One day, taking inspiration from Wild and A Walk in the Woods, I’m going to hike the entirety of the Appalachian Trail. When I do it though, I don’t think I’ll be risking it in the winter when temperatures plunge and snow quickly turns to ice. Trail markers get obscured, sections that are technical and challenging in the best conditions become nearly impossible, and snow covers treacherous holes in the ground that can twist an ankle. There are plenty of reasons to respect the trail and leave it alone in the winter, so of course I decided to head out and up to the summit of Mt. Tammany at the Delaware Water Gap during an arctic blast.
I grew up in the Poconos, only about 20 minutes from the Delaware Water Gap and really never gave it much thought. Traversing much of the East Coast, I never thought the Appalachian Trail was all that interesting either. My family would take hikes fairly often when I was a child, but these were more often to the nearby state parks and waterfalls than the Appalachian Trail. Dingman’s Ferry, Gouldsboro State Park, and Seven Tubs Nature Preserve were our normal hikes. I don’t think we ever made it to the Water Gap though we drove past it often.
Once I moved to New Jersey’s suburbs, right next to a State Forest, I began enjoying time spent in nature again. Right after college, living in the urban setting of Union City, there wasn’t much opportunity for interaction with nature and I lost sight of it. Once we moved out into the suburbs, hiking became a frequent occurrence again. A list of the best hikes in NJ I discovered while researching child-friendly hikes led me to the glory of Mount Tammany. Thankfully, we didn’t try to do the hike with our boys as danger awaited us.
We pull into the parking lot for the trail right off of I80 on the NJ side, just before crossing into PA. It’s one of the coldest days of the year in the middle of an arctic blast that has left the temperature below 20 degrees for over two weeks. Snow from several days ago still lies on the ground, having never melted due to the temperatures. It’s just enough snow to cover the ground and hide irregularities in the ground along the trail yet not deep enough to smooth over the imperfections. A strong sun has melted the top layer of the snow while the frigid air has refrozen it into a slick layer of ice. Thankfully we’ve worn our snow boots.
The parking lot actually serves the Dunnfield Creek Trail and Appalachian Trail. We will return back down the Dunnfield Creek Trail, but our hike takes us up the Red Dot Trail. This trail is steeper and more challenging than the Dunnfield Creek (Blue) trail, so we’d rather go up than attempt to traverse it back down, especially with slippery conditions. We locate the correct trail back toward where we turned in, starting off with a few dozen steps up. We are quickly passed by a solo hiker toting a massive walking stick and again a few moments later by a father-daughter couple out for a day hike. Like always, we appear to be the only ones out for a day hike without a massive backpack and hiking gear. Beside or snow boots which aren’t even hiking boots, we are basically wearing basic athletic gear. We don’t even bring a bottle of water with us. I guess we’re just pros.
We don’t try to keep up with these other hikers, knowing it’s not a long hike at only 3.5 miles, but is fairly strenuous. We’re ok with a slower pace. After the stairs, the path continues a fairly steep climb up the side of the mountain through the woods and over a few rocky outcroppings and carved steps. The landscape provides ample reason to stop to catch our breath as there are great views surrounding us constantly. We can’t yet see the actual Water Gap, a dip through the mountain ridge carved out over the eons by the rushing pressure of the Delaware River, but we have nice views down the mountain and through the woods.
As we continue the ascent, we turn a corner and suddenly hear the unmistakable tones of Fergie, Will. I. Am., Taboo, and apl.de.ap, The Black Eyed Peas, interrupting the sounds of nature we’d been serenaded with up to this point. As we continue around the bend a view farther up the trail explains it. The first hiker who passed us has stopped to take several pictures and has apparently begun his hiking playlist on a bluetooth speaker attached to his massive backpack. As one who enjoys the calm peace nature gives from the busy world, I’m not super happy about this development, but figure with his massive amount of gear, he’ll either quickly get further ahead of our slow pace or will be continuing on a longer hike than our modest 3.5 miler.
The trail becomes the most difficult around this point, changing over from steep walking to somewhat active, what is described on the web as “scrambling”, but I would call light mountain climbing. Hands are definitely needed at points for balance and to lift up over the rocks. The ice here makes things even more tricky and for once I wish I had a hiking stick for balance. As we are slowly traversing up the ice fields of what feels to us like a glacier, another hiker with two dogs comes up quickly and passes us, disappearing up the slope and out of view. The patches of yellow snow at least provide a better guide than the trail blazes which are often hard to see under the snow.
Once we reach the end of the ice fields, or at least the short patch of icy rocks, we still face a steep ascent up a snow covered trail before we reach the summit. No wonder this route was described as “strenuous” and “a real hike, not a walk in the woods” by the website. At one point, we hear yelling, but can’t really make out the words. I figure I’m about to have to save someone on the trail who fell into a crevasse or was mauled by a bear. I’m not sure how much use I’ll be in a rescue as I barely made it up the trail on my own. It turns out that our music blasting friend is just ahead and is warning us that the snow ahead gets deeper and hides spots where a leg can sink in up to the knee if unprepared.
We shortly realize he had missed a turn of the trail and was several hundred feet off the trail. Rather than telling him, because we are bad people and figure this will give us a chance to get away from his terrible music, we continue the right way, leaving him on his own. Plus, we figure, he might be heading a different way. He’s not and quickly catches up to us. He now appears to be afraid of losing the trail again and refuses to leave our side. At least from in front we can’t really hear his music.
As we approach the summit of Mt. Tammany, several turns in the trail right along the edge of the ridge offer great views through the trees over the surrounding area. We can now glimpse the actual Water Gap as well as the mountains continuing through Pennsylvania. We can also see down to the river, glittering in the winter sun and the thin ribbon of I80 snaking through the gap. It’s hard to believe we’ve climbed so far so quickly, not even at a mile yet, though my legs beg for a quick break. I figure a few pictures will further distance us from the mobile nightclub slowly heading up the rest of the mountain.
We reach the summit after another short distance of ascent on much easier terrain. There’s a little overhanging ledge of rock that overlooks the river far below. In just about a mile we’ve climbed over 1200 feet. It doesn’t have the same fatiguing feel or difficulty catching our breath as our hikes out west in Utah, or the stunning scenery, but the unobstructed view over the river, the gap, and the mountains is still pretty spectacular.
From the top, the rest of the hike is less challenging, but feels much longer along the Blue Dot Trail after it transitions from the Red. It’s only another two miles or so, but due to the loop, feels longer. There’s an option to take the Red Trail when it splits back off, forming a longer and harder loop up through some more of the NJ mountains, but after the tough ascent, we decide the 3.5 mile loop is enough for us. It begins with a moderate descent down some stone formations that feel like steps and look like elephant skin. We cross a little stream, somehow still flowing in the frigid temperature, and some downed trees we have to climb over or under. I’m exceptionally thankful for my thick soled boots on the rocky terrain where any number of loose rocks would have stabbed my foot through thinner shoes.
After a slippery descent down a steeper section that is ice covered as it is hidden from the sun in which I have to essentially ski down the rocks, we run into a large family coming up the trail. They ask us if it’s much farther and we can only chuckle. It isn’t going to get any easier there. Right after this, we hear the unmistakable thump of club music quickly catching us again. We had lost it at the summit while he stopped to take pictures. Apparently the sight of the family gives him confidence to make it down himself as he quickly speeds past us on the slippery trail and disappears, though his music continues to hound us for another mile.
Toward the end of the trail, we transition from mountain terrain to the creek which features several waterfalls and runoffs. I am reminded of the beauty and clarity of the mountain water which seems prevalent in all of the parks in the Poconos. The creek isn’t as mighty or majestic as others in the area, but the multiple falls as it winds down the mountain toward the river are quite picturesque, especially with the ice forming down the rapids. Unfortunately I barely get any pictures as my phone has finally gotten cold enough to start shutting off.
We pass the turnoff for the Appalachian Trail which continues up into the mountains to the North, eventually reaching the border with New York state where we had hiked nearly a year ago exactly. From there it continues up all the way to Maine which one day I will reach. For now, we follow the AT for a few hundred feet back to the parking lot we were more than ready to get into a car and get warmed up. We didn’t get a chance to see the nearby Sunfish Pond, hike much of the AT, or see the Pennsylvania side, but that just means there are plenty of reasons to head back soon for more hikes. Plus, we need to get over the border to the awesome Barley Creek Gastropub where I can finally warm up with some craft beer and spicy food.