Trail of the Month: January 2011
New Jersey's Sussex Branch Trail
On an icy January morning, the air is so still you can hear the beat of a hawk's wings in the bare blue sky overhead. Tree trunks creak and groan like an old rocking chair, and winter has put a frozen glaze on the landscape. But you won't mind if you've bundled up for a romp on New Jersey's 20-mile Sussex Branch Trail, where the solitude will have you feeling as crisp as the season.
In fact, winter might be the best season to explore this rail-trail. Its surface is slightly rough and uneven in places, with an off-and-on mixture of gravel, ballast, cinder, dirt and grass. But throw some powder on the ground, and the Sussex Branch Trail becomes a pristine highway of outdoor activity.
New York City is barely 60 miles to the east, yet the change of pace and scenery as you approach northern New Jersey can be startling. One moment you're racing with traffic on Interstate 80. The next minute you're curling through woodlands and farmsteads, winding from Branchville to Byram Township with stops in Lafayette, Newton and Andover. You've traded honking horns for horse corrals and gentle hillsides. So strap on your cross-country skis or hiking boots, or climb up into that saddle, because the Sussex Branch Trail shines when the season shivers.
In terms of elevation gain, you'll notice little advantage starting at either end of the trail, which opened in 1998. You can pick up the path at multiple trailheads and road crossings, or even extend your journey on the 27-mile Paulinskill Valley Trail. But if you're looking for a fitting starting point, head to Branchville, once the western terminus of the Sussex Branch Railroad Company line.
Iron mining first brought the railroad as far north as Andover. Later, a series of creameries drew the tracks farther north into cow country to service the dairy demand. Before the rail line reached Branchville in 1869, those local creameries were limited to producing butter and cheese. After the trains arrived, and with improved refrigeration, area farmers were able to transport their milk to distant markets. The dairy industry quickly took off. By the early 1900s, the Branchville Creamery alone was bottling 9,000 quarts of milk each day, and Sussex County bragged about having more cows than people.
New Jersey's dairy heyday dried out by the 1960s due to increased costs and stricter health regulations. A fire at the Branchville Creamery effectively ended its business in 1962, and other nearby creameries soon closed down as well. Without its customers, the railroad discontinued service in 1966.
Most of the original creameries have disappeared, but some have been renovated for other uses, including one just off the trail a few miles east of Branchville. South of Ross Corner on U.S. Route 206, you'll pass a large building housing several small offices. It was once Becker's Creamery, which operated during the Civil War.
After you cross Route 206, you'll settle into the crunching cadence of your footsteps. Weekdays on the Sussex Branch Trail are particularly peaceful, and you aren't likely to pass more than a few locals walking their dogs. Mostly you'll see signs of the animals that have hit the trail since the last snowfall—deer tracks, tiny paw prints and birds' claw marks—and the long ruts of cross-country skiers. (Black bears are around, but not commonly seen.)
A narrow tree strip hugs the corridor, and the trunk shadows zebra-stripe the snow. And as you approach Lafayette the woodlands grow deeper. A gushing stream ushers you into town, where you'll find several enticing cafés and antiques stores. As you leave the town behind, the pathway doglegs south, backyards peel away, and Highway 15 vanishes from sight and sound.
A series of lakes, often frozen over during the peak of winter, soon opens up to the west. Someone has fashioned an aging, makeshift bench here on the trail; if it's still standing, the spot very much warrants a pause to soak up the scene and listen to the distant honking of Canada geese across the ice.
Shortly down the trail, you'll reach the one break in the corridor: a 1.1-mile detour along the shoulder of Old Branchville/Newton Branchville Junction Road. It's a bit narrow at points, so you'll have to be mindful of traffic. Follow the road as it angles up a hill to the west and becomes Hicks Avenue in Newton. The rail-trail picks up again on your left and leads you to Sparta Avenue. At that intersection, you'll easily spot the kiosk and trailhead across the street on Strickles Pond Road.
From there, the peacefulness of the rail-trail climaxes. Crows caw and flutter in the naked treetops, and their shadows dash back and forth across the trail. You'll pass through rock cuts and steep slopes and notice how elevated the railroad berm has grown. The corridor feels most wild and sequestered along this segment heading through Kittatinny Valley State Park. Then, as if to wake you from a winter dream, the trail comes within range of Route 206 once again as you head into Andover. Lake Aeroflex and the Aeroflex-Andover Airport are off to the east, and you'll feel the vibrations of business life more closely again.
South of Andover, you continue on to the trail's terminus at Waterloo Road in Byram Township (there is a fairly rough and rocky section near Cranberry Lake). When you reach the end in Allamuchy Mountain State Park, you can shake the snow from your boots and shed a few layers. But however you choose to unwind and recharge from your trip, rarely will a thaw feel more satisfying than after a snowy stint on the Sussex Branch Trail.
For more trail information, maps, photos and user reviews, or to post your own comments, please visit TrailLink.com.