On Discovering the Delaware Water Gap's Hidden Hiking Trails...and Keeping Them Hidden

If you hike in Pennsylvania, I bet you want to know
where this is...don't you?
Several years ago, I picked up a magazine about the Adirondacks in a hospital waiting room. I read about how local backcountry skiers fervently protect the best lines; they're reserved for those privileged enough to know about them. A few winters ago, I went ice climbing with a friend in a local spot I didn't know existed. He told us to stay mum about it; it's on private land and local climbers had a great relationship established with the landowner. Another recent experience got me thinking about protecting local gems and why it might be a pretty important thing to do.

The Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area is a 70,000 acre masterpiece of glacial activity dotted with deep ravines and stunning waterfalls. If you look at the DWGNRA on Google Maps, it's as if someone took a giant green highlighter to the Pennsylvania-New Jersery border from I-80 to I-84, stopping just below the New York State line. It's a scenic paradise less than two hours from Philadelphia and New York City. The DWGNRA also happens to be a perfect destination for an outdoorsy Philadelphian to plan a battery-recharging weekend staycation. 

To make our staycation feel more like a traditional vacation, my partner in crime and I sprung for a room at a resort. If you're a member of deal sites like LivingSocial and the like, you can score some deals for otherwise out of budget accommodations. And even if the hotel doesn't quite meet expectations, that doesn't mean other aspects of the trip won't. Aside from general R&R, our goal for the weekend was to explore new hiking trails. With five years in Philadelphia under my belt and almost as much time leading trips for TerraMar Adventures, I've become intimately familiar with the popular Water Gap hiking spots. They are all worth driving from Philadelphia to experience, but I wanted to go somewhere new. Thanks to an incredibly helpful bellman at the Shawnee Inn, I got my wish.

Hurricane Sandy brought down a number of trees
in the area, but it was still stunning.
We'd initially settled on a short loop hike (because on staycations, it's appropriate to relax in the hotel until 2pm) in an area called Blue Mountain Lakes. On our way out, the bellman promptly told us he had a better idea - an established trail close by that most visitors don't know exists. It's not hidden, or hard to get to, and you'll find it on a map of the Northern Kittatinny Trails. You just have to know the trail is there. And from what our bellman friend told us, most people don't.

It was an easy drive to the trailhead and the temperature hovered around a chilly 20ºF in the sun. Our two hour out-and-back route took us along a beautiful creek, past a waterfall that looked prime for ice climbing, and on to a second waterfall that I couldn't stop staring at. The hike was exactly what we were looking for, and it can easily be done in less time if you don't stop and take as many pictures as we did. As we got back into the car, I started thinking, "Man, I really want to write about this place, but how can I do it while respecting the bellman's wishes to keep the trail a relative secret?"

"The good news is that Americans will, in increasing numbers, begin to value and protect the vast American landscape. The bad news is that they may love it to death." 
—CHARLES LITLE, The American Land, 1979

Pausing next to the only cairn we saw on the trail,
but it's so well-established that we didn't have
any trouble following it.
With programs like America's Great Outdoors Initiative and fee free days for national parks, there's a significant emphasis being put on getting more people playing outside. And it's awesome. Before people can care for a wild place, they need to care about it, and they can't care about it without connecting to it by visiting it, right? But what if, in an effort to inspire others to visit the places we love, together, we love them to death?

On a trip to an area I associate with crowds, I wanted a little piece of DWGNRA heaven all to myself, just for a few hours. Our bellman friend's short waterfall trail isn't in Yosemite, it's in a national recreation area with a few small mountains and rolling hills. It's easily accessible from two significant population centers. But it's still a local gem in an area that sees high visitation. A local gem he wanted us to keep quiet about so it stays that way. At least for now. So, in an effort to respect his wishes, you'll just have to grab a Kittatinny Trails map to figure out where we went that day.

How do you feel about keeping trails a secret, even if they're established? Have you ever experienced issues in a place with high visitation, or stopped going to an amazing spot because it's too crowded? I'd love to hear your thoughts about protecting local gems in the comments!


ann said…
love that someone shared with you their love and protection of nature . . . and that you honored his confidential recommendation There are amazing places in the Thousand Islands on the St. Lawrence that need to have fall clean ups regularly because people do not respect the sanctity of the land . . love the photos!
Katie said…
I loved how open he was about sharing a place that was special to him with two complete strangers. it really made the weekend! agreed, there are so many amazing places in general falling victim to overuse, but I hope everyone can be responsible when they visit beautiful locales like this one and the 1,000 Islands!
Rochelle Plocek said…
I'm in the same court with keeping some special places a secret. Sometime not to long ago one of my favorite caves that we explored as kids became a well-known hotspot and has been forever damaged. The secret got shared a few too many times. With the internet it is a lot harder to keep places that need protected under wraps! I love that you kept this one that way!!
Katie said…
it's a shame that we can't all be responsible and practice Leave No Trace, but sometimes, even if we're diligent, places get damaged with overuse. and it's tough when you find a new spot like this; I want to share it, but I'm glad you appreciate that I shared it without sharing where it is :) thanks, Rochelle!
Heidi Henry said…
I haven't really thought about this until recently. Definitely good food for thought...especially since I consider myself more of a newbie about the outdoors. I love and appreciate insider tips, but can understand why some wouldn't want to share. I guess it gives me another reason to go out and explore on my own, right?
calipidder said…
I have an entire long blog post drafted on this topic. I visit a lot of special places out west - old cabins, native rock art sites, etc - and with each one I have to make a decision on the amount I am willing to comfortably share. My yardstick is usually measured against what is already available via a basic google search. But I also think that some of the places we love are at risk because there aren't enough people who love them enough to defend them. It's a thought I have every time I post a trip report - what is the appropriate level of information for *this particular spot*. And my long rant on the subject will be published once I've cleaned it up a bit (it was drafted as an annoyed response to a comment, heh).
Katie said…
that's the biggest struggle I have with the concept...the bellman was so kind to share a place that's really important to him with complete strangers, so I felt compelled to keep it secret. but at the same time, it's an established trail, and I'd love for the people I know I can trust to appreciate it to see it. so complicated :)
Katie said…
that's a really interesting perspective, Rebecca. you're right, if people don't know about places that need protecting, they're in as much if not more danger than places that are overused. looking forward to reading your full post on the topic!
calipidder said…
Once I figure out exactly what I'm trying to say I'll make sure to share!