I've been fortunate recently. Despite weekly snow events and nor'easters, I have gotten at least one good hiking day each week. In fact, over the past month or so, I have gotten unseasonably warm, clear, sunny days. The newest nor'easter, this one named Skyler, didn't seem as bad as the two previous storms. However, I know the city is far different from the mountains when it comes to snow accumulation.
The 2-day group hike I had planned for the Popolopen Torne Trail & Bear Mountain and the Ice Caves in the Shawangunk Mountains had to be cancelled due to the storm. So, on Wednesday, I decided to hike locally and chose the 7 mile Horse Pond Mountain Loop in Hewitt, NJ; I was drawn to its steep elevation changes and minor views. I didn't consider the obscure trail's condition or location until I was minutes away from the trailhead and wasn't too surprised to find the parking area blanketed by a foot of icy, packed snow.
I wasn't hell-bent on hiking on this particular path and had passed the neatly plowed parking area of the Ramapo Mountain State Forest about 10-minutes ago on Skyline Drive. It seemed logical to go there and find a hike. It dawned on me that I haven't been in this particular forest since last July, when I completed my first two hikes of my current circuit. When I parked in the lot, I spotted a signpost with a yellow blaze nearby in the woods. I referred to my NY-NJTC map and identified the yellow-blazed Hoeferlin Memorial Trail.
Looking through the bare tree trunks into the snow-covered forest, I decided to do something different. Instead of hiking to a predetermined destination, I would simply get on a trail and follow it where it might take me. After all, I had a map and I was confident that I would be pleasantly surprised. I was intrigued by the wilderness, the unknown, the idea that I wasn't quite sure what to expect.
Erratic, fluffy clouds hung in the bright sky and the temperature was comfortable in the low-40's. However, from the beginning, on each step my feet plowed through inches of icy snow. I welcomed the additional challenge and wondered at the tranquility that the precipitation accentuated in the woods. The trail descended and ascended across rough terrain amidst huge rock formations, small running streams, and marshes.
Eventually, I emerged from the forest on the side of Rye Cliff Road, a small paved road that runs along a ridge and down to the 120-acre, man-made Ramapo Lake. A handful of very nice properties are perched in the hills here, overlooking the lake. After taking some time to enjoy the water and the breeze rushing over its surface, I followed the Hoeferlin Trail for a very short distance until I arrived at the red-blazed Lookout Trail.
A quick glance at my map confirmed the prospects that I imagined for the Lookout Trail - the name alone made me expect some sights. Within moments, the trail began to climb the side of the mountain (marked as Le Grande Hill). As I trudged upward through the snow, a view began to appear through the trees to my left.
The trail leveled out and eventually an opening appeared through the brush. As I pushed branches out of my face and climbed onto the edge of a slippery hill, a sweeping view of Oakland materialized below. In the distance, snow-covered mountains served as a foreground to that familiar view of the silhouette of New York's skyline. I wasn't sure how many more views I would be afforded, so I spent some time balancing atop the hill with my feet planted deep in the frost.
I soon found myself back on the trail which looped around the mountain and came to yet another view. The ranges of Norvin Green loomed in the distance above Wanaque and Ringwood. The sun was high now and reflected through the snow covered forest. I climbed atop a jagged outcrop and soaked in the rays along with the vista.
The climb, to this point, had already been ideally strenuous due to the conditions on the trail and my energy levels were high. I continued on the trail to 2 more amazing viewpoints along the Lookout Trail and eventually sat on a rock overlooking Ramapo Lake to drink some coffee and relax.
A cool breeze shook the pitch pine above my head and whipped snow flakes through the air as I stared out into the distance into the parallel mountainside. Suddenly, a turkey buzzard, who had been resting in a nearby tree, kicked off and flew into the forest. The flapping of its wings stirred the silent woods for a moment before the creature glided off the edge and out of sight.
I carried on, descending downhill to a marsh, passed by a pond topped by a thin layer of ice, and then arrived back at the banks of Ramapo Lake. Instead of heading back the way I came, I referred to my map and chose to loop around half of the lake to catch the red-blazed Cannonball Trail to head back to the parking lot.
As I pressed on, one of my trekking poles got caught in between some rocks below underneath the snow and bent out of shape. I attempted to bend the pole back into place and promptly cracked it into two pieces. Once my initial thoughts of frustration had passed, I held the two halves in my hand as I figured out what I should do. Intuitively, I jammed the pointed tip into the hole that was left from the break and had a makeshift pole to take me to the end of the hike.
The Cannonball Trail has a history dating back to the Revolutionary War. Then known as Cannonball Road, the path ran along the banks of the Ramapo and Passaic Rivers and was used by Patriot troops to transport supplies and wage guerrilla warfare against the British. It is amazing to imagine the whole area undeveloped and buzzing with the movement of downtrodden Patriots over 200 years ago.
The trail moved steeply back up to the top of the mountain. I eventually arrived at a crossing to the Hoeferlin Trail once again and retraced my steps, matching my boot prints with those I had left in the snow, back to my car.
This was a different experience from what I'm used to. I had no actual destination, no plan, no route. The idea of just heading out into the woods with a map turned out to be a great one; I did indeed come across many serene views and got a great workout in the process. I haven't hiked through as much snow since FIshkill Ridge in January and I am certainly going to miss winter hiking as spring rolls in.