Forests of the NJ Highlands

Jesse Fried • Jun 14, 2017

The Highlands are mountainous but on a very small scale. It is cool to see the forest change rapidly and dramatically as you go uphill. Everywhere is rocky, and many of the valleys are strewn with boulders, but there are numerous small bottomland areas with deep, moist soil. Huge Tulip Trees, White Ashes, and White Oaks can be found in some of these spots. I've also often noticed sub-canopy trees like Musclewood and Hophornbeam, and Spicebush in the shrub layer.

Many little mountain streams, which often go dry by the end of the season, drain the rocky hills. By these streams, Beech, Yellow Birch, and Sugar Maple predominate. Sugar maple also tends to climb up the lower slopes of the hills, where there is still consistent moisture, seeming to thrive especially in the boulder piles immediately below big ledges of exposed bedrock.

Along the larger streams and on the cool, moist slopes by lakes, Rhododendron is conspicuously present. A beautiful site to see, for sure, but not nearly as widespread as it is in Pennsylvania or West Virginia. Rhododendron is locally very abundant on the mountainside above Surprise Lake on Bearfort Mountain. It's one of the hiking gems of NJ. I've tried and failed to come here at the right time to see them all blooming.

So many trails in the Highlands, crossing a stream and climbing up a slope, take you on a quick tour of the transition from wet to dry forest. Uphill from stream valleys, Red Oak, Sweet Birch, and Hickories start to take over from the Maples and Beeches. Witch Hazel is a common shrub on the better sites in this mixed hardwood forest. Moving up the slope, if there's enough soil, Mountain Laurel often forms a dense understory . However, in many places in the region there is little to no soil covering the bedrock on the higher slopes and hilltops, and you're really not even in a closed-canopy forest anymore: it's trees finding whatever spots they can between rocks to grow. Grass fills in a lot of the gaps here, and in some places it looks like a savannah.