“I just enjoyed a beautiful outing on the gas pipeline!” Not something you can imagine yourself saying? Spend a day on the Columbia Trail in Hunterdon and Morris counties and you might change your tune. New Jerseyans, by the hundreds of thousands, flock to the roughly 15-mile-long, multi-use trail every year to satiate their outdoor recreation needs. Named after the Columbia Gas company that installed a pipeline under what was once an abandoned railroad corridor, the trail—a wide path comprised of crushed stone and gravel—runs from the borough of High Bridge (Hunterdon) to the border of Washington Township and Mount Olive (Morris), and is owned and maintained by their respective counties’ Parks Commissions.
We’ve covered every mile on the Columbia Trail countless times and can safely say, whether you’re on foot, bike or even horseback, there’s no wrong way to experience it. More often than not, though, we find ourselves taking it in on two wheels. A bicycle simply affords you the opportunity to cover a lot more ground and get to everything the trail has to offer much quicker; and, while there are loads of other paths in the state suitable for biking, few really compare to the wide, well-manicured Columbia, so why not take advantage of it?
How to Ride
Don’t own a bike (or a horse)? For folks that don’t mind being social, there are riding groups like Party Size Cycling (based in High Bridge) that are oftentimes able to provide prospective riders with a loaner if you reach out in advance of scheduled rides. Groups like Party Size are a great way for folks to meet new people, spend time outside and explore some of what the trail has to offer. If you’re not interested in being social or don’t care to invest in a bike, this guide will still be useful; just keep in mind that you may have to experience the trail in sections, across multiple days (unless you’re training for a marathon?) if you’re traveling on foot… which isn’t necessarily a bad thing at all.
Attention road-cyclists: as you may have expected, this is not the terrain for a road-bike. Slightly wider/knobby tires are a requisite—anything from gravel (depending on skill level) to a fat bike will suit you just fine, although we still can’t get over how goofy the latter look in the wild.
Where to Start
This greatly depends on the ride you’re after. Simply looking for a workout or a long, leisurely cruise in the saddle? No need to overthink it, park in literally any one of the designated parking areas and ride the full circuit (roughly 32 miles) or whatever distance time/desire allows. The path is flat and well-maintained enough for a rider of any skill level to enjoy comfortably, but there’s certainly opportunity to exert yourself if you want to push. You can easily spend the whole day riding, factoring in time for breaks/exploring, but we’ve also seen folks complete the full trail in a brisk two or three hours. This gets a little challenging on the weekends, when more people are out and about.
For those interested in mixing in some hiking with their ride, we’d recommend Long Valley as a starting point, particularly the public lot on Fairview Avenue as it sits at the intersection of Columbia Trail and Patriots Path. From the lot, a relatively quick, uphill hike towards Schooley’s Mountain Park along Patriot’s Path leads to a beautiful scenic overlook of the valley below—this is a great way to get the blood flowing before a ride or the perfect sunset hike to end the day. The section of the Columbia Trail adjacent to the Fairview Ave. lot also connects to a network of smaller trails/paths that provide ample opportunity to explore around the river.
Sandwiched between High Bridge to the west and Long Valley to the east is the borough of Califon. With a decent-sized public parking area right across the street from an old train station (now home to the Califon Historical Society), the borough has a gorgeous, quaint downtown and is as good of a spot as any to start your ride. Due to its location (not quite in the middle, but a few miles from the southern trailhead) we’ll typically choose Califon as a starting point only if we’re planning a shorter section-ride, and highly suggest following a loop that incorporates an alternate scenic route: from the public parking lot (at the junction of Academy St. and Railroad Ave.), head north on Academy St. and just before you reach the bridge on Main St., make a left onto River Road. Follow the paved section of River Road and continue onto the unpaved section that runs through Ken Lockwood Gorge. As you come through the gorge, continue on River Road (it briefly becomes Stone Mill Road at the end) and make your first right onto Cokesbury Road. Proceed just over 0.1 miles up Cokesbury before making a quick left onto the gravel access path immediately following the trail overpass—this path will lead you back up to the Columbia Trail. Make a left onto the trail and ride it back to the Califon parking area.
While the ride along River Road/Ken Lockwood is picturesque and highly enjoyable, please keep in mind that after heavy rains, multiple sections of this alternate route can be impassable due to flooding and/or poor conditions—the unpaved areas in the gorge are not as manicured as the Columbia Trail to begin with.
Due to its location at the southern trailhead, abundance of parking, multiple dining and watering hole options and the proximity of said options to the trail, High Bridge has become our go-to origin point as of late. It’s worth noting that Long Valley has just as many (if not more) viable places to eat/drink; yet, apart from The Coffee Potter—which is conveniently located alongside the trail across from the public parking area, the ease of access on a bicycle to restaurants/breweries is a bit more complicated, particularly when trying to navigate the intersection of East Mill and Schooley’s Mountain Roads on a busy weekend afternoon. Conversely, those who start in High Bridge can easily return the bikes to their parked cars at the Commons public lot after a ride and walk no further than 0.1 miles to satiate their thirst/hunger at a concentrated host of different spots along the borough’s charming Main Street. If you’re like us, you’ll appreciate the ability to grab a quick coffee/breakfast before a ride and then finish your day on the trail with a well-earned pint, great food and maybe even some live music—High Bridge is the move.
When to Ride
If we’re talking about seasons, naturally the spring and fall are primetime for riding; not too hot or cold, plenty of wildlife, flowering plants or turning foliage to admire. Honestly, though, if winters continue to be as mild as this past one, you can ride year-round (we did) with just a little attention to the forecast and your attire.
Yet, summer is the busiest time, and for good reason—the weather and environs are a perfect match. Note: The trail gets busy on weekends. If you must ride then and intend to complete the full trail—start early! Trying to make time while working against afternoon traffic is a fool’s task; get some miles on your tires before the masses descend. If you can swing it, plan a Friday ride when school is still in session: start midday at the southern trailhead and arrive in Long Valley in time to grab lunch at La Rienda. By the time you finish eating and make the ride back to High Bridge —with an hour or so allotted for exploring—all of the dining/drinking establishments will be open and you’ll be well into a great, long weekend.
Worth noting: Compared to the southern trailhead or other points of interest along the Columbia Trail, the northern trailhead in Bartley is a little underwhelming. In fact, due to the limited parking and sparse signage to inform visitors that its actually the starting/finish point, many folks don’t even realize they’ve reached the end of the trail. Best to plan accordingly and save the northern trailhead as simply a turning-around point.
Eat Your Way Down the Trail
The Coffee Potter has a super welcoming vibe and they make an outstanding brew. Literally located right alongside the trail and equipped with benches/chairs outside for patrons to take a load off while they enjoy a coffee or baked treat, it’s a great place to start your ride or take a break on the journey.
While there are a multitude of food options not far off the trail, the combo of tacos and margaritas afuera at La Rienda is tough to beat on a warm afternoon/evening. Seafood lovers should also check out Chesapeake Tavern for the raw bar (arguably the best spot around for oysters) and happy hour menu. For a casual atmosphere with tasty, affordable pub fare (burgers, sandwiches, etc.), Valley Restaurant is a solid choice. All of these spots have full bars and outdoor seating, although it can be limited—calling ahead to check for availability is always advised.
You’ll find Bohemian Pilsner, Fruit Tart Ale, Black Lager, the ever popular IPA and more at Chilton Mill Brewing. Located in the same shopping center as Valley Restaurant, this is an awesome spot for a victory beer (the triumphant first beer after a long ride). Though it’s a bit of a walk from the public parking area on the trail, we like to think of this stroll as an opportunity to displace lactic acid buildup en route to beer and, in-turn, work off some of those carbs on the return trip to the car.
For your consideration: For children, beginning riders and groups, we recommend losing the bikes and proceeding on foot on the ample sidewalk space while exploring in the section from the trail parking area to the collection of restaurants at the junction of West Mill and Fairmount Roads, and the further options located roughly a half-mile up East Mill Road. With the (at times) heavy traffic and non-existent shoulder in certain sections, inexperienced riders needn’t tempt fate. The “we have equal right to the road!” contingent of cyclists can miss us with the outcry her —this is just a weird, busy stretch and we’d rather not encourage folks to be hardasses when they’re facing the business end of an unsuspecting dump truck.
Though the section of Main Street near the trail is aesthetically pleasing and a pleasure to walk, this area of Califon is not particularly flush with food options. Rambo’s Country Store for lunch/supplies and Califon General store are the only game in town without getting pulled too far off the beaten path—they’re both good options, though.
For coffee, head to Scouts Coffee Bar + Mercantile. It’s hard to oversell this spot—wonderful people, great coffee and breakfast/snack options. We seldom leave High Bridge without stopping at Scout’s, and it’s one of the few coffee shops in Hunterdon County at which we don’t automatically order our coffee to-go.
For lunch, ice cream and baked treats, Polka Dot Cafe is a cool little eatery located less than 100 feet from the trail. For dinner, Carini’s and Peking Wok are both popular for take-out, but when it comes to enjoying a sit-down meal or a proper night out in High Bridge, all roads lead to Circa. Serving up great food and cocktails, oftentimes accompanied by live music, this place has been a favorite of ours for years (though, maybe ditch the Spandex here.)
Though it’s only open on weekends, Highrail Brewing is a great little craft brewery with at least one brew (or seltzer) that’ll pique your interest. If you can’t make it to Highrail’s open hours, or are just looking for a more traditional bar and a great place to hang out with friends, head over to Mrs. Riley’s Publik House (just a few doors away on Main St.). Great service, solid beer selection (and stiff drinks), fair prices and a warm, casual atmosphere—this watering hole is always a good time. After a brief hiatus, Mrs. Riley’s is back and open seven days a week (with last call usually coming well after the rest of town shuts down).
(More) Activities on the Trail
Wherever you are on the trail, you’re never far from the Raritan River; and, if there’s a better region for freshwater fishing in the state, we’re not privy to it. Fly-fishing enthusiasts in particular, flock to spots on the Raritan by the Columbia Trail—especially the Ken Lockwood Gorge (catch and release only)—to hone their skills.
The notion of turning an outing on the trail into a multi-day, mini vacation never really dawned on us before now, but we’ve heard crazier ideas. Looking to add a little romantic charm to your Columbia Trail getaway? Check out Raritan Inn at Middle Valley (Califon) or Neighbour House (Long Valley)—both bed & breakfasts offer beautiful settings and are within comfortable riding distance from the trail.
Searching for more rustic/affordable accommodations? Just up the road from the southern trailhead in High Bridge is Voorhees State Park, where you’ll find drive-up campsites (and larger group sites) and cabins available for reservation. Due to its accessibility and amenities, Voorhees is a great option for families or folks new to camping. It’s also worth noting that the park has some trails for hikers and is home to the Paul Robinson Observatory for those interested in stargazing.
Wear a helmet, respect your surroundings and enjoy the ride.
For more info about the trail (including a trail map) and nearby points of interest, go here.