Meandering through municipal and county parks in Essex County, NJ, the Lenape trail is an odd hike. Rather than a wilderness excursion, it’s more of a cultural tour, winding past historical sites, down main streets, and through beautifully landscaped public spaces. After spending a few years on my to-do list, I finally hiked the trail with my friend Doug in a three day stretch for Labor Day 2021.
At 36 miles, the Lenape Trail is certainly doable in a single ambitious day, and we met several folks along the trail who told us they’d done so. With that said, we wanted to be able to take our time and really experience the terroir of Essex County, rather than having to rush through. Luckily, Montclair is very centrally located on the trail, which hooks around it just to the north for a large stretch. We opted to book two nights in Montclair and shuttle back and forth at the end and beginning of each hiking day, and were glad we did.
Being so populous, hikers don’t really have to pack much food on the trail and can stop at restaurants, pubs, and shops along the way to refuel. I’ll highlight our stops below, and would encourage Lenape Trail hikers to do the same – there are a few gems.
The Lenape Trail has a fabulous, recent guide published by the NYNJTC which can be found here. The section maps are detailed, clear, and highlight notable locations along the way. I also found TakeAHike’s writeup here to be very useful, although their experience was a bit different as a one-day trek.
Day 1 - Branch Brook Park to Tuers Park - 11.5 miles
We started day one late, arriving at the southern tip of Branch Brook Park at around noon. The eastern terminus of the trail is unceremoniously marked with three yellow blazes.
As we began walking north, flood damage from Hurrican Ida became the most prominent aspect of our hike. Inches of thick algae from the nearby ponds covered the path and water remained pooled throughout the park.
Further into the park, we found cars still abandoned from the week’s severe flooding, alongside the picturesque architecture and statues that dot the park.
Many of the parks along the Lenape Trail were designed by the famed Olmstead Brothers, and Branch Brook Park is no exception. Their design clearly still underlies the park today, with its rolling meadows, understated architectural elements, and natural feel.
Across the pond from the trail, we spotted the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart, the seat of the Newark Archdiocese. We couldn’t help but take a closer look; the cathedral is a short neighborhood walk from the park.
Inside the cathedral, we quietly snapped a few shots and enjoyed the immense vaulted ceilings and Munich stained glass. A wedding was about to begin (what a place to get married!), so we wrapped up quickly, returned to the park, and continued north.
The trail runs the entirety of Branch Brook Park, along baseball fields, under and over art-deco bridges, and past the park’s famous cherry trees.
Eventually the trail tracks above the Second River, a wide, stone-lined race that was a critical industrial asset in centuries past.
Just north of Branch Brook Park, the trail moves into Belleville and begins the first of many suburban neighborhood walks. The trail is clearly marked even on road walks, with yellow blazed adorning telephone poles, light fixtures, and other infrastructure.
After Belleville, the trail runs over a gas pipeline through suburban backyards before reaching southern Nutley.
In Nutley, the trail begins in Booth Park, a small, quaint neighborhood recreation area. Flood damage from Ida was visible here, with the playgrounds full of dirt, ruined furniture lining the roads, and debris woven into chain link fences.
Ralph’s was a great stop and I’d definitely recommend making the extra ~1.2 mile detour for it.
After our quick lunch we headed back south and hooked a right on Church Street, climbing up the hill, passing the Nutley Historical Society, and passing over the gas pipeline once again.
North of Nutley, the trail begins a long section of neighborhood road walks interspersed with small parks, school fields, and a pedestrian crossing over the GSP.
Eventually we made our way into the Brookdale section of Bloomfield, a historic area along the Yantecaw River. Just off the trail we spotted an old-fashioned soda shop – Holsten’s – and knew we had to make a stop. Little did we realize this was the site of the final scene of the Soprano’s until we stepped inside and saw the staff wearing outfits branded with the series.
After Holsten’s we made our way across the street to Brookdale Park, another Olmstead-designed park spanning 120 acres. The park is beautifully landscaped, with rolling hills, tons of amenities, and looping pathways. We stopped at the rose garden for a bit to admire the flora.
North of Brookdale lies Yantacaw Brook Park and Tuers Park, our final stops for the day. Both are simple, small municipal parks nestled in the middle of quiet neighborhoods in Upper Montclair. We quickly passed through, called it a day, and picked up a ride to downtown Montclair for the night.
Day 2 - Tuers Park to Eagle Rock - 13 miles
We took a slow start to day two of our trek, enjoying a relaxed coffee & breakfast at Sweet Kitchen in Montclair and grabbing a ride to where we left off the previous day. Our first stop was the Presby Memorial Iris Gardens, a volunteer-run iris garden with thousands of varieties of the plant.
The Lenape Trail continues up the hill above the iris gardens and mounts the ridge that it follows for the remainder of the trek, on the First Watchung Mountain. Here we began to get our first clear views of New York City from the trail.
The Mills Reservation was unassuming and was one of the less impressive parts of the trail, which winds through the park before looping up and around the Cedar Grove Reservoir. One interesting bit was the “Bamboo Forest”, a thick bamboo copse that the path bisects.
After looping around the reservoir, the trail tracks along the West Essex rail trail through Cedar Grove and towards the town’s namesake park, the newest addition to the Essex County Park System. Cedar Grove Park is small but nicely appointed, and borders the Hilltop Reservation to the west.
The Hilltop Reservation still bears the scars of its past, with paved roads crisscrossing the mountain. Until 1993, the location was the site of the Essex Mountain Sanitorium, now the site of a large meadow. With the pitter-patter of rain around us, we moved through the tall grasses as quickly as possible, getting soaked in the process.
After Hilltop we began making our way off the mountain to Verona’s downtown. Many of the trails here had become rivers in the rains, so we carefully straddled the trail on the way down. We passed “Prisoner’s Pond” on our way down, followed by Verona’s high school football field.
Just south of downtown Verona is Verona Park, another Olmstead-designed gem featuring a large lake, boathouse, and tons of weeping willows. With time on our side, we headed to the boat launch, rented a swan boat, and had a quick tour of the lake.
South of Verona Park, the trail meanders through well-appointed and historic neighborhoods. We had a chat with the friendly locals about the trail, their historic homes, and the recent floods.
Day two wrapped up at Eagle Rock, offering spectacular views of Newark and New York City. We were able to clearly spot the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart – where we began – as well as the city skyline. After enjoying the views, we caught a ride back to town and called it a day.
Day 3 - Eagle Rock to South Mountain Reservation - 12 miles
After a quick coffee, we started day three by returning to Eagle Rock and picking up where we left off. The weather was gorgeous – sunny and cool – so we had even clearer views.
From Eagle Rock, the trail passes under Route 280 and heads nearly due south along the ridge. Even the neighborhood walks included steep climbs and nice views.
Finally we made it into South Mountain Reservation, by way of the “South Mountain Connector” and Mayapple Hill. Completed in 2017, this is the newest section of trail and feels the most remote of the entire path, boasting mostly swampland with puncheon walkways.
After passing the Mayapple picnic area, we opted for lunch at McLoone’s right on the Orange Reservoir. Since it was Labor Day, the restaurant was super busy, but we were able to score a few cozy seats at the bar.
We rejoined the trail just south of the reservoir and continued south. Here, the reservation shows some of the classic Olmstead design elements, although damage from the recent storm was very evident.
After winding through the woods, the trail finally reaches its zenith at Washington Rock, a lookout perched high above Millburn. During the Revolutionary War, this location used for signal beacons, and it’s easy to understand why.
From here, the remainder of the trail was a formality. We hiked down the heavily eroded trail to the Locust Grove Picnic Area and caught our ride home.
Overall, I’d very much recommend the Lenape Trail if you’re well-informed on what exactly it is. If you’re looking for a serious wilderness experience, this ain’t it. But as a diverse, busy cultural tour of Essex County, the Lenape Trail can’t be beat.