Let’s say you’ve got a free morning or afternoon. It’s sunny. You want to get outside. Maybe get a touch of exercise. But it just so happens that it’s a kajillion degrees out.
My advice: Pack up the kids, the dog if you have one, and a picnic lunch and head for Hacklebarney, a gem of a state park tucked off a side road near Chester, NJ. This rocky, quiet, glacial glen is so effectively cloaked by its leafy canopy of trees, I don’t even bother with sunblock when we pay a visit in high summer (Bug spray is another story.) The icing on the cake: The trail follows a splashy, waterfall-bedecked brook that is just deep enough for a dunk but shallow enough for kids to play in. In fact, our boys and their buds usually come dressed in swim suits and water shoes and walk the whole way through the river, catching frogs and having water fights, while Ringo and the grown ups take the rocky path right beside the river. Picnic tables are sprinkled along the path--we generally choose a spot for lunch that’s right on the water so the kids can frog hunt while we read or play Take Two. Then it’s back to the trail, which slopes down to a gorgeous (sunny) spot on the Black River, a fast running little number during the spring that usually runs pretty low by August. It’s supposed to be a good spot for trout fishing, but we’ve never caught anything and I’ve never seen anyone else catch anything either. (So I don’t know if it’s worth schlepping your fishing rods). Once you hit the Black River, you can retrace your footsteps if the kids want to stay wet, or cross over the brook and take the woodsy loop back up to your car. If I walk Hacklebarney alone I can do this whole walk in one hour--add kids, grandparents, a picnic and water fights and you can easily kill two or three.
Wanna Go? Need to Know?
Getting There: Hacklebarney is just under an hour from Montclair. Google it for details or punch the following address into Mapquest or your GPS:
Hacklebarney State Park 119 Hacklebarney Rd Long Valley, New Jersey Phone: 908-638-6969
Trail Tips: Soon after you pass the bathrooms, you’ll see a steep stone staircase down to the left….we generally take that route and follow the path alongside the stream, which takes us down to the Black River. It can be sort of rocky--what’s nice is that grandparents and parents with Baby Bjorns can can take the smoother, gravelly path that parallels the river higher up and can meet the splash-pack down at the Black River.
When to Go: I love summer best at Hacklebarney, though the weekends get busy. That said, it is a great outing during the fall and spring. Just beware of the pumpkin/apple picking crowds that jam the roads near Chester in October.
What to Bring: Water, swim suits (in summer), bug spray, towels for drying off and for covering your picnic table, water shoes, small plastic shopping bags for garbage and dog poop, plastic container for examining frogs/bugs, Scrabble tiles, books, trashy magazines. Also bring a leash for your dog---we generally let Ringo roam free, but things can get dicey when the park fills up on the weekends. (Officially, dogs must be leashed.)
Services/Costs: Ample free parking. No admission charge. Decent bathrooms, one spot for garbage.
Fear Factor: It’s virtually impossible to get lost at Hacklebarney. Most paths seem to lead back up to the parking lot. There are warning signs about bears but I’ve never seen one. As far as crazy rapists and that stuff goes, I never feel uneasy at Hacklebarney, even when I go alone on a weekday. It’s a pretty popular, though not crowded, spot.
Nearby: If you visit during the fall, stop by the old cider mill for, um, cider or an ice cream after you wind up your day in the park. Chester also has a bunch of produce farms and a bevy of cutesy antique shops and boutiques, if that’s your kind of thing. If you go to Hacklebarney in the late afternoon, you could top off your day with dinner in Chester.