Trail of the Month: June 2004
Paulinskill Valley Trail, New Jersey
Up in the northwest corner of New Jersey lies a wonderful woodland rail-trail that is such a well-kept secret many of the local residents can't tell you how to find it or where exactly it leads. Those who know and love the 27-mile Paulinskill Valley Trail, however, treat it as the treasure it is, distinct and dramatic in every season; a course used by hikers, bikers, dog walkers, horseback riders, birders and cross-country skiers. The Paulinskill has been kept in a natural state and is as much visited by deer, flying squirrel, even black bear, as by man, woman and spaniel. It's country all the way, a 12-foot-wide, crushed-cinder trail that darts through hardwood forests, skirting river, lake and trim horse farms, never quite touching the towns and villages that grew up near the tracks.
The trail runs southwest from Sparta Junction, in Sussex County, into Knowlton, a few miles east of Columbia, in Warren County. There are many points of trail access. One access point is a few miles outside Newton, the Sussex County seat, off county road 519. Heading toward Columbia, trail users can cruise through stone gorges carved out by the railroad builders, skirt the narrow, blue-mirrored, Lake Paulinskill, and enjoy the scenic run beside the Paulins Kill River. Along the way are inviting wooden benches and small wooden signs that tell trail users of the route's historic sites and lore, such as long-ago train wrecks and abandoned creameries. Rusted, crumbling remnants of the railroad age can also be seen, including battery boxes, mileage markers and moss-covered rail ties.
The Paulinskill Valley Trail owes its existence, in large part, to a small but dedicated group of rail-trail backers who formed the Paulinskill Valley Trail Committee in 1984 when the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) considered purchasing the long abandoned rail corridor from the city of Newark. In 1963, New Jersey's largest city had purchased the former New York Susquehanna & Western Railroad right-of-way following the closing of the line one year earlier. Newark had plans for a water pipeline along the route that would connect with a proposed dam on the Delaware River, but when environmentalists helped stop the dam project, Newark let the idea grow cold and for 20 years the corridor lay dormant.
In the summer of 1986 the Paulinskill Valley Trail Committee achieved a breakthrough when a poll by a new local magazine, the Sussex Voice, showed that 90 percent of area residents were in favor of the rail-trail. The Newark City Council still had to be persuaded to sell the corridor, and they eventually did—to the tune of $600,000 after then-Governor Tom Kean authorized DEP to buy the corridor in 1992. In the years since, the Paulinskill Valley Trail has quietly flourished.
In this bucolic corner of the Garden State trails and other public natural areas are in abundance. The slightly older 20-mile Sussex Branch Trail intersects the Paulinskill not far from Kittatinny Valley State Park, which maintains them both. The Appalachian Trail is only a few miles away and the Paulinskill is one of three rail-trails that will be part of the planned Liberty-Water Gap Trail, a scenic, history packed trail that will connect New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania.