The West Essex Trail is a linear county park that follows an old Erie-Lackawanna Railroad right-of-way from just below the ridge of First Watchung Mountain in Little Falls diagonally through Cedar Grove, ending near Verona High School. Gentle readers familiar with the area know that that route by car would mean a lot of traffic and topography. By contrast, rail trails in general are car-free (note: except when they cross auto roads) and have minimal climbing and descending. This one is also shaded by trees (mostly new growth maples, but some fine old tuliptrees and black walnuts) for almost its entire length. It's a pleasant ride, even in scorching hot weather.
For a county park, the access points can be a bit obscure. Some of my bike buddies favor following the high tension power lines from where they cross Ridge Road (just north of the Cedar Grove Reservoir) down to the trail, which if lacking in charm has the advantage of being impossible to miss. The north end of the trail, on Francisco Avenue in Little Falls, has no sign and when the weeds are overgrown, the only way to spot it is by the curb cut.
The trail is popular with walkers, runners, and cyclists, and sufficient in width to accommodate all three. Yellow blazes denoting the Lenape Trail, which coincides with the rail trail, can be seen. The trail surface varies from gravel to crushed stone to packed earth – sensible shoes for walkers and wider tires for bikes are helpful, but boots or knobbies aren't necessary. When the rails-to-trail conversion was done, the valuable, recyclable metal rails were removed, but the wood railroad ties were left behind. Treated wood takes a while to compost.
Residences, businesses, and state institutions are built immediately adjacent to the trail. The land rises and falls around the trail, so sometimes one is in a trough, sometimes one can peer down into well-kept backyards. Some homeowners have made private entrances to the trail.
At Bowden Road in Cedar Grove, there's a nicely marked pedestrian path to the Cedar Grove Community Center immediately north of the unmarked West Essex Trail. The community center is a convenient place to park if one drives to the trail.
As the trail approaches Pompton Avenue in Cedar Grove, the land drops away dramatically, culminating in the rapids of the Peckman River, a north-flowing tributary of the Passaic River. There used to be a decaying wooden trestle bridge over the river, a vividly memorable crossing for those undeterred by the wobble and an impassable barrier for others. It's been replaced with a sturdy new bridge.
The rapids form a popular local swimming hole. I'm not sure I'd swim there (the river is clean enough to be stocked with trout, even so, ew), but there was a crowd of tweens swimming and trying to jump from a rope swing into one of the pools (it's harder than it looks on TV), plus several adults sitting on water-smoothed boulders reading with their feet in the water. Alas, the fencing on the bridge flummoxed my poor digicam – you get the idea.
Placid as it seems on a nice summer day, the Peckman River recently has begun to behave badly. It's a sadly familiar pattern: reckless overdevelopment, an increase in impermeable surfaces, rapid runoff, a sudden increase in the frequency, severity, and area of floods, and finally a human-caused expansion of the flood plain. The once-calm river now causes Verona Lake to overflow after rainstorms and inundates Little Falls each spring; it repeatedly damages its bridge on Route 46 (near Best Buy). Dredging and canalizing the river are only partial fixes – preventing rapid runoff by preserving forest and open lands is equally or indeed even more needed.
Moving along, the original iron trestle bridge over Pompton Avenue in Cedar Grove is still in place, like a tiny piece of the High Line before it became so chic. The shopping mall on the east side of Pompton Avenue is another convenient place to park – there's a middling fair deli there. On the west side is a stairway to the trail; no surprise, many people use a badly eroded footpath on the east side.
The southern end of the rail trail is dominated by the Essex County Hospital Center, including the abandoned Overbrook
Had I continued, the West Essex Trail would have taken me to its end on Fairview Avenue in Verona near Verona High School. (The Lenape Trail continues on to Verona Lake and into the Eagle Rock Reservation.) The old rail line proceeded via a tunnel under Bloomfield Avenue into Caldwell, but the tunnel was filled in and the land is not part of the rail trail.
For those not averse to wild food, a trip along the West Essex Trail at this time of year offers a seasonal delicacy: ripe wineberries. The plant is an invasive exotic and the berries are almost as good as cultivated raspberries, so I feel positively virtuous about picking freely. (Despite the name, the fruit is not alcoholic, at least not fresh off the plant.) The entire plant except the fruit has wicked thorns, so would-be pickers beware.
As sweet a treat as wineberries may be, it's been a delight to participate in the LGRAB Summer Games. Thank you, Dottie and Trish, I've had a blast riding and blogging and following the adventures of other participants!