Main Index
History Index
Modeling Index

Trail Index


The Daily Record- September 5, 2005 issue

09/5/05 - Posted from the Daily Record newsroom

This article originally ran online at:

The 21-mile Sussex Branch makes for scenic afternoon


Trains haven't rumbled on the Sussex Branch of the old Erie-Lackawanna Railroad in decades.

They've been replaced by bicyclists, cross-country skiers, walkers and other nature lovers who revel in a 21-mile trail that follows almost all of the old railway bed from Byram to Branchville.

Maintained by the state and jealously protected by trail lovers who report flooding, gaps and other pitfalls, the Sussex Branch Trail's dense covering of trees affords the illusion of being in the middle of a forest even when roads are just feet away.

Bears are around but glimpsed less frequently than deer, bunnies, groundhogs and other critters. Everyone who uses the trail seems to have a favorite section, or a fun story.

Jean Sodano of Byram recalled picking wild blueberries on the trail with her son and hearing a bear, hidden behind brush, also munching away.

Marge Barrett of Newton said she loves the three B's -- birding, butterflies and botany -- so on clear days in the spring and fall, she stakes out a spot behind Jefferson Lake near the trail's starting point off Waterloo Road.

Ann Briggs uses snowshoes on the trail in wintertime. When the snow and ice clears, she rides "Edel," a horse named after the flower.

On the rides, Briggs and Edel pass bicyclists, walkers, runners and other sight-seers -- along with deer, fawns, turkeys and the occasional bear.

"People are mostly respectful of everyone's right to the trail," said Briggs, who lives in Stillwater and is a longtime fan of both the Sussex Branch Trail and the 27-mile Paulinskill Valley Trail, which intersects with the Sussex Branch in Lafayette.
Rails changed hands

The Sussex Branch Trail is the former right-of-way of the Sussex Railroad, which later became the Sussex Branch of the Delaware Lackawanna & Western Railroad, and eventually the Erie-Lackawanna Railroad.

The route was originally cleared in 1851 to move iron ore from the Andover Mine to the Morris Canal, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection.

The Paulinskill Valley Trail was part of the right-of-way of the New York, Susquehanna & Western Railroad and was used to transport agricultural
products and Pennsylvania coal to eastern New Jersey and New York City, according to DEP.

Both trails are administered by rangers at the 2,000-acre Kittatinny Valley State Park. They evolved after railway service on both lines ceased in the 1960s.

By the mid-1990s, the state had bought up all of the land, except for a mile-long stretch in Newton.

Nationwide trend

Meanwhile, similar efforts were taking place across the nation.

"The rail lines weren't getting used. People started walking on them. It just kind of merged into that use," said Katie Magers, media relations coordinator for the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy in Washington, D.C.

Rails to trails conversions began building up steam four decades ago, around the time trains chugged their last on the Sussex and Paulinskill branches.

Magers said the conservancy was founded in the 1980s to lobby for revitalizing onetime rail beds that were deteriorating and overgrown with weeds. Its efforts, in conjunction with state and local governments and dedicated volunteers, produced impressive results.

There are now 1,359 converted rail trails in the U.S. covering 13,150 miles, Magers said. There are plans to open up another 14,000 miles. The Katy Trail in Missouri, at 225 miles, is the longest of the onetime rail trails, she said.

Work doesn't end once a trail opens, Magers said.
The Sussex and Paulinskill trails, for example, require significant maintenance -- from removing downed trees and filling in eroded sections to mowing grass and installing signs directing users away from public property.

Parts of the Sussex Branch Trail in Byram, for example, are just a few feet from Route 206 but run about 40 feet below the highway, resulting in chronic flooding.

"Someone's out there every day, doing something," DEP spokeswoman Dana Loschiavo said.

Shrouded by trees

For much of its 21 miles, the Sussex Branch Trail is shrouded by trees. Rocky Gott, superintendent of Kittatiny Valley State Park, likened it to walking through a tunnel.

The trail's starting point is just outside Morris County, about a mile to the west of Route 206 in Allamuchy Mountain State Park. The first two miles, which run to Cranbury Lake, offers some of the best views from the trail.

The 2-mile trip from Cranbury Lake to the Andover border is the least pleasant part of the journey, with eroded sections that could easily trip up an inattentive cyclist. In places, the trail is only a few inches wide.

Diane Goodspeed, a mother of two in Hackettstown who included the Sussex Branch Trail in her recently-published book, "Family-Friendly Biking in
New Jersey and Eastern Pennsylvania," recommended that parents steer young children away from that section.

Once the trail nears its Route 206 crossing, though, it widens and is much better maintained, offering views for several miles that rival the sights in Allamuchy.

The trail crosses Stickles Pond Road and Yates Avenue before being interrupted in Newton, a mile-long stretch of the former railroad that the state didn't acquire.

Trail users here, mostly cyclists, take Hicks Avenue to Old Branchville Road in order to reconnect with the trail.

Cycling from the Olde Lafayette Village shopping center, which is in front of the trail on Route 15, to the unmarked trail ending in Branchville takes about one half-hour at an easy pace.

The last two miles are reminiscent of the narrow stretch alongside Route 206 and involve fighting potential wipeouts and a brief rocky patch that can be difficult to navigate.

Those sticking with the trail to the end are rewarded with striking views of the secret parts of Sussex County.

Laura Carey of Roxbury was making her first visit to the Sussex Branch Trail one clear morning in August during which the humidity had finally broken and temperatures were in the mid-70s.

Carey, 30, was hoping to travel the length of the trail on her Trek 4500 bicycle.

Carey, a native of Pittsburgh who moved to the Ledgewood section four years ago, said she learned about the Sussex Branch Trail because "friends were talking it up."

Describing herself as "a great rails to trails fan," Carey said she enjoyed biking on the Black River Trail but found the steep grades of the Mahlon Dickinson Reservation in Jefferson too unpleasant.

"I like to have something scenic, but level and easy," Casey said before taking off on her journey that morning.
Sodano was walking on the trail that morning with her neighbor, Zofia Hrdgrove.

Hrdgrove, making only her third walk on the trail, said she was enjoying it much better than taking a stroll on the streets.
Sodano said she had been walking the section between Cranberry Lake and Waterloo Road for 36 years, back when that part of the trail was privately owned.

Sodano said she walks there 3 times per week in the winter, fall and spring, but usually not in the summer due to horse flies.

The flies didn't seem to be an issue this morning, though.

"The horse flies don't like it cool," she said.

The best thing about the trail, she added, is that it's "beautiful and peaceful."

Rob Jennings can be reached at (973) 428-6667 or