Driving to or fro Newark on 78, you wouldn’t imagine the dense, lush Watchung Reservation is but a few miles off the exit. Many a time, we’ve cut into our commute to get some nature therapy by walking the one-mile round-trip to the Deserted Village, or pulled off at Lake Surprise to watch the birds and the kayakers.
Now, long-timers in the area might read that and groan—when the interstate was proposed in the ’50s and completed a few decades later, there was much ado about cutting into the natural area in order to connect East and West Jersey. And though we’re sure no one likes 78, we’re sure you drive it once in a while (or every day). So while it’d be nice if everything could be nothing but flowers, we’re inclined to (maybe cynically) cut our losses and appreciate what’s left.
Berkeley Heights and New Providence to the north, Scotch Plains and Westfield to the south, this nearly 2,000-acre property preserved and well-maintained by Union County is a welcome escape into the forest and a trip through history. The six-mile history trail makes for a good hike or run, and the attractions, including a wide-open park, preserved buildings and old copper mine make it a good trip solo, with a partner or with the whole family.
The Deserted Village is a half-mile from the northern parking lot, accessible by a wide trail. A mill was built in the 1700s along Blue Brook, which resulted in acres of forest being cleared. A century later, David Felt built a printing factory and a town supporting it on 740 acres near the brook. Eventually, the mill went bust, other businesses tried to come in and went bust too, but many of the buildings are still preserved after the Union County Park System incorporated the village into the Reservation in the 1920s.
There are also murals in the village by Nicaraguan/Mexican artist Roberto de la Selva depicting native Mexicans and work in and in life. The murals were covered by wallpaper for a time, which was, of course, disrespectful, but ultimately preserved them for years.
History goes back further in the Reservation—a copper mine believed to be cultivated by the Lenape tribe in the 1600s can still be seen. It’s also believed Hessian soldiers tried to mine copper to support their war efforts in the late 1700s, but didn’t get more than 15 feet into the mountain, according to the County. Too bad, Hessians.
There are also tales of sorcery and witchcraft in these parts. The Enchanted Forest features 16,000 pines planted in straight rows. Locals tell tales, as described in Weird NJ, of haunted encounters and pagan (gasp) rituals. The truth is much more boring: it’s the result of a New Deal reforestation program, but we’re inclined to believe it’s all true.
Lake Surprise is accessible by an on-site parking lot and trails. The parking lot kind of pops up around a bend in the road, hence the current name. It, too, was built by Felt by damming the Blue Brook, and has been used for water sports, swimming and boating.
There are plenty of natural and wildlife offerings, as well. Pine and birch trees make up much of the forest, and it’s believed the Reservation is one of the only spots in the state find five different species of salamanders.
So whether for it’s nature, history, location or lore, Watchung Reservation has wide appeal and makes for an excellent morning or afternoon trip. Go here.