The grey skies and newly naked trees of late November are a huge relief for my husband and kids. Finally, it's just too darned chilly and wet for all those hikes and bike rides. And we won't be skiing for at least a handful of weeks. They know, though, not to get too comfortable on the couch. Because I'm always drumming up something to get all of us off our asses.
One of my favorites tricks during the late fall--and even during winter before the snows--is a trip up to the Walpack Inn in Sussex County, NJ. Yes, it's a restaurant and I do lure them with the prospect of food. But you probably can guess by now that, in my book, there's gotta be some kind of physical output to merit a meal. Especially because the Walpack Inn is a hefty hour and 15 minutes from my house and I'm not inclined to drive that far for any plate of chow in the Garden State.
In this case, the pre-meal prerequisite is a quick romp at nearby Stokes State Forest. Nothing too demanding, mind you. Just enough time out in the open to bring color to our cheeks, rouse our appetites, and make our bods crave some warmth. Most times, we simply turn off Route 206 into Stokes, drive past the park office on up to the lake and--depending upon our mood and the weather--kick a ball around Kittle Field or follow one of the easy trails that radiate from the main picnic area. When the kids were younger, they particularly dug the playground that is also situated in this spot.
When it's just about dark, we pile into the car and point it towards the Inn. It's a beautiful 15-20 minute drive through surprisingly remote countryside, past signs for Peters Valley art colony and the virtual ghost village of historic Walpack Center. At points, you'll wonder if you've taken a wrong turn. But eventually, you'll come upon the smoke puffing chimney and the unexpectedly busy parking lot of the Walpack Inn. You'll tumble out of your car, push open the heavy wooden door of this quasi-log cabin and feel like you've joined a party everyone else has been celebrating forever.
The room is toasty, the air perfumed with a heady mix of wood burning fire and freshly baked bread. Some old guy is usually banging out tunes on a piano and everyone's bellied up to the bar, sipping a scotch or a beer while they wait for their table. The area is big, friendly, and casual enough for kids to wander around freely, checking out historic artifacts on display or sipping a Shirley Temple at one of the big old oak clawfoots scattered about the space. When your dinner table is ready, they'll shout your name. And here's where you'll become even more of a god to your kids than you already are: You'll sit down to see deer happily grazing just inches from your window. It's not some fluke of nature: The Inn puts out food for the animals and has outdoor lighting to make sure guests stay entertained well into the evening. Think of it as Sussex County's finest (only?) dinner theater.
Walpack's food is nothing spectacular, but certainly acceptable and just right for families. There's a Seventies style salad bar, a relatively reasonable menu featuring corny standbys like prime rib, teriyaki chicken breasts and shrimp cocktail. And there's a decent kids' menu, too. Best of all is the crusty, hearty, whole grain bread they serve up in slabs with sweet butter on everyone's table. It's so well loved, the restaurant sells loaves to take home and even prepackaged mixes so you can whip it up yourself. Top it all off with dessert, collapse back into the car, and by the time you arrive home and rouse your sleepy kids, you'll feel you've been away for a week.
Wanna Go? Need to Know:
Getting There: Stokes State Forest is a huge area in northwestern NJ. The spot I'm talking about is called the Stony Lake Day Use Area/Kittle Field. It is a solid hour and fifteen minutes from Montclair, heading out 80 West to Exit 34B and up along Route 15 which turns into 206. For more detailed directions, click here: http://www.nynjtc.org/ and type "kittatinny ridge stokes state forest" into the search function. To get from Stokes to the restaurant DO NOT use your GPS. It may very well take you on a backwoods road toward Tillman Ravine WHICH IS CLOSED during the winter months. You're best off calling the restaurant ahead of time and asking them for directions from the main entrance of Stokes State Forest on Route 206: 973-948-3890.
Trail Tips: The Stony Lake Day area is a fine spot for a romp during cold weather. When it's warm, there are tons of other trails to try out. A good, relatively easy one for agile kids about 8 and up is Tillman Ravine. You can get info by Googling it or going to the aformentioned http://www.nynjtc.org/.
When to Go: The Walpack Inn is generally only open during the winter on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. It may be open an extra night during the summer. Not sure. The restaurant only takes reservations for groups of eight or more and it does tend to get busy. The earlier you go, the better if you don't like waiting. If you want to sit by the window for prime deer watching, you'll wait longer than if you'll take any old seat that comes along. Either way, we've never waited longer than 45 minutes and it's such a fun place, it doesn't really matter. Just build that time into your plans so your kids don't go mad with hunger. This is a great outing all year long, except perhaps in the dead of snowy winter. During cold weather, when it gets dark earlier, we tend to leave Montclair about 2:15, which gets us to Stokes by about 3:30 and gives us about an hour to romp around. We get to the restaurant by about 5:00 and after a wait for a table, sit down around 5:15 to 5:30.
What to Bring: We sometimes bring a change of clothes for dinner but not a must at all. This place is pretty laid back. You might want to bring cards, dominos, Take Two tiles, or whatever to keep the kids and yourselves amused while you wait for a table.
Costs/Services: Off season there is no entry fee at Stokes. Entrees at the Walpack run between about $23 to $29. But servings are generous and come with bread and salad bar. Meals can easily be split. The kids menu is very reasonable. Their web site is: http://www.walpackinn.com/.
Fear Factor: None. Except fear of waiting for a table. But don't fret. Just factor this in as part of the adventure.