Foot Trail Maintained by Volunteers NY-NJ Trail Conference
Today we are going to hike the estimated 4.2 Blue Blazed Sterling Lake trail (maintained by volunteers from the NYNJ Trail Conference) which starts at the Sterling Forest State Park visitor center. The visitor center is named for the late Frank R. Lautenberg who helped preserve the forest for future generations. The Sterling Lake Lake trail loops around Sterling Lake, a natural lake formed during the last ice age.
Inside there are dioramas on the Sterling Forest mining industry history, fauna exhibits and a huge model of Sterling Forest itself.
From the visitor center let’s head east into a brief section of forest on a footpath.
Old Forge Road Crossing
After rambling through this portion of the trail we follow the Sterling Lake Loop trail east crossing Old Forge Road near private residences.
McKeages Meadow Connector
After crossing Old Forge Road the orange triangle blazed McKeages Meadow Connector trail appears to our right.
Truck Trailers Sterling Lake Loop
Continuing straight ahead on the Sterling Lake Trail, the trail turns from a footpath to a woods road as we pass old trailers to our left near private property.
Old Railroad Causeway
From here we follow the Sterling Loop trail as it crosses a wetland via an old mining railroad embankment.
Second Old Forge Road Crossing
Long Meadow Road appears ahead but the trail turns north just missing the busy road. Crossing Old Forge Road for the second time we find ourselves heading north climbing.
We have reached an Eastern Hemlock dominated forest but unfortunately many of the Hemlocks are dead or dying due to the Woolly Adelgid, a non-native pest from Asia. The Adelgid feeds by sucking sap from Hemlock trees. This exotic pest was accidently introduced to North America circa 1924 and is currently established in eleven states ranging from Georgia to Massachusetts. It is estimated that 50% of the geographical range of the Eastern Hemlock has been affected by the adelgid. Biological control (i.e. using adelgid predators to control infestations) has been the major emphasis of control since 1997.
Pine Meadow Trail Connector Trailhead
As we head northwest, the 0.3 Mile Orange Blazed Pine Meadow Connector Trail appears to our right.
Sterling Lake Loop Grassy Trail
Our feet are in for a treat as the trail becomes a soft grassy road as we continue heading north on the Sterling Lake Loop.
First view of Sterling Lake
Our first glimpses of Sterling Lake appears to our left as the trail turns northwest.
Whew! Let’s take a quick breather and take time to look at some of the vegetation growing near the trail. Here’s some Sweetfern native to the Eastern US. Its name is misleading as Sweetfern is not a fern at all but a deciduous shrub. The “sweet” in Sweetfern is correct as the leaves give off a sweet odor when crushed. Sweetfern typically grows in dry upland habitat.
Hey! Is this Poison Ivy? It’s got the whole “leaves of three leave ’em be” look. Nope, it’s a vine known as Hog Peanut. Hog Peanut is a member of the Bean Family (unlike Poison Ivy which is a member of the Cashew Family) and helps out plants growing nearby by correcting Nitrogen levels in the soil. Hog Peanut is common in both dry and mesic (moist) forest types.
Here’s American Chestnut. The American Chestnut tree was an important member of the eastern forest found in the United States. A wide variety of wildlife fed on its chestnuts. Mature American Chestnuts began to die off in 1904 due to imported Chestnut Blight from Asia. The blight, imported to the US via Asian chestnut trees, is a fungus dispersed by spores in the air, raindrops and animals. American Chestnut now survives only in the understory as shoots sprouting from old roots (which are not affected by the blight). The American Chestnut sprouts reach about twenty feet before the blight strikes. The roots then shoots up new sprouts and the process repeats itself. The American Chestnut Foundation is currently working to restore the once great American Chestnut back to its native range. Check out the book American Chestnut : The Life, Death, and Rebirth of a Perfect Tree for more information. Click here!
Milkweed in Bloom
Continuing north we reach a Powerline cut in the forest. Powerline cuts create permanent Shrubland which provides habitat for flora such as Milkweed, an important wildlife plant (especially for Monarch Butterflies) which does not grow in the dense shade of the forest floor.
Heading south a portion of the Yellow Blazed 6.2 mile Sterling Valley Trail joins the Sterling Lake Loop trail from the north.
Looking down as we walk on the jointly blazed Sterling Lake Loop & Sterling Valley Loop we spot movement. Tiny toads!
Let’s carefully and slowly proceed west on the jointly blazed Sterling Lake/Sterling Valley trail watching where we step.
We have now arrived at the northern tip of Sterling Lake.
Approaching a small sandy beach we spot a turtle digging in the sand.
Turtle heading back to Sterling Lake
But, as soon as we spot this turtle it takes off with surprising speed to Sterling Lake…..
…where it quickly disappears under the water.
Leaving the sandy beach and the now vanished turtle behind we cross an earthen causeway separating the pond above from Sterling Lake.
Taking a closer look at the pond reveals an active beaver lodge.
Continuing west past a former boat launch a movement on a rock catches our eye. A 5-Lined Skink! Native to the Eastern US, the 5-Link Skink is one of the most common lizards found in the Eastern Forest.
Heading south on the jointly blazed Sterling Lake Loop and Sterling Valley Loop we spot some blueberries growing along the side of the trail. The blueberries provide a refreshing treat as we continue our hike.
Sterling Valley Trail Exits
As we continue south Sterling Lake now appears to our left and the Yellow Blazed Sterling Valley Trail exits.
Continuing south on the Sterling Lake Loop trail we see beautiful views of Sterling Lake.
Sterling Forest Fire Tower Connector Trail
As we walk we find the woods road the trail has been following has ended and the trail now follows a paved road (West Sterling Lake Road) passing the Fire Connector trail to our left.
Lakeville Ironworks Trail
As we walk on the pavement we pass ruins of Lakeville Ironworks and the trailhead of the 3/4 of a mile mile Lakeville Ironworks trail. These buildings are remnants of former mining operations.
Located in the Highlands geologic region, the hills of Sterling Forest were mined for iron ore known as magnetite beginning in 1730 and ending in the 1920’s when the last of the mines shut down.
Help Save New York’s Ash Trees
As we walk we notice signs tied to nearby White Ash trees. The signs are in relation to the Emerald Ash Borer, a destructive pest from Asia which threatens all ash trees. The mature emerald ash borer does not pose a threat. It is the larva of these borers which eat away at the heartwood of ash trees.
Sterling Lake Outlet with Sterling Furnace in distance
Heading east on a footpath back in the forest we are now crossing the outlet of Sterling Lake near its dam. The Sterling Lake dam was originally built in the mid 1700’s to provide water power to the the Sterling Furnace. The dam raised the water level of Sterling Lake by 8 feet. A mine (now completely filled with water) was located directly below Sterling Lake.
Sterling Furnace was used until 1804 to create Pig Iron. Later, raw iron ore was shipped by trail to PA to be smelted using large coal deposits. The furnace was rebuilt by the City Investing Corporation in the 1950’s.
Remains of Lakeville Church
Near the visitor center we pass the foundation of Lakeville’s Church. Well, we are now back at the visitor center and have completed our virtual hike of Sterling Lake! I hope you enjoyed your journey and that you check out this hike in person!
ECEC is part of the Essex County Park System and features about 1 mile of hiking trails, a canoe launch on the Passaic River, frog pond & a Wigwam among other points of interests. ECEC hosts many fine environmental education programs. Click here for more information on ECEC programs! Originally established in 1972 and closed due to funding issues in 1995, ECEC re-opened in 2005 with a new environmentally friendly building.
ECEC is located in the 1,360 acre West Essex Park which primarily consists of deciduous wooded wetlands. West Essex Park was created in 1955 when the Essex County Park Commission first acquired a portion of the land. Additional land was purchased from more than 70 additional landowners through the years.
ECEC Virtual Tour
ECEC Front Desk
From the parking area, head to the Environmental Center to pick up a trail map and check out the indoor exhibits. (PS this tour took place in September 2012-about 1 month prior to Hurricane Sandy and thus describes the center as I found it at that time)
Once inside, there are various exhibits regarding topics such as renewable energy.
After taking in the information, pick up a trail map, it’s time to explore the trails!
Throughout the exploration numbered wooded posts will be encountered. These posts correspond to the trail map pictured below (taken from the Essex County Environment Center Website) which we will review as we proceed.
Essex County Environmental Center Trail Map
The first marker is in regards to the Sweetgum Tree which is found here near its northern natural limit. Sweetgum has star shaped leaves & spiny seedpods.
Just past marker 1 turn right on a short green blazed trail and come to marker # 2 which has the remains of a Gray Birch. Gray Birch, one of the first trees to grow after a disturbance, is a short lived species. Only the logs (located around the marker) remain of this particular Gray Birch.
Marker 3 Mother Log
Marker 3 appears just after Marker 2 and discusses the old log lying next to the post. The old log is known as a mother log because it is “nursing” the soil by slowly decomposing nutrients therefore creating a richer soil for future vegetation.
Behind this marker a tall deer proof fence will appear.
Habitat Restoration Area Please Stay on Trail
The fence was constructed to keep hungry white-tailed deer out so native vegetation may grow.
Continuing to Marker #4, a cool little body of water known as the Frog Pond appears. While we might not see any frogs today, we know they are present. Check out the native vegetation such as cattail and arrow arum growing in the pond!
Create a Pond
A sign has been strategically placed so that you can learn how to construct a pond of your own to attract frogs. From the Frog Pond, leave the green blazed trail and pass Garibaldi Hall.
Head toward Eagle Rock Avenue to Marker # 5 found at the start of the White Blazed Patriots Path.
The flora identified by this marker is found at your feet. Garlic Mustard is its name, and, at least here in the eastern United States, establishment of itself as an invasive species is its game. White Tail Deer do not eat Garlic Mustard and the plant has no natural predators in the US. Garlic Mustard produces a chemical which suppress mycorrhizal fungi required by most plants to grow successfully. As a result, Garlic Mustard, once established, forms a monoculture in which native plants cannot become established. Heading further on the Patriot Path I encountered these three fellows in addition to a River Birch (Marker #6):
Eastern Gray Squirrel
After passing marker six it’s time to leave the Patriot trail by heading left to a wooden boardwalk.
A wooden box will appear straight ahead near the Passaic River (Marker #7). This box has been placed for nesting Wood Ducks (a species that nests in tree cavities but will also utilize man-made structures).
Be careful of Poison Ivy (Marker #8) as you continue your journey on the boardwalk! Poison ivy contains a clear liquid known as urushiol which causing a burning itching rash in many people. Poison Ivy can be found as a hairy vine, a shrub reaching over three feet tall or as a trailing vine on the ground. It helps to remember the following jingles to remind you of the dangers of this vine:
“Hairy rope, don’t be a dope” & “Leaves of three, leave them be”
Leaving Poison Ivy behind, the Passaic River (Marker #9) appears to the right as we leave the boardwalk.
Passaic River Canoe and Kayak Access
The river is located southwest behind the Environmental Center Building. This is a great spot to launch a canoe or kayak to go explore the river.
Some quick Passaic River facts: Spanning 80 miles, the Passaic River is the second largest river in NJ and flows through Morris, Somerset, Union, Essex, Passaic, Bergen and Hudson counties. The confluence of the Rockaway River with the Passaic River is located nearby. Fish including bass, herring & shad find a home in the Passaic River.
We now find ourselves back on the Lenape trail and passing a Pollinator Garden (Marker #10). Native plants are being grown here to attract bees which are our next point of interest (Marker #11).
Busy Bees at Work
The Essex County Beekeepers keep a selection of Honeybees here. Bee careful not to disturb it!
Marker 12 Lenape Life
Wow! What’s this? Why it’s Marker #12 aka Lenape Life. Here you will find behind a gate a Wigwam and other items characteristic of Lenape Life. The Lenape were the original people who found a home in this area prior to European settlement.
Wigwams were created from saplings which were bent to create a dome frame. The frame was then covered with a mixture of animal skins & mats of reeds and rushes. In addition to the Wigwam, the Lenape learning center features a fire pit, meat drying rack, food cache, Lenape Gardens, fishing & tanning rack.
Looping back towards the Environmental Center a Northern Red Oak (Marker #13) appears. The Northern Red Oak is NJ’s state tree and is readily identified by its “ski-slope” bark. Northern Red Oak emits a foul odor when cut down.
Smooth gray bark is characteristic of the American Beech. It is this feature that attracts individuals to carve their initials. This practice is detrimental to American Beech as the carvings create opportunities for disease and could very well kill the tree. In winter, American Beech leaves remain until the spring when new leaves bud out. American Beech is usually found in forest in the final stage of succession.
Spicebush is one of the first native shrubs to bloom in spring. Spicebush earns its name from the spicy scent which emits from a broken twig. Spicebush is usually found in deciduous wooded wetlands such as those encountered at the ECEC.
Musclewood (aka Ironwood or American Hornbeam) is a small understory tree usually found in deciduous wooded wetlands. The form of the tree resembles a muscular arm. Straight ahead is the Environmental Center but we’re not quite finished with our tour yet. We still have a whole trail yet to explore!
Marker 15 Ferns
Let’s turn right on the Lenape to Marker # 15 which discusses three common ferns found in the ECEC forest: Christmas fern, Hay scented Fern & Sensitive Fern. Christmas fern is evergreen and is thought to be given the name due to its leaves having the appearance of a stocking that you would hang on your chimney. Hay scented fern is named such due to its scent resembling, well, hay. Sensitive Fern is an appropriate name indeed as this fern is one of the first to wilt come the first frosts of fall.
Bird Lane Trail
We’ve now come to the beginning of the blue blazed Bird Lane Trail.
Bird Lane Trail Trailhead
Let’s take a right to go explore it. The first marker on the Bird Lane Trail is #16 the Fox Grape Vine. Birds such as Northern Cardinal enjoy the grapes this vine produces.
Continuing on we start our loop and see Marker #17 which describes the floodplain forest found at the ECEC. The forest here often will flood (especially in early spring when melting snow contributes to increase water flow in the Passaic River). Species here such as Red Maple flourish in the conditions provided by frequent flooding.
As we start to turn back there is a large rock (Marker #18) visible in the woods. This rock is known as a glacial erratic and was carried to this spot when the last glacier (Wisconsin Glacier) came through the area around 10,000 years ago. This rock was likely carried from the nearby Watchung Mountains.
Continuing back towards the Lenape Trail we pass Marker #19 which describes the past land use of the ECEC. Old farming equipment such as this piece found near this marker tells us that this land was once used as farmland. Looking around you can clearly see the forest has reclaimed the land. Well, we’ve now reached our last marker (#20) which describes the Mayapple plant. The Mayapple plant blooms a single flower in early spring and first emerges before the forest has fully leafed out in springtime.
Well, we’ve now reached the end of the Bird Lane Trail!
Bird Lane Trail End
And with that, our tour has concluded. I hope it has inspired you to go visit the ECEC to see if for yourself!
Welcome to the Passaic River Coalition’s Butler Forest Preserve & Butler Raceway! Both preserves are contiguous and have a combined acreage of 14.9 acres of which four are deciduous wooded wetlands. Located in Butler, NJ, The Butler Forest Preserve and Butler Raceway were purchased to prevent the development of townhouses and provide protection of the Pequannock River.
Butler Forest Preserve & Butler Raceway
The Passaic River Coalition was established in 1969 and provides stewardship for the preservation and protection of over 1,000 miles of waterways associated with the Passaic River. The Pequannock River, a tributary of the Passaic River is labeled C1 indicating the water consists of some of the highest quality in the state of New Jersey.
American Beech Butler Forest Preserve
This was how the Butler Forest Preserve and Butler Raceway appeared when I explored it near the end of September 2012, nearly a month before Hurricane Sandy arrived. I find Jericho Road to be the best entrance to the Butler Forest Preserve & Butler Raceway.
Pequannock River Tributary
Entering the forest here I noticed a stream to my left (an unnamed Pequannock River Tributary) and plenty of American Beech. American Beech is part of the Beech-Sugar Maple climax forest community and are a sure indicator that this forest has not been disturbed for a very long time.
I carefully followed the woods down a somewhat steep slope while a steady roar increased. Thinking it was urban noise coming from nearby Route 23 and housing developments I was somewhat surprised to see the source was far more natural: The Pequannock River rushing by.
I noticed the river just as my eye caught old ruins. These ruins were part of the Butler Raceway which once provided water from the Pequannock River to power machinery to what was once the country’s largest rubber factory. The historic function of the raceway was to provide water from the Pequannock River to power machinery at the Butler Rubber Factory. The rubber factory was destroyed by fire in 1957.
Waterfall on Pequannock River
Near the ruins is a beautiful man-made waterfall on the Pequannock River.
Carefully scrambling over the ruins I made it to the Raceway just in time for a Great Blue Heron to fly by (unfortunately too fast for me to get its picture).
After admiring the Heron I came across an abandoned motorcycle.
Continuing east Yellow Birch appeared in good numbers. Yellow Birch favors north facing slopes.
Pre-Cambrian Rocks along Butler Raceway
Rock Outcrops of Precambrian origin appear occasionally to the right of the path. The Butler Raceway ends near Gifford Street. To get back to Jericho Avenue, simply turn around on the Raceway and proceed west until you come back to the cement ruins. Proceed south going up the hill until you reach Jericho Road.