Hiking New Jersey: Bearfort Ridge and Surprise Lake

Thinking about how much there is to see in this world can be overwhelming. If you're anything like me, you have a list of places you'd like to visit in your head or on paper. And a lot of places on my list are far away, meaning it's going to take some time to get to half of them! But even if I can't get to every place I want to visit right this second, one thing I can do is to explore more in my own backyard, and that's one of my goals for 2020.

Greenwood Lake from the Ernest Walter Trail.

The harder I look, the more I find to do pretty close to home. I normally don't venture more than two hours away for a day hike, but when I expanded that radius to two hours and fifteen minutes, give or take, I found a ton of five to twelve mile options I didn't know existed. And my new, expanded search means I have access to public lands in three states.

First on my expanded list of day hikes within two hours and fifteen minutes of Philadelphia was Bearfort Ridge and Surprise Lake. The promise of varying terrain, beautiful lake views, and a distance of just over seven miles sounded perfect.

Getting to the Quail Trailhead

I chose to do the loop clockwise based on research, but regardless of which way you go, the route starts at the Quail Trailhead right about here. The parking lot isn't a lot at all, it's a pull-out off of the Warwick Turnpike and holds three, maybe four cars if everyone parks close together. I saw two more pull-outs up the road toward Upper Greenwood Lake, but can see how parking could be a challenge depending on the time of year.

Right by the large sign at the trailhead, three blazes indicating the start of the Bearfort Ridge Trail.

I got lucky; there was only one other car there when I arrived, and in it were two of the three people I'd see on the loop all day. According to the map, starting on a very short section of blue blazed trail, which connects to the white blazed Bearfort Ridge Trail at another pull-out up the turnpike is an option. Another alternative is the State Line Trailhead here, but that makes the loop longer.

Hiking the Bearfort Ridge and Surprise Lake Loop (7.6 miles, 1750' Elevation Gain)

After parking my car in the pullout along Warwick Turnpike, I walked back down the road fifty feet or so to the trailhead. A tall sign greeted me with a map, description of area landmarks like Bearfort Mountain, and information about both the Abram S. Hewitt State Forest and Wawayanda State Park. I snapped a quick photo of the map, even though I loaded the GPS track on to my Gaia GPS App before I left home that morning, and headed out.

Partway through the first section of the hike, and yes the trail goes straight up that rock!

There was a dusting of snow on the ground, and as I headed up the Bearfort Ridge Trail, I knew I'd have to keep an eye out for potentially obscured white blazes. Very shortly after the trailhead sign, I found myself at the Quail Trail and Bearfort Ridge Trail junction, turning left to head up toward Bearfort Ridge. The trail climbed steadily up slippery, wet, snow covered leaves and rocks. 

The forest was quiet, save the almost constant rumble of traffic. I'd hear that rumble most of the day. The steepest part of the hike came about half an hour in, and I was glad to have worn sturdy boots. The terrain was rocky, requiring some high steps and use of my hands, before I made it up to what I assumed would be the ridge. I walked along this relatively flat section quickly, admiring the occasional view of the New York City skyline in the distance.

In the small section between the clouds and the horizon, if you zoom WAY in, you can see New York City!

But as I was admiring the view, how the fluffy snowflakes sat perfectly perched on top of green rhododendron leaves, and how ancient the rock formations look, I missed a blaze, or two, or three. Some were painted on trees, but the terrain didn't allow for growth of tall enough trees with bare enough trunks to paint blazes on. I'd estimate half of the white blazes I needed to follow along the rocky ridge were painted on the ground, on the rocks themselves, and were obscured by snow.

I quickly realized my mistake, opened my Gaia GPS app, saw where the GPS track said I should be, and corrected it, vowing to pay much closer attention to where I was walking. If I couldn't see a while blaze in front of me, I turned around to look at the trees behind me to make sure I was on track. Between that more concerted effort to stay on the path and the occasional glance at my Gaia app, I finished crossing the ridge without trouble.

I was the first person on this section of trail on this day, and I got progressively better at spotting blazes under the snow!

After an hour and a half and three miles of hiking, I came to the intersection with the yellow blazed Ernest Walter Trail. At this point, the dusting of snow was starting to melt, and the yellow blazes were already much easier to see. I turned left, negotiated my way down one incredibly steep, rocky section of trail, and continued on. I'd read this section of the loop featured some incredible variability in terrain, and it didn't disappoint. Exposed bedrock covered almost entirely in lichen and odd looking scrubby trees made it an interesting mile of hiking.

Four miles in, just over halfway, I came to the Appalachian Trail (AT)/Ernest Walter Trail junction, and stepped on to the AT for about a half mile. It was a very short section of the AT I'd never been on; I love stepping foot on that trail and thinking about how many others stepped where I stepped on their way from Georgia to Maine.

The State Line Trail/Appalachian Trail intersection. Signage on the rock indicate the north/south directions on the AT.

Around the 4.4 mile mark, the AT hit the blue blazed State Line Trail, and I was happy to be done looking for white blazes in the snow, even though I left most of the snow behind on Bearfort Ridge. I was only on it for 0.4 miles before I had to start looking for the yellow blazed Ernest Walter Trail again. I'd read it's an easy intersection to miss, so I had my Gaia app open to make sure I didn't head the wrong way.

Both sections of the Ernest Walter Trail this loop traverses were my favorite parts of the hike. The first section along Bearfort Ridge was so interesting, and this section section was equally interesting with the added bonus of spectacular views of Greenwood Lake and Fox Island. I made a mental note to think about coming back to that spot in the fall, and moved on.

I loved this section of the Ernest Walter Trail. Such neat terrain and trees!

The Ernest Walter Trail dropped me down toward an ice covered Surprise Lake. I'd read swimming is prohibited in the lake, and unfortunately, many visitors ignore that rule, but swimming in water that cold certainly didn't appeal to me in that moment anyway! I snapped a few photos, then started looking for the Quail Trail junction. It would be the fifth named trail I'd be on over the course of the loop, and the last.

Beautiful, mostly frozen Surprise Lake.

The Quail Trail was the widest and easiest to traverse, albeit the muddiest and wettest of the five. It was a welcomed change from the other trickier trail sections, and though devoid of views or interesting features, it was a beautiful walk in the woods.

The two and a half miles passed without incident. About a mile from the end, I saw the third person I saw on the entire hike heading up toward Surprise Lake; we stopped for a chat, and he asked me how far away the pond was. I realized it had been almost three hours since I'd said a word out loud, which was a pretty cool thing given how close to the largest city in the United States the trail is.

Part of the Quail Trail on the way back to my car.

I got back to my car about three hours and forty five minutes after starting, including my navigation mistake and multiple stops for photos and snacks. Take a look at my route here.

Things to Know Before You Go

Parking is very, very limited in the pull-out I parked in along Warwick Turnpike. If you can't park there, head up or down the turnpike to other pull-outs. Better yet, start early, especially on good weather days.

The Bearfort Ridge Trail is very rocky and very slippery when its wet. The Quail Trail is muddy year round, from what I've read. Wear sturdy, waterproof boots. I had YakTrax with me, but didn't need them at any point.

One of the early, rocky sections of the Bearfort Ridge Trail.

There are a few tricky sections, especially if you're hiking in the snow because many blazes are painted on the ground. I definitely recommend downloading the GPX file ahead of time, and grabbing a New York New Jersey Trail Conference map.

Keep a close eye out for trail junctions. Most were clearly marked, but the State Line Trail/Ernest Walter Trail is easy to miss. If you do the loop this way and miss that turn, it's a long climb back up a steep hill.

I was, and still am, so excited to have found this trail! Most of the information I used to plan my hike came from here, and I can't wait to explore more in this area. Have you done this route before? I'd love to hear from you!