Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Hiking a sweet spot in the Sourland Mountains

Given how much I've knocked around central New Jersey, it's rather remarkable that it's taken me this long to get to the Sourland Mountains. Located in Somerset and Hunterdon Counties, the range seems to have gotten its name from the fact that the underlying geology can't support a decent well, leaving prospective settlers without a reliable source of water. Other sources say that the name is a corruption of the word 'sorrel,' which the Germans who settled there used to describe the reddish-brown soils in the area.

Despite the water-related drawback, the Sourlands have hosted their share of history. For one, the range played a strategic role during the Revolution, keeping the British to the west from raiding the wheat fields of Hunterdon area farmers. John Hart, one of the New Jersey delegates to the Continental Congress and a signer of the Declaration, hid in the Sourlands for an extended period of time after the British drove him off of his nearby farm. And more recently, Charles Lindbergh selected the area for a remote home for himself and his wife Anne Morrow, seeking to avoid the incessant attention of the press. Unfortunately, the home they built in Hopewell was the site of the kidnapping and death of their first child, Charles, Jr.

Today, both Somerset and Hunterdon Counties maintain open space parks in the region, and Ivan and I chose to visit the Somerset County Preserve on the Belle Meade side. The mountains seem to rise up out of nowhere in the relative flatness of the area, so it wasn't hard for us to get our bearings as we approached on US 206. There's an ample parking area at the traihead off East Mountain Road, along with a kiosk holding maps. Four trails cover about nine miles in total, the longest one rising about 400 feet in elevation as shown on the topographic map. The trail blazes aren't quite as helpful, as they go by geometric shapes rather than color, and the shapes aren't denoted on the map.

We decided to check out part of the five-mile-long ridge trail, since the map showed that it goes through an area called the Devil's Half Acre. Perhaps this is where Mother Leeds' 13th child hangs out on jaunts outside the Pinelands? The trail starts fairly level and includes a few wooden boardwalks before it gets rocky and takes on some altitude. Since it had rained recently, some of the path was muddy and the rocks could be a bit moist, but for the most part, it's a good trail. The preponderance of stones means that there's not too much underbrush encroaching, which was a bit of a relief, since we'd reached our limit on ticks at Negri-Nepote.

While the rise was continuous, it was by no means a scramble as we'd experienced at Pyramid Mountain. If you're accustomed to the rocks, it's an easy route; if not, it offers a satisfying workout. One could see why British soldiers chose not to venture through the area -- it would be a challenge to bring purloined supplies up and over the mountain, and chances would be good that you'd lose a fair bit of it along the way.

It doesn't take long to get to the boulders of the Devil's Half Acre, and the trail winds through interestingly-shaped formations with trees growing somehow through cracks and crevices. Much as you would with clouds in a blue sky, we traded ideas about what the big rocks were shaped like, and we wondered how they'd come to be there. According to the park map, the area consists of Triassic Age sedimentary and igneous rock deposited between 150 and 180 million years ago, when the region was underwater. However they got there, it's fun to walk around, through and over the rock piles. You can definitely see why Hart would have chosen to hide out in the area, if other parts of the Sourlands are as rocky as what we saw.

Once you get past the Half Acre, the trail levels out a bit, dipping and rising more gently than before. Rather than take the full route, we decided to take advantage of one of the connecting trails to truncate the trip and make our way down the mountain to the trailhead.

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