Hiking the Ramapo Reserve in Bergen County, NJ

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On an unseasonably warm December Sunday that feels more like September, we decide to take Hershey for a hike at the second closest park to us, Ramapo Reserve right across the county line in Bergen County. 

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The reserve grounds are home not only to the NJ boy scouts headquarters, but also NJ Search and Rescue, and the NJ Trails Conference, so you know the trails are pristine. It also has the most dogs per hiker of any park I’ve been to. It is Bergen County though so you’ll run into mostly Yorkies and pampered terriers along with crazy housewives, so we get there early.

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The hike begins from the expansive parking lot and over a bridge past the shore of a lake. This loop around the lake is the most popular, especially on Sunday mornings before football games. Around here, it’s definitely best to remain on leash (which we of course do everywhere because it’s technically the law). Sadly the swans who inhabit the lake during the summer are no where to be found. There are plenty of ducks strolling around. Hershey makes friends with three Huskies, two Golden Retrievers, and a fellow mutt or two. We also stop to play a game of monkey in the middle with Hershey who plays along, doing his best Rottweiler impression.

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From the lake, we hike up an inclined rocky road which is well groomed and pretty wide. We walk past where Hershey tried to make friends with a 5 or 6 foot long snake a couple of years ago, though he isn’t around today. This road passes a small turnoff for a waterfall. Hershey and I half stumble, half hike down the short but steep trail to the top of said waterfall. Hershey looks for some salmon to scoop out to show that anything a bear can do, he can do better. Sadly the migration was back in October, and about 4000 miles to the west. Next time maybe.

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Hershey and I hike back up the trail to the road. Well I hike and Hershey sprints up, waiting for me at the top impatiently. As we continue up the road, the crowd thins out more and more. After about a quarter of a mile, we reach the reservoir which doubles as Bergen County’s premier dog beach. Today though, there are more children than dogs. Hershey regrets the missed opportunity to stand on the shore and lord over the dogs in the water. After his adventures on the dog beach in Portland, Maine, he feels much more comfortable in the water and wades in up to his chin. We throw him a cookie and he even takes a tentative step further and nearly takes a step swimming, but waits until the tide brings it an inch closer so he can grab it. I guess he’ll never be a retriever. At least throwing him into a swimming pool over the summer hasn’t scarred him. 

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We spend a few more minutes trying to encourage him into the water more fully, then give up and decide to enjoy the scenery more. It’s a ridiculously beautiful day, the kind that makes you feel guilty for sitting inside and watching football, though we have plans to do just that later.

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While we appreciate and contemplate the scenery, Hershey decides to drink a gallon of lake water. This can only end well.

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Since no other dogs come to play, we continue on the trail. Not many fellow hikers continue past the reservoir, so we are alone for a while. Over the course of the hike, we encounter only a handful of other hikers, though more than at the trails by our house, and nearly everyone has a dog. Many also have hiking poles. It kind of feels like hiking in Germany except those with hiking poles aren’t 90 and hiking twice as fast as me. Due to recent rain, there are several streams crossing the trails. Hershey enjoys trampling through the mud and then splashing around in the standing water. Of course we forgot his towel at home.

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We continue to follow the blue trail, our favorite, which continues uphill for about 1.5 miles. We pass several downed trees which Hershey gleefully leaps over. We don’t see any beavers, but do listen to some Justin Bieber under the mistletoe. Or holly, or some sort of berry. Hershey decides the lake water was risky enough and doesn’t eat the berries.

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As we continue on the trail, a short downhill reprieve greets us, and of course Hershey finds the exact center of the stream transecting the path. Along this section, the sun breaks through and it feels more like early fall or late summer than the second week of December. Good thing we brought plenty of water. Though the majority of trees are bare, some stubborn ones still cling to leaves, holding out hope that this winter won’t be like the last few. Maybe El Nino will spare us. Or maybe the snow is just biding its time until later in the season when we will get absolutely buried. Only time will tell. 

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Hershey stops to ponder the meaning of life, whether it is better to have loved and lost, or to have never loved at all, and life’s greatest mysteries like why we drive on the parkway but park in the driveway. We continue past him up yet more uphill sections of the blue trail. How do these trails seem to only go up and never come down the same distance? I often wonder this during marathons. My GPS watch does not hold the answer but it does tell me that due to Hershey’s rumination, we are hiking barely 2 miles per hour. That’s ok, we are on a trip inside our selfs to discover our true selves, there is no need for a rush. 

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At the eventual top of the blue trail, about 3 miles into the hike, we reach a clear cut track that turns right at the intersection with this trail. This is the exact spot we once ran into an elderly woman hiker taking a trail side constitutional. I hope there were plenty of leaves. Time has passed and the only scent distracting Hershey here now is the scent of a squirrel. It must be close. Hershey goes on such high alert that he somehow misses a squirrel running across the trail about 5 feet in front of him while he investigates a pile of leaves. The squirrel lives to enjoy another day of acorn hoarding. Hershey will take out his anger on a stuffed animal later tonight to make up for it. The poor stuffing will never know what it did to deserve such a fate. 

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We follow the track for about 5 minutes longer than it seems like it took the last time we hiked here, just long enough ago to forget, we find the blue trail again which loops back down to the lake. Here we meet Molly, a black lab mix and her owner who ask us if the trail we came from “goes back to the lake fast enough to make the Giants game.” I glance at my GPS watch. We hiked 3.25 miles from the lake in 1.25 hours and the game begins in about an hour. “I don’t think so” I reply. Molly follows Hershey down the trail. This section descends the elevation we gained over the long blue trail in about a quarter of a mile. Halfway down, we cross a small turn off for an overlook, so Hershey and I head up.

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The overlook normally provides a view all the way to the skyline of New York City, but the haze today prevents us from seeing that far. We can almost make out the outline of some of the taller buildings, but not quite. We can however see the majestic Ramapo Mountain Range, along with some lakes and huge houses hiding in the woods. Hershey surveys the land and finds all in order. We make our way back down, through a small area where the landscape looks like Western scrub land. Hershey does his best Duck Hunt dog impression though he can’t quite pull off the laugh.

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We make our way back down the blue trail, descending fast, but not as fast as the time we decided to try a different trail and ended up scaling down a rock wall. I still can’t figure out how I got Hershey down the rocks then. Maybe he leapt off like last week when he thought he could scale a 3 foot wall if he got enough of a running start before leaping. He has no issues however leaping over some more downed trees. I do though, after a long walk and my first run since the Philly Marathon yesterday. At this point in the hike, my legs aren’t screaming, but they’re starting to talk in an outdoor voice.

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We follow the yellow brick road, or at least the blue trail for another half mile or so, winding along a narrow and winding section of trail that looks like the Headless Horseman could come galloping around the corner any moment. Luckily a bridge waits for us at the end, along with a set of gorgeous brindled mutts. 

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Four miles in, we rejoin the original road we ascended, just beyond the waterfall. The park is getting quite crowded now, and we are pretty much the only group heading down. We’re probably also the only ones who go past the reservoir, but such is life. We decide we haven’t had enough yet, so at the top of the lake, we branch off to the left and circle the lake clockwise. It’s overrun with dogs and sadly mostly unfriendly owners. Hershey is the bigger person, so he greets each in turn with a friendly snort, and continues on his way. He doesn’t need unfriendly people in his life. Some ducks dart in front of him, but he allows them their day and powers past. There will be plenty of chances to catch them another day.

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We complete the loop of the lake and head back over the bridge toward the parking lot. The pond which had been frozen when we arrived is now thawed and free flowing, just like the stream of time. It can flow only forward, ever pushing toward the future. Hershey contemplates the irreversible flow of time while a yellow lab sniffs his behind. We complete our hike back at the car, just under 5 miles completed. It was a short walk by our standards, but enough to knock Hershey out for the majority of the ride home, after several minutes of head fully out the window, sniffing the air for signs of his new found friends of course.