Wawayanda State Park Area
Jesse Fried • Apr 27, 2019
Wawayanda State Park is located in one of the most remote corners of the NJ Highlands. You can hike for miles in this park without coming to any maintained roads or signs of human habitation. Old roads, homesteads and mines abound, but today just about the whole park is covered in mature second growth forest.
The forest is beautiful. It’s diverse and strikingly different from other parts of NJ. Some parts are more reminiscent of Central New England: hemlock / northern hardwoods with plenty of mountain laurel. Other areas seemed like Pennsylvania with thickets of rhododendron and tall white pines. The park isn't exactly mountainous, but the elevations are higher than most of NJ, ranging from 1100 to 1400 feet. The altitude and the extensive wetlands may contribute to a cooler and moister climate than surrounding areas. Combined with relatively less rugged topography than other nearby parts of the Highlands like Beaufort Mountain and the Wyanokes, this area seems to contain some great habitat for northern hardwoods.
Sugar maple and beech were observed to be doing incredibly well in many places. They dominate much larger areas of the forest than I've seen anywhere else in NJ. Gentle slopes with thicker soils, the kind of place these species love, occupy a fair portion of the landscape. A small valley just north of Lake Lookout is home to an especially impressive stand of beech. It’s nice to see big beech trees that haven’t been affected by the beech bark disease. Similarly, there are a number of Hemlock stands, plus wide areas where hemlocks are dispersed in a northern hardwoods forest, which seem to be out of the reach of the wooly adelgid so far.
Of course it wouldn’t be the NJ Highlands if there weren’t dry rocky upland areas with thin bedrock inhabited by scrubby oaks, tiny black cherries, occasional red cedars and in some cases no trees at all, just moss-covered bedrock. However, even these areas are gentler and more lush than average for NJ. Oaks are fairly common but remarkably less dominant than the rest of NJ’s mountainous areas.
There seems to be a great diversity of wetlands. Some are open and inhabited by big tufts of grass and impressive ferns, as well as various shrubs. Others are covered with red maples and hardwoods without much understory. Still others are choked with rhododendron and surrounded by hemlocks or hardwoods. Apparently there is a cedar swamp, rare so far inland and so high up.
The logic of where rhododendrons are present or absent eludes me. Sometimes they’re in swamps sometimes they’re in uplands, but many swamps and wetlands are without them. Sometimes they’re under hemlocks, other times under northern hardwoods, but other times northern hardwoods have no understory, or witch hazel, or something else. Sometimes they form acres of impenetrable jungle, other times they grow in separated tufts. Some parts of the park are dominated but them, but elsewhere they are completely absent for long distances. I wonder if past land clearing is a factor.
The mountain laurel are extremely impressive. They cover vast areas, at least shoulder height and impenetrably thick, under oaks and other hardwoods. If not for the old road now called the Old Coal Trail, the southeastern corner of the park would be virtually impossible to navigate through. I believe that formerly inhabited areas with old pastures or fields are less likely to have mountain laurel thickets.
In what is today the middle of nowhere, evidence of past human activity is often visible. There are a lot of stone walls, and sudden transitions in the forest from one side to another of these walls. It’s not uncommon o encounter spots with an understory of japanese barberry beneath pioneer tree species like white ash and black cherry, probably the site of an old field.
Lake Lookout is a nice spot. It’s small and a bit scummy, but not too bad, and some rocky outcrops on the shore are picturesque. It is rare in NJ to see a lake surrounded by as much beech and sugar maple as oaks. It also has other more typical lakeside vegetation: high bush blueberries, small sweet birches, and plenty of oaks.
Laurel Pond, maybe two miles north and similar in size, is strikingly different. The steep slopes around it are a big rhododendron jungle, with hemlocks above in places - neither of which plants are anywhere to be found at Lake Lookout. A beautiful spring flows through some of these rhododendrons, directly into the lake. It’s not scummy at all, but has a bit of a phragmites problem on some sides. At least in late April 2019, it has no scum at all. Both lakes have serviceberry shrubs around them, flowering when we were there.
The rolling upland of Wawayanda State Park is home to some of the most beautiful forest I’ve seen in NJ. It impressed me as a lonely area that offers a feeling of wildness and vastness and natural vigor rare in NJ outside of the pine barrens. The place seems to hold some mystery and promise to it, after a first visit.
It would be very easy to get lost here if trying to hike off trail. Though some of the streams and swampy valleys have a general north-south orientation to them, others have winding shapes. It’s a vast area with fairly low relief, so up and down really don’t mean much, navigationally. The views are mostly of low, flat-topped ridges. There are plenty of random small rocky hills that lead to nowhere but swamps and other hills. It's easy to see how this little wilderness has been able to hide in plain sight right in the middle of such a developed region.