We were pleasantly perplexed and insatiably curious: On our TrailLink website, we discovered that the Columbia Trail in northern New Jersey had the highest user rating that a trail could have: five out of five stars, as well as 70 firsthand reviews when most trails on the site boast only a handful. It ranks number 21 on the list of TrailLink's most-viewed trails in the entire country. With just a 15-mile length, no pavement and a location outside a major city, what made it so popular?
"Year-round, it's our most well-used park," says Doug Kiovsky, who has been a park ranger for 25 years with the Hunterdon County Department of Parks and Recreation, which manages the southern half of the trail. "I'd estimate that an average of 150,000 people a year use the trail."
We soon found out why. Only about an hour from both Trenton and Newark, the Columbia Trail is the kind of place where the everyday world slowly loosens its grip, and you're overcome with a sense of peace and awe as you travel farther into the sanctity, solitude and sereneness of its surroundings. The sight and sounds of the woods, the river at your side and the trail winding ahead are vivid and all encompassing. Nature is present in a way that resists the incessant pull of mobile phones, social media and the Internet. Here, you're likely to catch the fleeting glimpse of a fox before it darts off into the underbrush or hear the timid footfalls of a deer among the trees.
"When people mention New Jersey, they think of the urban lifestyle, the turnpike, the gritty industry, but it's really a pretty state," says Gill Smith, council president for the Borough of Califon. "I've done a lot of traveling in New Jersey, and there are some hidden gems. I consider the Ken Lockwood Gorge one of the state's best-kept secrets."
Bridge over South Branch of the Raritan River, photo
by Richard Faulkner
Only a couple of miles from its starting point in High Bridge, the Columbia Trail delves into the steep-sided gorge, picturesque with moss and rhododendrons tumbling over the rocks. After a heavy rainfall, crystalline waterfalls cascade down its sides. The South Branch of the Raritan River is close at hand and well-stocked with trout; you're likely to see fly fisherman wading into its cool, clear waters, and the graceful arc of their fishing lines.
"The fall foliage is fantastic," says Kiovsky. "The area where the gorge is has a New England feel. The birch, aspen and maple trees provide a nice variety of colors."
Columbia Trail along the Ken Lockwood Gorge, photo by Sean Blinn
Such a trail attracts the usual assortment of walkers, bicyclists and equestrians, but also
gnomes. Their whimsical little houses with rounded doors and pointed roofs have been anonymously sprinkled among the greenery lining the trail just outside the quaint town of Califon.
Gnome home along the trail, photo by George Marinich
Califon is one of several charming, friendly communities along the route. "The town is one square mile with a population of just over a thousand," says Smith. "It's not a town that you'd expect to find in New Jersey. By eight or nine o'clock at night, it really quiets down."
The rail-trail crosses Main Street, and travelers can easily head into town to shore up at the general store or at one of the town's pizzerias or restaurants. Even if you're not hungry, Califon is well worth a side trip; the town's historic district—listed on the National Register of Historic Places—includes more than 100 historical buildings, most dating back to the mid-1800s and some even to the late 1700s.
One of these, a small stone building just off the trail, is the Califon Train Station (circa 1875), a remnant of the High Bridge Branch of the Central Railroad of New Jersey, on which the trail was built. The Califon Historical Society is housed inside and offers walking tours and a heritage museum that's open seasonally twice a month from May through October (and for special occasions, like Santa visits).
Califon Station, photo by Carl Knoch
Legend has it that prominent businessman Jacob Neighbor pushed to name the town "California" during the Gold Rush, but the name wouldn't fit on the train station's sign, so they shortened it to Califon and the name stuck.
Although most rail-trails get their names from the railroads that preceded them, the Columbia Trail is named after a gas company. By the 1930s, passenger service had ended on the railroad; it struggled on with freight service until 1976 and was dismantled shortly thereafter. After languishing many years, a new opportunity arose for the disused and overgrown corridor.
Woodlands along the trail, photo courtesy Morris County Park Commission
"Back in 1998, the Morris County Park Commission was in negotiations with Columbia Gas," says Russ Nee, trails foreman for the commission, which manages the northern half of the trail. "They wanted to put a gas line through, so it worked out that Columbia Gas would get a gas transmission pipeline under the rail bed, and the county would get the top side for a trail."
Improvements were gradually made to the trail, but a major boost to the project came 10 years later. "We did a complete renovation to the Morris County section in 2008," says Nee. "It was a grass and mud single-track trail. We made it crushed stone and 10 feet wide. It changed the dynamic of the trail, and people fell in love with it."
Trail cutting through a nursery, photo by Gill Smith
With more trail visitors came more trail business. Along the northern stretch of the trail, Long Valley is a valued stop, with the winning combination of a bike shop in town and a brew pub in a beautifully restored, 200-year-old barn.
"They're trying to revitalize Long Valley as an eco-friendly and outdoor destination, and the trail is a major component of that," says Nee.
Near the center of Long Valley, the Columbia Trail also connects to two major networks for trail adventurers, the Patriots' Path and the Liberty Water Gap Trail, making it possible to travel from these rural parts of the state and all the way across New Jersey to Liberty State Park, which sits across from the Statue of Liberty.
"The Columbia Trail is one of those really beloved trails," says Carl Knoch, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy's manager of trail development in the Northeast. "People love to go out there."
Smith, who uses the trail frequently, calls the experience relaxing and therapeutic. "I feel very fortunate to have it," he states.
Do you enjoy and want to support our Trail of the Month feature? Any extra contribution you're able to make helps us stay at the forefront of covering trails and trail projects around the country. Thank you for reading and supporting this feature!