below Interstate Highway 195. One of its trailheads is also along the Delaware River, in Trenton, and the other along the Atlantic Ocean, in Manasquan.

Both have been in the works for about four years, and both still have gaps, but at least two enterprising hikers have completed the Liberty-Water Gap Trail by improvising between established sections.

One was a reporter for The Record of Bergen County, Brian Kladko, who covered the route in 11 days in July 2002, becoming the trail's first "through-hiker," or one who walked it in one trip. (By comparison, it would take about an hour by car from Jersey City to the Gap.) He stayed in hotels the first few nights until campgrounds were available.

The other was the trail's godfather, Al Kent, now 77, who did it segment-by-segment over the past few years while enlisting developers and mayors in his concept.

The industrial nature of his trail's early stretch, along Routes 1 & 9 from Jersey City to Newark, across the Hackensack and Passaic Rivers, is not lost on Kent, whose prospectus pulled no punches:


A weedy and gritty section of Routes 1 & 9 in Kearny N.J. is part of a proposed Liberty-Water Gap Trail. (Mike Derer -- Associated Press)

"The journey across the bridges is a challenging experience in New Jersey at its grittiest. Hikers push ahead through litter and weeds, reach the bridge catwalks, steady themselves against the roaring traffic. Heavy semi-trailers dominate the roadway, shift gears, emit fumes. Forty feet below, turbid waters lap debris on turbid mudbanks."

Reflecting on that section, Kent said: "That's so extreme that it's kind of an adventure."

A recent walk with Kent along a relatively bucolic section in Morris County showcased the trail's singular character. It ran along the freight tracks of the Morristown & Erie Railway, beneath high-tension lines, with the Morris County Jail on one side and the County Concrete Corp. plant on the other.

"This is really multi-use," said Kent, who retired from his family's fuel oil business and now oversees the Patriots' Path trail for the Morris County Parks Commission. "I like the variety of something like this."

So does Charles Cook, founder of Wild Earth Adventures and author of several books, including "The Essential Guide to Hiking in the United States."

"I love the idea of longer trails, so even if it goes through a town or city, I'm all for it," said Cook, who is based in Pomona, N.Y.

He recalled that decades ago, even the nation's original long trail, the 3,500-kilometre Appalachian Trail, had many sections along busy highways.

While it's not possible to find a grassy route between Newark and Jersey City, Cook thinks having a trail in the midst of civilization will inspire people to walk.

"You don't have to go up to the mountains," he said. "But personally, I urge people to go where it's quieter."


People walk along Liberty Walk at Liberty State Park in Jersey City, N.J. with the lower New York skyline in the background. (Mike Derer -- Associated Press)

If either of the cross-New Jersey efforts succeed, the state would join a number of others bisected by a hiking trail. Those include California, Oregon and Washington, home to the 4,200-kilometre Pacific Crest Trail.

The Patriots' Path is one of four established New Jersey trails that form nearly all of the Liberty-Water Gap Trail. The others are the Lenape Trail in Essex County, the Sussex Branch Trail in Sussex County, and the Paulinskill Valley Trail in Warren County.

One of the remaining unfinished sections is the last eight kilometres to the Delaware Water Gap, a dramatic intersection of river and mountains at the Pennsylvania border. The obvious route is along the Appalachian Trail, but that trail's overseers declined a connection, saying it was already overused, Kent said.

While part of the Newark section takes hikers through that city's Penn Station, bustling with railroad commuters, grand views of Manhattan are available from wooded hills just a few miles later. Plenty more hills and some isolated areas await along the route to the Delaware River, although subdivisions are often not far.

While Kent's effort is largely grassroots, the Capital to Coast Trail has been largely conceived by the Green Acres program of the state Department of Environmental Protection, which is working with towns and counties along the route.


Nature hiker Ed Howland, resident of the Delaware Water Gap, looks at the fall foliage near the Gap on the New Jersey side of the Delaware River in Pahaquarry Township. (Warren Westura -- Associated Press)

The goal is to create a "greenway" from Trenton to the shore to preserve the landscape, said Renee Jones, Green Acres team leader for central New Jersey.

A similar plan, initially for a bike trail, was conceived by two cycling enthusiasts, Rudy Buser of Manasquan, and Fred Lockenmaier of Point Pleasant, who are now working with Green Acres on the route.

They have broadened their scope, and the trail is now being designed for hikers and bikers, and also for horses in several spots, Buser said.

Buser, 73, said they have cycled the entire route and discovered unexpected solitude. "There are still areas in New Jersey where you are more or less alone," he said.

As a bonus, it will intersect several north-south bike paths still being conceived, including a 210-kilometre coastal route from Sandy Hook to Cape May, said Buser, an electro-optics and laser specialist who retired from the Army's night vision lab in Virginia about 10 years ago and now owns his own firm, RGB and Associates.


Tourists walk along Liberty Walk at Liberty State Park in Jersey City, N.J. with the Statue of Liberty in the background. (Mike Derer -- Associated Press)

From Manasquan, the Capital to Coast route would head west to Allaire State Park in Wall, then to the Manasquan River Reservoir park in Howell. After a gap, the next public land is Turkey Swamp County Park and Turkey Swamp State Wildlife Management Area. Land is being acquired to reach the Assunpink State Wildlife Management Area in Millstone and Upper Freehold Township. After another gap, the route reaches Mercer County Park in West Windsor Township, and then another gap to the Delaware and Raritan Canal State Park in Hamilton Township, which reaches Trenton.

IF YOU GO...

Those interested in trying either the Liberty-Water Gap Trail or the Capital to Coast Trail will have to be creative, as both cross-New Jersey routes are still works in progress. Some guidelines:

Liberty-Water Gap Trail: The proposed 250-kilometre route can be found at http://www.libertygap.org. Maps of the four existing trails that form the bulk of the route are available from county parks offices: The Lenape Trail in Essex County, The Patriots' Path in Morris County, the Sussex Branch Trail in Sussex County, and the Paulinskill Valley Trail in Warren County. If starting in Jersey City, plan on spending the first few days in a hotel or motel, as campgrounds are not available. The urban portions include close encounters with trucks on bridges; much of the rest is hilly, with some rocky parts.

Capital to Coast Train: Parts of the 80 kilometre route are already public lands, but those wishing to cross the state this way will have to resort to roads between them while more land is being acquired. From east to west: the Atlantic Ocean in Manasquan, to Allaire State Park in Wall, then to the Manasquan River Reservoir park in Howell. After a gap, the next public land is Turkey Swamp County Park and Turkey Swamp State Wildlife Management Area. It picks up again at the Assunpink State Wildlife Management Area in Millstone and Upper Freehold Township. After another gap, the route reaches Mercer County Park in West Windsor Township, and then another gap to the Delaware and Raritan Canal State Park in Hamilton Township, which reaches Trenton.

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