Monday night, before I laid down to sleep, the fog was thick and it was extremely humid. However, the forecast for Tuesday and Wednesday called for unseasonably warm temperatures and "partly cloudy" skies. So, as I looked out my bedroom window, usually to find the Empire State Building and Freedom Tower glowing from across the river, I couldn't even see into my neighbor's backyard due to the lingering mist.
Not to be dissuaded, I packed my gear and set my alarms for 5:30 AM, fully intending to return to Norvin Green State Forest the next morning. I imagined waking up reinvigorated to find the sun shining brightly through soft white clouds, birds chirping, and a fresh breeze rushing into the room. When the alarms finally started buzzing, I woke up in a cool sweat, the sound of intermittent raindrops bouncing off of my window sill, and muggy air wafting into my room - not quite what I had hoped for. But, I'm a creature of habit and I wanted to go hiking.
I grabbed my things and jogged through small puddles to my car as I kept my fingers crossed that the weather would clear and the day would redeem itself. This was not the case. My trip immediately spit me into frustratingly slow traffic on slick roads as I made the long trip to the trail. I waited to see the sun peek out from behind the clouds, but it never happened. When I arrived at the trailhead, I could only see a few feet in front of me and it was generally very uncomfortable. I knew I wasn't going to be able to truly enjoy the trail, and shortly thereafter, I was back at my car. I would have to try again tomorrow.
Wednesday morning, when the alarms finally buzzed, I actually woke up to a fresh breeze and birds chirping. I hopped out of bed and looked out the window at the New York City skyline, standing against the dawn sky. Moments later, I stepped outside and walked over damp asphalt to my car for a leisurely hour-long drive to the Lakeside Diner in Ringwood where I enjoyed a hearty breakfast. From here, the trailhead was only about 10 minutes away. This perfect start would set the tone for the rest of the day.
As my tires rolled over gravel in the New Weis Center parking lot, the sun had fully risen in a clear blue sky. Already, the temperatures were rising into the high-50's and I left my coat, gloves, and hat in the backseat. Last week, I was sliding over ice and standing at the foot of a massive frozen waterfall; this week, I didn't even need a jacket and was already feeling warm in just a thermal and a t-shirt.
For a short period, I followed the green-blazed Otter Hole Trail alongside a flowing brook. I had been at this location before, back in October, when I had stayed on the Otter Hole Trail to enjoy the rich fall foliage from Buck Mountain. However, on this day I cut to the east after passing the HIghlands Natural Pool (a natural pool built in 1935 that is fed by the brook) and made my way over the countless large rocks on the ground to the start of the blue-blazed Hewitt-Butler Trail.
My NY-NJTC map indicates a number of scenic points and they start early on in the hike. Almost immediately, the mossy, rocky trail begins to ascend through hills of mountain laurel. I was excited by the initial climb, I could sense that the hike would allow for a good level of strenuousness. It wasn't long before I came to the first vista, overlooking Assiniwikam Mountain and other surrounding hills. The green pitch pines stood in stark contrast to the brown, leafless trees on the mountains looming in the background. I took a few moments to enjoy the view before continuing.
After a brief walk, I found myself atop of large rock slab with an even more expansive view. The trail worked in a semi-circle across the slab and back in between more lush pitch pine and mountain laurel. A distinctive, old oak tree, full of character in its bareness, stood guard at the opening of the forest. Again, I took a few more moments to enjoy the view before I carried on. It was becoming clear that this hike was full of beautiful scenery, and with the splendor of this unusually flawless February day, I would be tempted to linger at all of them.
Shortly thereafter, I arrived at the junction of the red & black-blazed Wyanokie Circular Trail, the teal-blazed Highlands Trail, and the blue-blazed Hewitt-Butler Trail, which I was on. From here, I could turn to the left for a brief rock scramble up to the summit of Wyanokie High Point or I could complete the loop and go to the high point to finish the hike. After some personal deliberation, I decided that Wyanokie High Point would serve as the climax for the day.
The trail descended into the forest, the ground saturated from the previous day's rain and all the melted snow, over some small tributaries before slowly climbing over large slabs of rock. I turned around to a view of Wyanokie High Point, maybe 200 yards ahead from where I stood. The Wanaque Reservoir and other mountains were visible through the trees. Again, I lingered.
As I continued to climb over rocks and trudge through the woods, the trail slowly ascended. I was breaking a decent sweat and really had my blood flowing. Now a few miles in, I was truly enjoying the peace that this ideal day was facilitating. Eventually, I arrived at Yoo-Hoo Point. From here, the views of Wyanokie High Point, the surrounding mountains, and the forest below were stunning. I removed my pack, sipped some water, and relaxed among more bright green pitch pines.
A few minutes later, scrambling over some more rocky terrain, I arrived at the yellow-blazed Carris Hill Trail. The path leads over slabs and back into the woods where it provided some obscured views to the left. The trail weaved a bit, and eventually I came around a bend to set my eyes on an amazing sight.
I was on Carris Hill on a truly wonderful day. The sun was shining brightly in the cerulean sky as it was sliced by thin white trails from nearly-invisible distant planes. A number of very large turkey buzzards glided just feet above me as I sat among the luxuriant moss and scattered trees. The New York City skyline was visible in the far distance behind the Wanaque Reservoir and the Ramapo Mountain State Forest beyond. Tiny, silent vehicles traveled along Rt. 287, snaking through the scenery.
The time I spent sitting atop a small boulder on Carris Hill was therapeutic, contemplative, and transcendent. I could hear nothing but the leaves and trees rustling in the whipping wind and the intermittent flap of wings from the creatures above. I closed my eyes for deep breathing and managed to concentrate for many minutes before opening them, feeling very in touch with nature and half-expecting to be pecked by one of the hovering buzzards.
I spent time thinking about a lot of different things: my work, my friends, and what I was doing. Although my reason for hiking is primarily the act of doing, I have always thought of myself, fundamentally, as a thinker; in this moment I felt a great balance of both. Despite having lingered at many points on this hike, I lingered here the longest. I cannot say what it was for sure, but this particular spot had some sort of profound effect on me. To effectively balance my thinking and doing, I determined that once I left Carris Hill, there would be no more lingering, no meandering, and no breaks until I reached the peak of Wyanokie High Point.
After saying a long goodbye to Carris Hill, I got back onto the trail with renewed vigor and kept a quick, solid pace. The path led along the base of huge rock formations as it descended quickly into the woods. As I reached a low point, I spotted a white blaze on a tree ahead which marked the white-blazed Lower Trail which would take me back to Wyanokie High Point. I heard the sound of Chikahoki Falls, nearby but unseen, hurdling into Post Brook, a small, idyllic stream. I didn't take the time to traverse a short, unmarked trail to Chikahoki Falls due to my vow to keep moving.
I kept my pace as the trail descended even further into the forest on a dry, former stream bank. The sun was high now as it approached 1:00 PM and it was nearly 70 degrees; I appreciated the cover of shade the trees above afforded me as I moved along. After moving mechanically for quite a while, I arrived at a tree marked with both a teal blaze and a red & black blaze. This tree indicated that I was at the opposite end of the Wyanokie Circular Trail that I had passed hours ago, thus on the other side of Wyanokie High Point.
The brief rock scramble I had opted to reject earlier had been replaced by a steep, rugged tromp through trees and thickets up to the top. As my feet still plowed ahead at the foot of the hill, I scanned the perpendicular landscape and popped a Gatorade Energy Chew into my mouth, washing it down with a sip of my water. I paused for just a moment to attach a camera to my head and excitedly took my first step to start the ascent.
Expeditiously, I moved in long strides, breathing deeply through my nose and strongly out of my mouth, as the elevation increased significantly. The trail winded around 180 degrees and straightened-out over muddy and protruding terrain. I exited the woods between some tall grass and weeds at the base of the massive rock structure that was the peak of Wyanokie HIgh Point. Exhausted now, after a high-energy climb, I pulled myself up each of the levels until I finally found myself at the panorama.
I could see the the reservoir, the skyline, Assiniwikam, Saddle, & Buck Mountains (which I was very happy to see from a very different perspective), and much of the points I had passed earlier on the hike. After savoring the view for a few moments, I removed my pack and laid on the stone. Staring straight at the sky, I relaxed with my arms outstretched at my sides. It was the right decision to leave this for last; the hike culminated with a good burst of effort and a very worthy vista.
Once I finished taking some pictures, I headed back down the other side of the rock. Descending the trail that I could have chosen to ascend hours prior, I felt as though this would have been an easier way up. After all, the preferred way of completing this hike is usually opposite of the loop I completed. It was a steady descent, back down past the first couple of scenic overlooks, around the pool, and back to the gravel parking lot where I parked.
Mine had been the only car in the lot when I arrived and now there were at least a dozen others. Many other people were now spread out among the trees and the rocks on this bizarrely beautiful February day. I am already plotting a return to Carris Hill because of the deep peace I felt at that spot. The hike can be enjoyed in a number of different ways - a strenuous hike or a relaxing hike, a short hike or a long hike, Carris Hill or Wyanokie HIgh Point first, etc.
There were many locations on this hike that I believe may have been almost impassable if they were ice-stricken like the trails I have experienced over the past few weeks. Nevertheless, I chose the right day for one of my new favorite trails. I will likely go back here in the early spring with others who have asked to come along for a hike and haven't done it before - this would be a nice start.