Our Fall Foliage Drive through Northern NJ (And Down Memory Lane)

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On Monday the 17th, we concluded our six-week exploration of West Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky, which we’ll be writing about starting next week. We ended our trip back in Harpers Ferry, and the next day, started north towards New Hampshire, where we’ll be parked at Rebecca’s parents house through the New Year. On the way up, we stopped off in my old stomping grounds, New Jersey, to visit friends and enjoy the fabulous weather.

Since fall is our favorite time of year, and the colors were in absolute peak when we arrived, we decided to revive one of my favorite traditions growing up: the annual fall foliage drive around northern New Jersey. I thought this would also be a fun time to show Rebecca around some of my old haunts, including the Delaware Water Gap, where I’d done a lot of hiking with the Boy Scouts; my favorite state park in New Jersey, Stokes State Forest; and my all-time favorite spot, Kittatinny Mountain Scout Reservation, the Boy Scout summer camp I grew up attending.

We planned a loose circle (which kind of turned into a figure 8), and hit the road on a clear and unseasonably warm Wednesday.

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We drove north, and headed through the Water Gap, towards the only park visitor center that had not closed for the season. Honestly, the good views of the gap are almost all facing south from the Pennsylvania side, so I don’t think Rebecca was overly impressed as we drove through. However, the sun was shining and gold and orange leaves were fairly glowing, and I was having a great time cruising down memory lane.

We crossed the river into Pennsylvania and headed towards the visitor center, and ran unexpectedly across Shawnee Mountain, which I thought was much further north. This small ski mountain was the place my brother and dad and I all learned how to ski or snowboard over the several years we were part of our homeschool group’s ski club. I was excited to see it, and see what it looked like when it wasn’t covered in snow. Rebecca also reminded me that she had actually gone up there with my family over Christmas break when we were first dating back in 2005!

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The “visitor center” turned out to just be the administrative offices for the park, with no displays or much worth sticking around for, and so we jumped back in the truck and headed back towards the Water Gap, intent on finding some of the great overlooks and views I knew were there.

We passed through a tiny town on our way towards an overlook and were quickly waylaid by a small market advertising fresh apples and pumpkins, apple cider, and most importantly, fresh-baked apple pies. We grabbed one for dessert that night, along with some tiny pumpkins and gourds to decorate the camper, and continued on.

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We drove down the shore road and visited Resort Point Overlook, Point of Gap Overlook, and Arrow Island Overlook, which all had nice views, but I was convinced there was a killer view somewhere else. Looking at the map, we guestimated where the best view SHOULD be, and were excited to find out that back on the Jersey side, there was a visitor center right where that view should be. We headed over there, and were not disappointed.

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My inner Lord of the Rings nerd was looking for the city of Lorien.

The trees all around the visitor center were absolutely on fire with yellows and golds and oranges, and sure enough, I found the view I was looking for — the absolute best view of Delaware Water Gap.

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We strolled around for a while, enjoying the views and the weather, then mounted back up and headed towards Stokes and KMSR. We took a route I’d never driven before, and to get back across the river, we got to (had to?) take a tiny two-lane bridge with a tiny man who had to be pushing 90 collecting the tolls for both directions. Sadly, we were both too surprised to take a picture.

We came to the camp entrance before we hit the entrance to Stokes (they’re within a mile of each other), so we turned in there and drove in. As we drove in, everything looked exactly like I remembered it, and I was thrilled to see it again … right up to the point when we got to the parking lot. Where the old welcome sign had been, with a rustic wooden map of the camp, there were two wooden posts, roughly cut off near to the ground, and when I looked around, there were signs stapled to trees all around proclaiming the land not as Boy Scout property, but as state park property.

Rebecca grabbed her phone, and found that my beloved camp had closed due to insolvency in 2010, and sold to the state park system. As we walked around, everything looked the same as I remembered it — except most of the buildings were completely gone, including the camp store, the first aid building, and the giant dining hall. Growing up really sucks sometimes.

However, the property was every bit as beautiful as I remembered, and we spent an hour walking around so I could show Rebecca where some of my fondest memories had taken place.

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I showed her where we’d had flag ceremonies every morning and evening, where the inter-troop competition, the vaunted Tin Man Race, had taken place, where I’d learned lifesaving and canoeing and sailing and archery, and where my favorite campsite had been.

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The tents and platforms were all gone, but the campsite was otherwise just how I remembered, and just as beautiful. I was sad that the camp was no longer in operation, but found it comforting to know that, since it was now state park property, I’d likely always be able to come and visit, and hopefully one day show our kids where their dad learned to love the great outdoors.

The sun was starting to set, so we decided to skip Stokes, and head towards another Memory Lane highlight: Spruce Run Recreation Area, the very first place a four-year-old Ryan ever went camping. The last time I was there I was only six years old, but this place, like KMSR, lived up to my memories. Unlike KMSR, it was still open and operating as a campground and park, and I was pleased to find I remembered enough to find our old campsites and hangouts. I didn’t remember everything, though: I had completely forgotten about the BATHROOM FORT.

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This majestic castle overlooks the lake, and has amenities for both men and women — a true revelation. The ladder to the overlook at the top had been removed, but I didn’t let that small setback stop me from clambering up the rough stone walls and checking out the view.

Right across from the bathroom (fortroom? bathfort? outfort?) was this beautiful but boarded up house facing the lake. Rebecca and I immediately began questioning whether perhaps the park needed a year-round full-time caretaker or two who could live there.

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And the view from the porch certainly wasn’t shabby.

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We finished our driving loop through the park, seeing over 2 dozen deer, including this very unafraid little family.

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The sun was setting, and we were all thinking about dinner (and that amazing-smelling pie in the backseat), so we hit the road, happy it was fall, and even more excited to get to New England than we already had been.

Author
I grew up in New Jersey, went to college in Virginia, and married a girl from New Hampshire, so I can drive the East Coast in my sleep. I love exploring, jumping out of airplanes, whitewater rafting, fast cars, comic books, and generally refusing to act my age. More practically, I love budgeting and financial planning, renovating and updating older homes (and now campers), and learning to make our family as self-sustaining as possible.

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