Until about two weeks ago, there was only one place where I really loved to swim. That’s Lake George, the mountain-rimmed glacial lake in New York State where my family’s been camping for 52 years. I’m partial to that lake because it’s clear and rocky. No weird muddy froggy lilly pad stuff going on. No sand to get stuck in funky places. No salt to make things sticky.
Who woulda thought I’d find a spot that would give old George a run for the money less than an hour from Montclair? In central Jersey, no less. It’s called Round Valley Recreation Area and until I stumbled upon it on the Internet, I had never even heard of the place. What I read online was intriguing: The area centers around a huge, deep reservoir that is nearly encircled by mountain biking trails and footpaths and, at one end, boasts a swimming area. (It is also one of the few spots in Jersey that offers wilderness campsites). "Perfect jaunt for a hot August day," I says to myself, I says.
Noah and I threw our swim stuff, the dog, and an errant playpal in the car and set off to check Round Valley out. We zipped right down 78, got off at Exit 18 and paid our $5 at the entry booth to get into the park. My heart quickly sunk when we pulled up to a packed parking lot. We trudged across the tarmac in the blazing sun and caught sight of the “swimming area”: A sprawl of brown sand clotted with daytripping moms and crying babes and edged by a stone complex containing a snack bar and changing rooms. So much for the great NJ wilderness. I rolled my eyes and figured we’d chalk this one up along with our paintballing foray (tune in later for details.)
Since the swimming looked so awful, I loaded the gang back in the car, figuring we’d check out the trails--evening though it was 8,000 degrees out and all we wanted to be was wet. We backtracked a few hundred yards to another lot where the trailheads started and …..just like that, we were in another world. Just a few cars, just a few feet to a woodsy path, and crowds were a distant debacle. Not a structure in sight, save for the dam building down in a far corner--just waves of green hills backdropping a crystalline clear lake nearly as blue as the Caribbean. I hate to admit it, but this water was clearer, by far, than Lake George. And here’s the beauty part: It was warm.
We wandered along the path, running into the water at will. Yeah, there were signs saying “no swimming” and “dogs must be leashed,” but the few people around didn’t seem to give a hoot. Finally, the water became so irresistible, I gave in: I hadn’t brought a bathing suit, so I walked right into the water in my clothes and Tevas. Even Ringo, who doesn’t swim, joined Noah, Adam and me, and the four of us splashed around, hooting and hollering in the heat.
That’s basically how we blew a whole day. Popping in an out of the water. Strolling along the reservoir under the trees when we felt like it. For a whole hour, I stared up into a beautiful pine while Ringo and the boys splashed. The day disappeared before we knew it. And we had done, well, not much. But it’s a day I’ll remember well when the temp dips below freezing and the chaos of the working year is in full swing.
Wanna Go? Need to know……
Getting There: Take the GSP South to 78 West. Follow 78 West to Exit 18. Follow signs to the park. Once you pay at the gatehouse, take your first right into the parking lot for the trailheads. There’s a lower parking lot near the water that’s for divers or boaters or something. The upper parking lot is closer to the trailheads. Park there. This trip took us about 50 minutes without traffic. Park info: 908-236-6355.
Trail Tips: If you are looking at the lake and the lower parking lot, there’s an easy trail that starts just to your left. Follow a sort of dirty muddy road for a few hundred feet, then bear left and follow the trail around the shore of the lake. It’s shady in most parts and stays close to the water. I believe you can walk all the way to the dam at the far side. There is also the much longer Cushetunk Trail (probably good to do in cooler weather) that goes around a fair part of the lake--it’s a little less kiddy and grandma friendly and is also farther from the water. Very popular with seasoned mountain bikers. I plan to hike this in the fall with the guys.
When to Go: As mentioned, this lake is so gorgeous, it’s a shame not to visit when it’s hot enough to jump in. I was concerned about it being crowded on the weekends, but when I returned to the same spot on a Sunday with the rest of the family in tow, it was still blissfully quiet and relatively unpopulated (unlike the dreaded swimming area). I’ve got to guess that fall is gorgeous here--and the hike along Cushetunk must be a blast. I’m sure there’s a way to avoid the GSP (maybe catching 287 off 78, then going up to 80?), but dealing with the GSP rush hour thing is tricky on the weekdays. So, you might want to leave after the morning rush and try to get back to the GSP going north before it starts jamming up with commuters coming from the Holland Tunnel.
What to bring: Water shoes (the bottom is rocky and pebbly), goggles and snorkels (the water at Round Valley is so clear, many scuba divers come here), sunblock, bug spray. Pick up lunch before you leave home….the pickings are very slim once you get off 78 and the snack bar at the swim area only sells burgers, hot dogs, etc.--not very picnic-friendly fare. Also consider bringing fishing rods (kids under 12 don’t need licenses in NJ, I believe). The lake is stocked with trout and other species--we didn’t catch anything but that doesn’t mean much. And if you have kayaks or mountain bikes--bring em. Chances are, though, that if you have this stuff, you already know this place.
Cost: There’s a $5 charge per car weekdays; $10 per car on the weekends.
Fear Factor: My biggest fear here was getting busted for having Ringo off leash and for swimming in the “no swimming” reservoir. Didn’t happen. To me or to anyone else breaking these rules during our visit. I’ve got to believe this isn’t really a drinking water source---there are no fences blocking people from getting at the water and scuba divers and boaters are allowed in. It’s got to be a lifeguard/safety thing. So swim at your own risk--which is really pretty minimal, since the shore slopes so gently into the water even little ones can splash around while mom sits on her keester. (Don’t quote me on that.)