Saturday, August 11, 2012

How to run Watchung Reservation's Sierra Trail

The park map in PDF format is available here.

Watchung Reservation is a great oasis of almost wilderness in the midst of Union County.  I am lucky enough to live within a 12 minute drive to its westernmost parking lot at Seeley's Pond. I have been running there for a good 20 years.  There was even a time back before they were banned that I rode my pre-suspension mountain bike there over its rocky trails.  I realized today that I have the trail memorized in "sections" that I have made up on my own and that I should publish them with my thoughts about how to run through them.

The Sierra Trail is a 10.5 mile/1700 ft. elevation change trail, blazed with white squares.  It is fairly easy to follow, even through some of the more dense blazed-trail area around Trailside Nature Center.  Parking at Seeleys allows a runner to take a relatively flat, relatively less-rocky section for the first part of the run, going clockwise around this trail.  This allows a good warm up before some of the more technical stuff.

Seeley's Pond Section
From parking at Seeley's Pond lot, run towards the baseball field and find the unblazed trail down through some woods and over a small stream.  Cross Sky Top Drive, keeping the Smokey The Bear fire danger sign on your right.  This is where you pick up the Sierra Trail blazes.

Warm-Up Section
This section is mostly flat with a few short rolling areas, and some improved wooden boardwalks and steps.  It merges with and diverges from a pink blazed trail.

Deserted Village Section
This section is paved at first and brings you through the area known as the Deserted Village of Feltville.  I think the park superintendent lives there, and it has been an area of some refurbishing activity lately.  There are a few park events there each year.

Cemetery Section
After the paved road turns uphill, it turns right and goes onto natural trails.  The trail passes a Revolutionary War era family cemetery.  I usually say high to any spirits that might be hanging about there.  This section allows for some fast running now that you are warmed up and done with the first hill.  Plus it ends with a fairly steep downhill on a woods road.  Don't miss the left off the road and onto the next trail section.

Lake Surprise Section
This section parallels the north shore of Lake Surprise.  It is rooty and there are some short rollers, but you can continue fairly fast running due to its flatness.  This is a popular area for walkers and fishing.

Watchung Stables Section
Cross the road at the East end of Lake Surprise and enter an area mostly comprised of woods roads and a few connecting trails.  You are likely to see people riding horses in this section.  Slow down or walk if you encounter horses so you don't spook them and cause a rider to be thrown or injured.  At one point you will pass an open grazing area of Watchung Stables on your left.  This is another section that allows for faster running due to its openness, though it ends with a longer gradual uphill that leads you to the Summit Lane/Tracy Drive circle.  Follow the circle to the left.  Cars go fast there, so be careful on the circle and then crossing the road to reenter the trail.

Water Tower Section
This is where some technical running starts.  Keep a lookout for blazes here because some of the open rocks obscure the trail.  The hill begins steeply off the road, then becomes a gradual less technical climb to the water tower, which is the highest point in the park, though it lacks any scenic view.  After rounding the tower, run gradually downhill on a woods road and cross Tracy Drive.  The downhill is fast running.

Road Crossing Connector
Short section that crosses Summit Lane.  Don't miss the left turn towards Trailside Nature Center.  If you get to another road, Tracy Drive again, you missed the turn.

Trailside Nature Center Section
This heads through heavily used trails to Trailside Nature Center.  The white blazes merge with a red-blazed trail that diverges again.  You will pop out at the Trailside Nature Center parking lot.  Cross the lot diagonally and when at the far corner, you will be adjacent to a wooden arch that marks the entrance to the maze of blazed trails that criss-cross this area; there are green, yellow, orange, and blue trails.  Stay with white.  Some of the trails cross and some run concurrent with the white blazes.  The running here gets very technical and will probably be the slowest running thus far.  By the way, if you need a bathroom or water stop, head to the back of the old building farthest down the hill before entering the trails.  After going through the arch and reentering the trails, there are wooden "steps" down a ravine, over a bridge, and back up again.  This area can be very icy in the winter.

Rocky Ravine Section
You will run downhill into a rocky ravine.  Then go back uphill out of the ravine.  Lots of roots and rocks in this section.  Rolling.  It goes for a while until it comes out onto a woods road, left turn, that you could take straight out to Sky Top Drive near Seeley's Pond, turning this 10.5 mile run into an 8 miler.

Magic Forest Section
Only about 30 yards on the woods road to a left turn to go uphill through the Magic Forest.  It is a stand of fir trees unlike any of the vegetation in the rest of the reservation.  The trail may be covered with needles in the fall, making it feel softer and magical.  It was also known to be "magical" as a popular area for marijuana smoking back in the 1980's.  The climb leads to the Sky Top Picnic Area where there is a working water fountain and faucet in warmer weather.  The trail crosses Sky Top Drive and enters the woods on a woods road.  The woods road is fairly rocky and leads to the most technical section of the run.

Technical Section
The most difficult running is here; down hill on the south side of Sky Top Drive.  It is rocky and can be slippery, especially in the fall.  Once all the way downhill, running goes parallel with Green Brook on your left and our own escarpment on your right.  This is the most rocky section of the entire trail.  It is also the home of "The Submarine" (a partially burried metal tank thing) and a "lemon squeezer" rock formation.  The trail climbs back up to an overlook that reveals the next ridgeline and I-78.  Then it is mostly rocky downhill back to Sky Top Drive.  A left onto Sky Top brings you back to Seeleys Pond parking lot.  Cut through the woods again across from the Smokey The Bear sign.


No harder question than, "Why do you run?"  Scott Jurek's book Eat And Run nails it for me on page 6:
"As a child I ran in the woods and around my house for fun.  As a teen, I ran to get my body in better shape.  Later, I ran to find peace.  I ran, and kept running, because I had learned that once you started something you didn't quit, because in life, much like in an ultramarathon, you have to keep pressing forward.  Eventually I ran because I turned into a runner, and my sport brought me physical pleasure and spirited me away from debt and disease, from the niggling worries of everyday existence.  I ran because I grew to love other runners.  I ran because I loved challenges and because there is no better feeling than arriving at the finish line or completing a difficult training run.  And because, as an accomplished runner, I could tell others how rewarding it was to live healthily, to move my body every day, to get through difficulties, to eat with consciousness, that what mattered wasn't how much money you made or where you lived, it was how you lived.  I ran because overcoming the difficulties of an ultramarathon reminded me that I cold overcome the difficulties of life, that overcoming difficulties was life."

Yay New Jersey

"Besides the blisters, only the drivers in New Jersey and Iowa have been a pain, many not giving her room to run on the side of the highway."
See the article: