Head out to the middle of nowhere and get lost on a short, but challenging hike near Round Valley Reservoir. The Cushetunk Mountain Preserve is a hidden gem. Finding spots like these is a large reason why we have an outdoor section in NJ Indy—to tell folks about the unique recreation spots right under our noses.
A trailhead hidden on a country road (106 Old Mountain Road in Lebanon, to be exact), tucked behind some train tracks, leads to a steep walk through the woods and an unparalleled scramble across a rocky ridgeline with views of the reservoir. It’s a perfect morning or afternoon hike. In seconds, you’re immersed in nature and, in minutes, you’re breathing heavy.
We followed the white trail, a two-and-half-mile loop that takes you up, along the ridgeline and then back down and along the bottom of the mountain to the parking lot. You can also create your own extended hike by connecting with the trail around Round Valley—about 12 miles—or a trail that takes you to Pickell Park in Whitehouse Station—about 2 miles. The trails are well-blazed, particularly on the ridgeline of the white trail, where you’re not sure what’s a rocky outcropping and what’s trail.
For the 400-foot ascent up, the trail is narrow and comprised of packed dirt with the occasional rock and tree limb. In summer, we’d recommend applying some bug spray since there always seems to be something buzzing every 50 feet or so. But, really, the trail quickly ascends, and then halfway up, the grade steepens even more until you get to the ridgeline.
And that’s when the hike turns into a unique climbing experience in these parts. Jagged rock formations crop up every few steps, and the trail takes you over the rocks, with opportunities to scale some bigger rocks for views of the reservoir. You will use your hands on this, to stabilize yourself on rocks and tree trunks as you traverse over odd shape boulder groups.
About halfway through the ridgeline, the vista opens up, and you’ll get better views of the large reservoir, but the rocky terrain remains challenging throughout this section of the trail. The trail loops away and toward the ridgeline, with the occasional rock climb or descent—there’s even a natural rock staircase.
When you reach the end, you’ll head back down the mountain and toward the parking lot and intersect with the aforementioned connecting trails. But if you’re looking for a hike that’s one or two hours long, the white trail is plenty exhausting.
Bald eagles are known to nest in these parts (we didn’t see any on our hike), so keep your eyes peeled. Because of the sensitive ecosystem there, the ridgeline is denser with vegetation than the other portions of the trail. Our advice is to wear long pants, leggings, socks, what have you, and maybe even long sleeves—there are a lot of wandering poison ivy and sumac tendrils waiting to make you itchy. A good pair of hiking boots, or at least sneakers, would do you well, too.
There are longer ascents, rockier climbs, more breathtaking vistas and denser forests in the state, but few provide the unique combination of charm, challenge and isolation that Cushetunk Mountain Preserve provides. Go here.