I just spent a couple weeks deep in the suburbs of New Jersey. The more noticeable landscape is about what you’d expect: strip malls, big box stores, cookie-cutter developments and not too many sidewalks. But the funny thing along with that is how close nature is too – though you might not notice it at first. I didn’t notice it at first, though there was basically a forest right outside the back window. And it turned out that less than a mile away was one of the largest freshwater marshes in New Jersey: the 3,100 acre Troy Meadows Wetlands, complete with a 2-mile boardwalk for strolling. You’d never guess it while you were shopping at the Pathmark.
Troy Meadows, along with the much bigger Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge nearby (plus many other smaller swamps and marshes), is all that’s left of the ancient Lake Passaic. Lake Passaic was apparently formed at the end of the last Ice Age (we’re talking around 20,000 years ago) when runoff from the melting glaciers, trapped by the hills those glaciers had themselves created, led to a massive body of water about 350 feet deep at its largest extent, covering a good chunk of northern New Jersey. In addition to leaving behind a bunch of swamps the lake changed the course of (and perhaps created) the Passaic River, forcing it to meander ever northwards till it could find its way around and through the Watchung Mountains.
The 80 mile long Passaic River continues to meander all over the place today. It’s a much more noticeable river on its lower end as it passes through the Meadowlands and heads towards Newark. At that point, so close to the ocean, it’s considered a “mature” river: wide and slow moving and feed by many tributaries. Closer to its source its much narrower and fast moving – you can sometimes catch glimpses of it from Interstate 80 (which criss-crosses it several times) that look almost sylvan. One of its tributaries, the Whippany River runs right through Troy Meadows Wetlands – though technically the Whippany is a tributary of the Rockaway River, which it runs into a few miles later (the Rockaway then runs right into the Passaic). If I lived around here I’d probably be the creepy dude that was always lurking around these river’s edges, but shit, there’s still some wildness out here you know! And I haven’t even mentioned the Great Falls yet: the Passaic’s impressive 77 foot waterfall. I’ll save that for another day (by the way this picture isn’t them).
But for now we’ve still got mountains to discuss: suburban mountains! The Watchung Mountains that I mentioned earlier are much older by far than ancient Lake Passaic and their formation had nothing to do with the glaciers. The Watchungs are of volcanic origin and first formed something like 200 million years ago; they currently inhabit the region known as the New Jersey Piedmont – running roughly north to south for about 40 miles or so only 20 miles or so from NYC. They’re made of basalt rock I guess which is much more erosion-resistant than the other rock and sediment layers around it; as those other layers were worn down, viola: the Watchung Mountains are what remained. And okay “mountains” might be a little bit of a stretch as they’re only about 500 feet high, but still – we’re talking about suburban northern New Jersey here. Today the Watchungs are basically a ribbon of green cutting through one of the most densely developed areas in the country. The 40 mile or so Lenape Trail (established in 1982) running in an arc from Newark to around the town of Roseland is one way that you could see it all, or at least some of it, on foot. The Lenape Trail is named for the Lenape Indians that used to dwell around these parts, and from whom the Watchung Mountains got their name. That was before the Lenape were driven out of here of course; today most of their ancestors can be found in Canada, Wisconsin and Oklahoma – but hey, they got the trail named after them so it wasn’t all bad news!
The Lenape Trial is actually part of the much larger Liberty Water Gap Trail: a 130 mile trail running from the Statue of Liberty to the Delaware Water Gap, made up of a number of shorter hiking trails that are all connected. That’s kind of amazing isn’t it? You could walk this trail east to west across pretty much the entirety of northern New Jersey. Yeah, if I lived out here that would have to be my kind of jam, you know? My point being (which is maybe always my point) there’s shit to do almost anywhere! Get all suburban on me.