NJ Highlands Trail – Hike 3 began at Tunnel Rd. and concluded at Rt. 31. The Highlands Trail runs from the Delaware River to the Hudson River with sections in New Jersey and New York. The trail is almost 170 miles long with over 120 miles in the state of New Jersey. Because camping on the trail is prohibited, day-hiking is required to complete the entire Highlands Trail. Below you will find key facts and details about this section of the Highlands Trail.
Key Facts: NJ Highlands Trail – Hike 3
Mileage and time
14+ miles from where the Highlands Trail meets Tunnel Rd. (west of Rt. 78 overpass) to the Spruce Run parking lot by Rt. 31. This hike lasted 5 hours and 18 minutes, including a few breaks (21:23 pace per mile).
Moderate in some areas with many easier sections. There are a few hills to climb and rocky trail sections in the Jugtown Mountain Preserve and the Union Furance Nature Area.
Notable trail sections
Jugtown Mountain Preserve, Tower Hill Reserve, Spruce Run Recreation Area, and Union Furnace Nature Area.
Yes. There is a fair amount of road walking on this section of the Highlands Trail including parts of Tunnel Rd., Mountainview Rd., Norton Church Rd., Charlestown Rd., and Van Syckel Rd. While road walking is not preferred, at least these are rural, scenic roads with plenty of interesting houses and farms to see. The road sections are manageable with the only real dangerous road crossing being Rt. 173 as cars can come barreling down the mountain.
It pays to remember that long-distance trails like this take years to move completely off-road. It took planners many decades to route the Appalachian Trail off roads in NJ and I suspect that the Highlands Trail will be re-routed over time to do the same. One way to thank the planners and maintainers of the Highlands Trail is to join the NY/NJ Trail Conference by visiting their website.
NJ Highlands Trail – Hike 3 Trail Map
You may want to avoid the road sections if hiking with small children. Options include a circuit hike in the Jugtown Mountain Preserve (Blue Blaze and White Blaze) and some nice out-and-back hikes at Spruce Run and in the Union Furnace Nature Area.
Tunnel Rd. has parking in the grass next to the road. Rt. 173 has no parking, although some mentioned parking at the Spain Inn restaurant and walking to the trailhead. Tower Hill Reserve has a gravel parking area. Charlestown Rd. near Van Syckel Rd. has a gravel parking area a short walk south of the trailhead. There are a variety of parking areas within Spruce Run Recreation Area including one by Rt. 31 at the northernmost part of this section.
- Missing trail sign: The trail turns left on Van Syckel Rd. and then leaves the pavement for a walk uphill on the edge of a field (parallel to Van Syckel Rd.). When you reach the top of the field, the trail turns right. There was no sign noting this right-hand turn. I continued straight before checking my All Trails app and turning around, adding some extra mileage to the hike. UPDATE: I emailed the NY/NJ Trail Conference and they responded quickly. Staff or volunteers went to the trail and added a sign where one was missing.
- Wear comfortable, waterproof hiking shoes. There are a number of creek crossings and low areas that can get muddy, especially in springtime.
- Use any of the parking areas mentioned above to shuttle cars and complete shorter section hikes instead of doing all 14+ miles in one hike. I was sore for several days after completing this entire section in one outing.
- Checking hunting seasons for Spruce Run. There is a hunting dog training area and I have seen hunters in the parking areas at various times of the year. Someone once said, “wear orange or wear antlers.” 🙂
Begin at Tunnel Rd. for NJ Highlands Trail – Hike 3
The Highlands Trail connects to Tunnel Rd. from the Deerpath Sanctuary to the south. At this point, just south of a Rt. 78 overpass, limited parking exists off the side of the road. I was dropped off here and proceeded north on Tunnel Rd. for about a mile. First, make sure to look to your left when you approach the Rt. 78 overpass as this is where Brownie the “wild” goat is occasionally spotted. Brownie has roamed this area for many years and does just fine on its own. If you are lucky enough to see the goat, just take a picture and hike on.
After the Rt. 78 overpass, the road curves left. If you look down you will see train tracks that lead into a railroad tunnel that goes under Jugtown Mountian. Next, you will pass a picturesque, former church on your right before coming to the most dangerous spot on this section of the trail…the Rt. 173 crossing. It really is manageable, but the road is wide and vehicles can really pick up speed coming down the mountain. Look both ways (2 or 3 times), cross Rt. 173, and head towards the Brunswick Pike road sign.
NJ Highlands Trail – Hike 3: Jugtown Mountain Preserve
After crossing Rt. 173, the Highlands Trail enters the Jugtown Mountain Preserve. And just like that, you are in the forest. The Jugtown Mountain Preserve has over 260 acres of preserved space and was the location for mining and moonshine activities in the past. If you look carefully, you can still see remnants of mining activity near the trail. Moonshine is prohibited in the park.
Once entering the preserve, you proceed uphill and wind your way through the woods. After gaining some elevation, you can see the Musconetcong River valley through the trees. If you look carefully, a hiker will be able to see Heritage Park’s (Bethlehem Township) ballfields as well. At the top of this manageable climb, you enter the preserve’s gravel parking lot. Proceed through the parking lot and you will see the trail re-enter the woods to the left of the gravel road.
After a short walk through the woods, you come to Mine Rd. Take a left on the road and then a quick right to re-enter the forest. This section of Jugtown Mountain Preserve is my favorite area as it has several stream crossings, and sections of rocky trail, and feels very remote. I have hiked this section of the preserve many times and hardly ever see another hiker. The trail eventually leaves the woods and enters overgrown fields as you arrive at the Tower Hill Reserve parking area.
Tower Hill Reserve and Road Walking
Using the Tower Hill Reserve parking area is an option if you want to break this section hike into shorter hikes. Tower Hill Reserve is also the part of the Highlands trail that begins a long section of road walks until you reach Spruce Run Recreation Area. After entering the road, you will notice the original 2-story springhouse to the left which makes for a nice picture (see below).
Road walking isn’t my favorite type of hiking but at least these roads are rural and scenic. You will walk past stone houses and barns with nice views. The Highlands Trail follows Mountainview Rd, Norton Church Rd., and Charlestown Rd before making a left on Van Syckel Rd. On the corner of Charlestown Rd. and Van Syckel Rd. is a historic house that has Revolutionary War history associated with it. Shortly after turning left on Van Syckel Rd., the trail moves into a field and up a gradual hill.
Spruce Run Recreation Area
NJ Highlands Trail – Hike 3 runs through a New Jersey state park. Spruce Run Reservoir was one of the first water supply facilities to be constructed and operated by the state of New Jersey (Source: NJ DEP) and the surrounding land was preserved to protect the water supply. This resulted in the Spruce Run Recreation Area where folks can enjoy hiking, walking, boating, fishing, bicycling, and swimming. Be sure to check the water status as harmful algae blooms have closed the area to swimming and have resulted in warnings to avoid contact with the water. Despite the algae blooms, Spruce Run is a good place to enjoy the outdoors.
A northbound hiker will enter Spruce Run from Van Syckel Rd and proceed along the edge of a field. Be sure to look back as you approach the top of the hill for nice views of small mountains in the distance. Another point to take note of is that a trail sign is missing at the top of the hill that directs hikers to turn right. I walked straight for about a half-mile until realizing that I was off the trail. After consulting my AllTrails app, doing a u-turn, and proceeding where I suspected the trail was, I walked about an eighth of a mile until I saw the next trail sign. I sent a note to the NY/NJ Trail Conference about the missing sign. They do a superb job on this long-distance trail and have a great website for information.
Spruce Run Trail Diversity
One of the things I like about Spruce Run is that there are a variety of trail conditions within a few miles. You start by hiking through fields with some nice views to the west. Next, the trail proceeds alongside a picturesque pond before crossing a small creek and heading into the woods. Eventually, hikers will come back to Van Syckel Rd. and enter the main park entrance where you walk on the pavement past the reservoir and the beach area. The last section of Spruce Run starts in a pine forest and ends up next to the reservoir with views of the body of water.
Coming out of the woods, you will turn left on Van Syckel Rd. and then a quick right on Serpentine Rd.
Union Furnace Nature Preserve
Serpentine Rd. is an uphill walk and for me, after hiking from Tunnel Rd., felt like a much bigger hill than it really is. You will follow the road to the top where it ends. The trail enters the woods on the right side of the culdesac and you are now in the Union Furnace Nature Preserve.
The Union Furnace Nature Preserve is kind of hidden and, as a result, doesn’t see a lot of hiker traffic. One of my favorite things about this preserve is the large beech trees found throughout the protected area. The leaves on beech trees turn a soft orange color and many remain on the tree all winter long.
The first section of the Union Furnance Nature Preserve is mostly level and has seasonal views of Spruce Run Reservoir off to the right. Soon you will be headed uphill until you get to the top of this little mountain and then it’s downhill over some rocky sections. You will end up at the bottom of this mountain hiking parallel to Spruce Run Creek which runs into the reservoir. Not long after seeing the creek, the trail comes to Van Syckel Rd. Rt. 31 is to your left and the parking area where we left a car is directly across the street.
Please visit the NY/NJ Trail Conference website for more information about the NJ Highlands Trail – Hike 3.
A video of this hike (NJ Highlands Trail – Hike 3)
This video summarizes the sights and terrain of NJ Highlands Trail – Hike 3 and includes footage of Jugtown Mountain Preserve, Tower Hill Reserve, Spruce Run Recreation Area, and the Union Furnace Nature Preserve.
Click here to see Highlands Trail NJ – Hike 4: the next section hike on the Highlands Trail NJ.
Click here to see Highlands Trail NJ – Hike 2: the previous section hike on the Highlands Trail NJ.
Highlands Trail NJ End-to-End Hikes Progress