Running New Jersey’s Highlands Trail

Due to family commitments, I couldn’t get to Saturday’s Craftsbury Marathon.  And this weekend,  we were bereft of snow within sane driving distance for a day trip.  Opting to make lemonade out of lemons, I went for a long run on Sunday on a section of the Highlands Trail.

While I’ve often run in Mahlon Dickerson, before Sunday, I had never noticed the distinctive Highlands Trail blaze beside the gated fire road on the north side of Weldon Road.  How many times have I driven past that trail head without noticing it?  Never having run that section, I turned in, got the water bottles and set out.

The Highlands Trail is a recent undertaking of the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference.  Meandering from Cornwall, NY to the NJ’s Musconetcong River, it passes through lesser-known parts of NJ.  Cobbled together from new and existing trails and some road sections, it moves in anything but a straight line.

From the paltry information online, I infer that the Highlands Trail is still a work in progress.  Despite what the official web site says about a specific direction, the Highland has multiple spur trails – at least in this neck of the woods.  Although the trail leaves Mahlon Dickerson and crosses Route 15, heading towards Sparta, there’s also a loop in the woods sandwiched between Route 15 and Weldon Road.

From the trail head, I ran ten minutes on a jeep road before turning south on the Highland Trail.   The trail ranged from well marked and easy to follow, to speculative, instinctive route finding, to typical New Jersey rock garden.  In some places, they’d been stingy with trail markers and I was just looking to see where fallen leaves had been disturbed.

Near the power lines that bisect Mahlon Dickerson, the trail crosses land that is marked as private – I believe it’s actually owned by Jefferson Township.  The Highland intersects with a network of trails to check out to the east of the Highlands Trail, which spits you out at Camp Jefferson on to Weldon Rd.

OK, I’ve come this far – to Camp Jefferson – let’s see where it goes.  Out of camp and running back the way I came, west down Weldon Road.  Again the question: how did I miss these garish teal trail markers on telephone poles and road signs?  I crossed Route 15 and went another half mile before turning back.  I didn’t want to spend an hour of my limited time road running.

Back where I started, I crossed the woods road and headed north.  In a minute, I came to the power lines that parallel Route 15.  It took a few minutes of fumbling around to find where the trail crosses the power line right of way.  Without a map, I was banking on my sense of direction.  This should take me back to my car, eh?

I certainly hoped so.  Today I did all the classic things that get you in trouble in the woods:  I set out late, with no map, compass or light and only a basic idea of where I was going.  I had two water bottles and a gel.  The range of land was fairly small, sandwiched between Route 15 and Weldon Road.  Not as small as Hedden Park, but certainly big enough to get disoriented and lost.

I picked my way downhill through a jumble of bowling ball-sized rocks, coming within 25 yards of Route 15.  Jumped across a stream and crossed the power lines again.  The trail was a jeep road.  I began to wonder if I was heading back as I suspected, or if I was off on some other spur.  After a mile or so, I descended a gradual hill and saw my car.

Crossing Weldon Road, I continued up an old rail bed towards Saffin Pond.  There’s a detour there as the pond has been drained and the dam is being rebuilt.  A couple of summers ago, I’d run a section of the Highlands Trail that continues from the northern edge of Mahlon into other state land.  While I had every intention of heading up there, a huge bonk changed my plans.  At the Saffin Pond parking lot, I turned around and staggered back to my car.

Bonk or no bonk, it was a great day.  Even without snow.