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Hamburg Mountain Wildlife Management Area • Hiking Trails
For photo essay of hike to Hamburg Mt. high point, scroll down below...
Probably the least-used, most underrated hiking location in New Jersey is the Hamburg Mountain Wildlife Management Area. This is hard to understand, considering the numerous small mountains, ravines, cascades, cliffs, rock formations, and highlands swamps, as well as opportunities for spotting deer, turkey, black bear and other wildlife. Hamburg Mountain presents outstanding opportunities for hiking, bouldering, and photography, yet it seems that hunters are the only people familiar with the area.
It's surprising, because a significant trail network leads quickly to most of the scenic highlights. Unfortunately, this network is an unmarked maze that extracts a few misfires before you'll really know your way around. Paths lead indiscriminately in and out of private land, but the area is so isolated that it hardly seems to matter. The trails are cobbled together -- not by design -- from old farm and logging, and mining roads and present day 4-wheeler and hunting use. The 4-runners are illegal but infrequent, and don't present any real problem for the tramper.
One advantage to this maze-type trail network is that you can bushwhack at will, taking comfort in the knowledge that you'll stumble onto a path in a half-hour at most. That doesn't preclude getting "lost;" it just means that you'll end up on a path that connects to one that eventually leads somewhere. If you aren't comfortable hiking without knowing where you are, or you aren't familiar with Highlands terrain, bring a compass.
The best access point for this area is at a large NJ Division of Fish & Game parking lot located on NJ Route 23, about 1.2 miles south of the junction of Rts. 23 and 517 in Franklin. (If you have trouble, there is a State Forestry office at that intersection.) The often-empty parking lot is on the northbound side.
As you enter the parking lot, you'll see a wood pole-type parking barrier on your left. Trail access is at the far right corner of the parking lot near a large tree. The trail begins climbing immediately. You'll know you're in the right place if you spot some small but unusual standing rock piles on the left within about 20 yards of the trailhead.
Staying with the main trail can be confusing in this area, so I'll spell it out a little. Within a few hundred feet, a spur trail leads to private property on the right. Continuing on the main trail, and continuing to climb, a side trail you may not notice forks in from the left near the crest of the first rise. Turn around and make a mental note, because this spur trail will look like it is the main trail on your return.
Next, two sizable trails fork in from the right in short order. The first is disused, the second appears well traveled. Once you pass these junctions, you come to a clear forward fork -- take the less-traveled trail to the left. For reference, we'll call this the "high/low fork." The right hand trail keeps to high ground; the left heads downhill soon afterward.
Using the left trail, you'll angle downhill for a couple hundred yards. There are a few blow-downs here that you'll need to climb over or skirt around. The trail switches back through a brief, dense pine canopy and soon arrives near a stream bed at the bottom of the hill. (In mid summer this stream is often bone dry) You'll be just about where the stream divides and becomes a little swampy -- move around a little and you'll find easy crossing somewhere. Make a strong mental note of your crossing spot. Remember, all of this is unmarked, and there is no trail at all to connect the one you just came down to the one you are headed for.
Proceed straight ahead through the underbrush after you cross the streambed. You are not on any trail, but as long as you proceed straight across toward the opposite hillside, you will connect with a new trail in a scant 20 yards. A prominent granite rock marks the trail connection; use this as a landmark on your return.
MAP 1: Overview of the area, showing the key junctions and approximate route to the Franklin Ridge.
Once you've rejoined the trail, you'll want to turn right, more or less uphill (and in the upstream direction). At this point, if you continue to make right hand turns at every trail junction, you'll eventually circle back to the "high/low" fork.
The trail parallels the stream, which is heard quite easily during the spring or after a rainfall. The trail can get quite wet as well during these conditions.
For those who enjoy exploring stream and ravine environments, this is an ideal place to leave the trail. You can bushwhack upstream for about 3/4 of a mile of unspoiled cascades, rockfalls, and other charming scenes. Nobody does this, so there is no trail -- only unspoiled beauty -- and periodic tangles of blowdowns, briar bushes, and poison ivy. When you arrive at a trail that crosses the stream at the outlet of a swamp, follow that trail to the right, then keep turning right until you arrive back at the "high/low" fork.
Other than this potential trek, you may want to bushwhack to the stream in a couple of noisy spots. The first is where the rill is channeled through a narrow defile. The second is a quasi-waterfall about 150 yards upstream.
If you stick with the trail, you will soon begin climbing and pass over some glaciated granite laid bare by erosion. In a minute or two you'll arrive at a moderately flat open area in a beech forest where the trail seems to scramble and criss-cross. We'll call this the "central fork." If you bear right continuously you'll loop back to the "high/low fork."
Bouldering Area & Franklin Overlook
At right, a 50' jumble of granite blocks that just begs for climbing. Turning left (more or less remaining on the main trail) at the "central fork" leads quickly to another uphill section. Once you've reached the plateau, you will see a serious glacial rockpile on your right. As you cross through a wet area, the path bears right and passes below an outstanding cliff for bouldering enthusiasts. The granite appears to be a stack of giant cubes. Chunks are piled atop one another as if they were cleaved right from the mountain.
At yet another intersection, which we'll call the "rockpile fork," you're faced with further choices. Bearing right leads quickly to an incredible highlands bog, and ultimately, to the 1287' high point. Bearing left winds along a ridgetop; open at first, then rolling up and down like a roller coaster. If you do bear left at this point, you can hike for another 15 minutes then bushwhack across a steep ravine to the top of Franklin Ridge overlooking the town of Franklin. This ridge is immediately above the Black Bear golf course, and the view is quite nice.
Hamburg Mountain High Point
Back at the "central fork," (after paralleling the stream, the trail scrambles over bare, eroded granite, then forks in a semi flat, semi open area) bear right at a rock cairn and follow the trail for about 10 - 15 minutes to a "T". Turn left at the "T". Here the trail goes immediately down into a swampy area, and the ATV riders have been kind enough to re-route the trail at the wettest, nastiest spots.
After a few minutes you'll arrive at an intersection. Take the immediate left -- you may not have even noticed this. This climbs steadily uphill, and the trail becomes grassy. In but a few minutes you'll step into an open area, similar to a "bald" in the southern Appalachians. This is the high point of Hamburg Mountain, 1200'+, with a commanding view of numerous ridges to the southeast. An outstanding spot, despite the evidence of hillbilly fires and ash cans. Lake Mohawk can be seen in the distance. From certain vantage points, a small portion of the Kittatinny Ridge/Mt. Tammany is visible, as well as Jenny Jump Mt. on a clear day. An amazing spot.
MAP 2: Specifically, how to get to the outstanding view at the high point of Hamburg Mountain WMA. This is a closer view of the map above, with a little more north. Refer to map above to locate "central fork." Although you may be tempted to bushwack to the high point from the trail, it is not recommended unless you have enough time in the day to be somewhat lost. From the trail along the base, a lot of spots look like the high point, and you can be easily attempted to strike out off the trail. Heed this warning -- the ridges string together, they all look similar, and you can get quite confused. Stay on the trail unless you have time to kill. For the experienced adventurer, however, have at it! Remember, as long as you walk in one direction you will certainly run into a trail. If you become completely, thoroughly lost, be sure to walk Southeast.
As mentioned at the outset, the trails are clear, but completely unmarked. Be prepared for a couple of "exploratory" hikes.
Photo Essay: Reaching Hamburg High Point
Tony at the trailhead. This is the north corner of the parking lot on Rt. 23. The parking lot is on the northbound side of Rt. 23 1.2 miles south of the intersection of Rt. 23 and Sussex County Rt. 517. The trailhead is that dark opening in the trees directly behind Tony.
We've entered the trail, and begin climbing right away. This first stretch is much steeper than this photo looks. An interesting jumble of rocks is on the left at this point.
We've ambled along for a few minutes, and now Tony is at the "high-low" fork. The right fork leads more or less straight; the left fork appears less traveled and leads downhill in short order.
Standing at the fork, looking down the trail. In the distance you can see that this will lead downhill very soon.
We've crossed over a couple of blowdowns, two of which now have well-worn paths around them. After just a couple of minutes the trail re-enters a dark pine area, and we're corkscrewing down to the streambed.
We've reached bottom; there are a couple of large trees and the trail turns toward the stream. It's very hard to see a trail at this point, as it's barely a footpath.
Tony crosses the stream. During springtime this can be quite tricky. See the rock about 20 yards ahead...
...it's a key landmark. Straight across the stream -- angling slightly left -- is this prominent granite rock. It's about 5 feet high, and it's where you pick up the trail again. Turn right at this rock, and you'll see the trail clearly. You should also note this rock for the return trip.
After turning right at the rock, the trail is somewhat flat for 100 yards or so, clearly following a long-ago roadbed that parallels the stream. Here again we're under some pines.
The trail begins climbing. Hard to tell this was a roadway.
The roadway has been eroded to granite bedrock at some points...
...at other points, the roadway has become a stream bed.
After a few minutes of steady climbing, it begins to flatten out, and we enter a bright glade of beech trees.
In the midst of all these beech trees, the trail begins to show a number of branches to the right. This cairn is not always present. In any event, look to make a right hand turn here. We call this beech forest area the "central fork."
The view all around is beech trees. As you turn, you'll be aware of higher ground straight ahead of you, and following the trail you'll quickly have this high ground on your left. The terrain will slope away on your right, to what is obviously the upstream area of the stream we crossed a few minutes ago.
Now the trail is very well defined, and we're heading more or less north. The photo doesn't show it, and the woods are quite dense again, but Tony can sense high ground on his left, lower terrain on his right.
Every now and then you'll come across one of these sorts of forks. This is just a brief divergence, where a blowdown has caused the ATV riders to forge a detour. These paths rejoin on the other side of this rise.
We've made a few rolling ups and downs at this point in the trail, although it still feels as if we're on the side of a gently sloping ridge. About 2/3 of the way along this section, a rock ledge forms along the right hand side. You can tell that the stream/swamp area is beyond it in the valley below.
ATV ruts often seen at this part of the trail. We're getting close to the next turn...
Here's Tony approaching the T-junction. A low rock is just ahead; he obviously has to turn one way or the other. We'll turn left at this T-junction.
Immediately after we turn left, Tony starts heading down to another swampy area. At the bottom of this short hill is another ATV-created fork. The left side looks like a mess, but definitely appears to be used more frequently. The right side looks like a gentle roadway. Keep left; there's an impassable blowdown ahead if you follow the right fork. Following the left fork you'll be in black muck, then climbing over some rocks, then rejoining the main trail on the other side of the swamp.
We begin climbing slowly but surely, high ground on our left, swamp on our right. Tony is starting to sweat a little when he reaches this steep section where the path is eroded to bedrock. You'll need to pay attention; you'll climb over these rocks and soon notice a narrow bowl-shaped hollow plunging away on the right. Eventually you'll notice that the path leads around the bowl and continues on the other side...but we're not going there...
Just as we're about to reach the end of the hollow and another tee, there's a sharp left hand turn that heads up to the high ground. I pointed it out to Tony, and he's making the left.
Now it's steadily uphill.
After a few minutes, the forest opens up noticeably. Although it doesn't seem like we've climbed very much, it is fairly obvious that we're reaching the top of the ridge. It's more open than the forest we left behind just a few minutes ago...
...wildflowers from May through October, with wild blueberries easy to spot. Upland grasses cover the path during the summer months.
It soon opens up at a granite bald...
...congratulations, you've reached the summit. Take a break. It's just 1287' but the view is spectacular on a clear day. Straight ahead from the trail is the Wallkill River Valley and Lake Mohawk beyond.
Looking south, the hills fold away toward Stockholm and beyond.
At this point, you'll notice a trail leads off the summit toward the west, kind of opposite of the way you just came up. If you follow this trail, it is a shortcut back -- assuming you find all the turns. You can follow it down, and be sure to keep turning left. Eventually you will descend to the semi-open beech glade and the aforementioned stone cairn. It will cut your return time in half -- again, if you make all the correct left hand turns.
Be warned that there are numerous bruins in this area, and if you follow the shortcut home, State biologists have periodic snares set along this ridge. This photo was taken about ten minutes from the summit as the state ran a few tests on a tranquilized bear. If you do stumble upon an ensnared cub, steer clear -- mama bear is sure to be close by. I would really like to show you a photo of the extremely large bear Tony stumbled upon just 30 yards from the researchers, but my camera was shaking too much for a clear shot.
-- Rick Bolger
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