Hiking New Jersey: Stony Lake to Sunrise Mountain & Culver Fire Tower

If you're anything like me, when you see clear blue skies in the forecast for the weekend, the first thing you think about doing is being outside. Specifically, planning a hike. And if you are me, the second thing you do is to pull up an ever growing list of hikes within two hours from home and pick one. The third? Find a friend willing to come with you.

Culver Fire Tower, my friend and her puppy for scale.

Let's be honest; even if the weather doesn't look perfect, and even if I can't find a friend to come with me, I'm still more likely than not to go through with a planned hike. In this case, I got lucky. Weather was on my side, and I had company for another new-to-me loop near Philadelphia. The most appealing thing about the Stony Lake and Sunrise Mountain Loop was a combination of the mileage, elevation gain, and promise of sweeping views. And despite the fact that everything in the woods is a varying shade of brown right now, we weren't disappointed.

Getting to the Trailhead

Our loop, along with a bunch of other trails, started here in the Stony Lake parking lot. It's an absolutely giant parking lot as far as trailhead parking lots go, but from what I read, it's full in the summer. Be aware, there's an entrance fee between Memorial Day and Labor Day. From here, we walked toward the southeast end of the parking lot to start the trail.

Hiking the Sunrise Mountain Loop (9.7 Miles, 1,500' Elevation Gain)

From our parking spot, we walked toward the southeast corner of the Stony Lake parking lot to start the trail. We discovered five trails started from our trailhead, so we knew we'd have to keep a careful lookout for the right colored blazes and any turns we needed to make. At the first intersection we came to, we kept to the right, following the red and light blue blazed Swenson/Blue Mountain Trail.

Our first turn on to the Swenson Trail.

Around 1.5 miles into the hike, we crossed the yellow blazed Tinsley Trail. We'd pass it again on our way down from Sunrise Mountain. Then, two miles in, we passed Spring Cabin. I had visions of just moving in, it was so peaceful and quiet.

Shortly after passing the cabin, we came to a junction where the red blazed Swenson Trail and blue blazed Blue Mountain Trail split. The Swenson Trail takes hikers to a parking lot on Crigger Road from that junction; we turned right to follow the Blue Mountain trail up to Sunrise Mountain. After crossing Crigger Road on the Blue Mountain Trail, we faced the biggest climb of the day.

Despite all of the blaze colors we had to keep track of, the signage was easy to follow!

On our way up to the Sunrise Mountain summit, we stopped for a short break to admire the views. Though there's not much in the way of color or greenery this time of year, there wasn't a cloud in the sky and the sun felt wonderful. Continuing up the now Blue Mountain/Cartwright Trail (blue and brown blazes), we crossed on to the Appalachian Trail about 0.3 miles before the summit of Sunrise Mountain.

We decided we need to come back in the summer when everything is green. But for now, the moss really stands out!

I was excited to be on another section of the AT I'd never been on before. We hit the summit 4.5 miles into the hike, and though I'd seen some photos of the summit area, I wasn't quite prepared for what we found. The Civilian Conservation Corps pavilion was much larger than I imagined and beautifully constructed, standing majestically on top of Sunrise Mountain. Sunrise Mountain Road gives visitors not interested in taking the long way up the mountain a chance to see the views, and the pavilion, but up until this point, we'd only seen three other people on the trail.

The view from inside the pavilion, looking west.

After admiring the views on both sides, wandered the inside of the pavilion, and continued on the AT. We passed the yellow blazed Tinsely Trail on our right on the way down about 6.0 miles in. Another mile of hiking brought us to a junction with the brown blazed Stony Brook Trail, which would lead us back to the parking lot. But we weren't ready to be done, and continued on toward our next option for a return - the green blazed Tower Trail.

It seemed odd seeing ice while we kept shedding layers; it was nearly 50 degrees on this February day.

At the 8.0 mile mark, we found the Tower Trail and what we assumed to be its namesake - the Cilver Fire Tower. Given our plan for the day was just to spend some time outside and see some views, this added feature on our route made the two hour drive from Philadelphia to get to Stony Lake feel even more worth it.

Another example of the forest's fantastic signage.

We followed the Tower Trail down the mountain, crossed Sunrise Mountain Road, and picked up the Stony Brook trail back to the parking lot, arriving 9.7 miles and just over four hours after we started.



Things to Know Before You Go

Grab this map or print this out before you go. Our route covered five different sets of colored blazes, not counting the junctions with trails we needed to look for to help with navigation, but didn't use. It was super helpful knowing what colors to look for! I also downloaded this GPX file to use with my Gaia GPS app. 

If you're doing this hike between Memorial Day and Labor Day, expect to pay an entry fee. And in my opinion, it's worth it to support our public lands.

The trail is rocky, as is generally the case in this part of the state. Wear sturdy shoes, and though we didn't encounter any mud, having waterproof kicks wouldn't hurt. There were a few creek crossings, and I can imagine it getting mucky in the spring.

Before you start the hike, consider a stop here in a lot off of Kittle Road before you start; there are fantastic bathroom facilities available. But you won't find trashcans; be prepared to carry everything you bring out with you.

Who's done this hike? Been on the Appalachian Trail in this area? Seen the pavilion? Sound off in the comments!

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