New Jersey is not really known for isolated places. As the densest state of all, finding places to be alone is always a challenge. In fact, most people are shocked to hear that the Appalachian Trail winds its way through New Jersey for 72 miles, all within less than a two hour drive from New York City. Running nearly parallel to the AT for about half of its run through the state is one of the wildest drives you can take – The Old Mine Road.
After an incredible sunset at High Point Park the night before, Ariel and I set off on the second leg of our adventure in the wildlands of the Delaware Water Gap. Before hitting the Old Mine Road, we stopped at the Grey Towers National Historic Site in Milford, PA.
Grey Towers was the summer home of Gifford Pinochet, a former governor of Pennsylvania and friend of President Theodore Roosevelt (another favorite of ours). Pinochet was one of the reasons Teddy became a conservationist. Today his home is a monument to his life and time period. But more than that, as the only building maintained by the US Forest Service (as opposed to the National Park Service), it is a shrine to the outdoors.
After getting a quick peek inside the mansion and some background information on some of the odder features of the grounds, it was time to hit the road. The Old Mine Road.
First some background information. The origins of Old Mine Road are actually shrouded in mystery as there are no records of when it was built – or who built it. One theory is that it was first built in the 1600’s by the Dutch to transport copper they’d mined along the Delaware River between what would become New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania. Incredibly, the road’s history may go back even further than that, way back into PRE-history. There is evidence that the road was actually built on an ancient Native American trading trail. When the Dutch and English settled in the area, the trail that was the pre-cursor to the road was already in use by the Lenape. And in fact its origins may even go back as far as 12,000 years ago, when Paleo-Indian tribes first came to the area and traded along the river. This would make Old Mine Road one of the oldest (if not THE oldest) continually-used trade routes in the world.
One thing is for sure – European settlement in the area does date back at least 400 years and this route has been used by colonists, soldiers and Native Americans for generations.
Today, most of the route in New York was merged into US highway 209 and so looks like any other country road.
But not in New Jersey.
Since it runs straight through the heart of the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, the federal government ensures that the area will remain undeveloped. In addition to that, a poorly-planned idea to dam the Delaware River back in the 70’s forced most of the previous residents to leave their homes and move out. The dam would have flooded the road and all the nearby farms and homes.
Thing is – the dam never happened. And the homes were never destroyed. So today, you can still see ruins of houses, barns, even cemeteries all along as you drive the length of the road.
Many side roads that connect to Old Mine Road long ago fell into disrepair and today are basically just wide grassy trails. Since it’s all part of the National Park Service now, they are utterly content to see the land restoring itself to its natural state.
So am I.
Old Mine Road isn’t just about the drive though, there are some really cool places to stop. Such as Buttermilk Falls, a charming little spot a few minutes off the main road.
Also worth checking out is the Van Campen Inn for more details on the history of the area.
There are tons of trails that branch off of Old Mine Road, including the mother of all trails and one I’ve crisscrossed with many times on my journeys along the East Coast…
…the Appalachian Trail.
It’s pretty incredible that over 70 miles of the “AT” run through New Jersey. Granted that’s just a fraction of the 2,000+ miles that stretches between Maine and Georgia, but it’s always a cool feeling to stand along a trail that you know you could wander along for six months simultaneously in the wilderness and yet just within a few dozen miles of some of the biggest population centers in America.
I have a recurring thought to break up the portion of the trail that runs through New Jersey into a few day hikes (conveniently there are parking lots every 5-10 miles or so that lead to the trail) and then eventually doing the PA/NY segments and then eventually all of it. But who am I kidding?
Most likely I’ll just intersect with with AT at various junctions like I have been. Or driving along it on roads like this one or the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia and North Carolina.
Still…it’s fun to think about it and maybe someday when Jacob is old enough we’ll do it as a family…
One last thing to keep in mind about traversing The Old Mine Road – it can be very unpredictable. It really is not maintained very well and the road surface can change very quickly from smooth to the craters of the moon. Due to the fact that it’s so winding, this can happen very suddenly and all of the sudden you’re slamming on the brakes or swerving to avoid some massive pot holes. Portions of the road are also gravel, so you’ll want to be sure you’re comfortable driving on bumpy surfaces for extended periods of time. Finally, while you can get across most of the offshoots in a sedan (the first time we came here it was in a Mazda 3) I would recommend a car/truck with a little higher ground clearance. You probably don’t need a true 4×4, but some of these potholes are DEEP and you may hit the bottom of your suspension in a lowrider. This is especially true on the side roads.
Finally, it’s pretty slow going. Even if you don’t stop anywhere, plan for at least 90 minutes to go the full 40+ miles it winds through the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area. Really this should be at least a full day experience so you can explore the the area. If you plan to stay the night, there are good accommodation options in Milford, PA at the northern end or Delaware Water Gap, PA at the southern end. The Appalachian Trail actually runs right through Delaware Water Gap, PA so that’s a nice spot to intersect with the trail without needing to hike at all.
No matter how you get here though, once you’ve driven it, you’ll see that the Old Mine Road is without a doubt the wildest road in New Jersey.
Verdict: The wildest road in New Jersey is an excellent use of the time we are given.