One of New Jersey’s most popular hiking destinations is Buttermilk Falls in the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area. There’s a reason for that-this is one of the prettiest places in the state. The falls themselves (which are listed as the “highest” in New Jersey at about 85 feet) range from just plain gorgeous to spectacular, depending upon the flow. This is the main attraction. Most visitors will just be walking around the immediate vicinity of the falls. You, on the other hand, are going to be taking in the falls, climbing the side of the Kittatinny Ridge, walking a stretch of the Appalachian Trail and visiting two beautiful glacial ponds up on the ridge top before heading back to your car. (You came here to hike, right, not just to gawk at some waterfall) Once you leave the immediate area of the falls you will not see nearly as many people.
This is a pretty ambitious hike, but don’t be daunted by either the distance (10 miles) or the climb (1,300 feet). Pace yourself on the way up if you need to and from there it’s a walk in the park. You’ll get a couple of good west-facing views in, but not quite as good as some other nearby vistas on the Appalachian Trail. That’s the only drawback. If you’re going to climb that far, you should get a couple of spectacular views for the effort. However, I’d say the partial views and the two ponds are well worth making this hike.
There is a stairway alongside the falls with several viewing platforms. The climbing is all front-loaded in the first mile of the hike. The area around the falls can be very crowded and your attempts to get photographs of this very pretty place may include pictures of some strangers doing the same thing you are. Note that there are several descriptions of this hike on other sites and in publications. They all begin at the falls. The closure of Mountain Road near the Walpack Cemetery necessitates about a 2 mile road walk from your car to the falls (and back again). Be prepared for this added distance. Overall, this is a “bucket list” hike for New Jersey hikers. You’ve got to do this at least once. My guess is that after the first visit, you will return here.
Getting to this hike is part of the adventure. The hike starts on Mountain Road near the Walpack Cemetery. This is in a pretty remote area of the DWNRA. You can come in from Route 206 or you can come in from the south along Old Mine Road or Millbrook Road. Either way, you will be driving along the “road less traveled” to get here and the ride itself is worth the trip. The easiest way is to take Route 206 north. Go past Culver Lake and the entrance to Stokes State Forest. Make a left onto Struble Road (it can be easy to miss) . Just follow Struble Road. It will change names along the way (Dimon Rd. & Tillman Rd.) but you’re just basically staying on the same road. You will pass the parking area for Tillman Ravine and the road will turn right and head downhill. You will come to an intersection with Mountain Road. The Walpack Cemetery will be in front of you. Make a left onto Mountain Road. In a short distance the road is blocked by an iron gate. Park along the road here. Your hike starts at the gate.
Alternately, you can take NJ Route 94 to Blairstown. Coming from the south make a left (or a right if you’re coming from the north) at the intersection with Bridge Street (there is a traffic light here). Take Bridge Street to the end. Make a right at the stop sign onto Millbrook Road. Take Millbrook Road 7 miles to Historic Millbrook Village. Turn right onto Old Mine Road. Take Old Mine Road to Walpack-Flatbrook Road (NPS 615) where you will make a right. Take Walpack-Flatbrook Road to the village of Walpack, which is just past the Walpack Inn. Make a right onto Main Street. This will take you to the Walpack Cemetery and Mountain Road where you will turn right and park as described above. Or, if you can’t follow directions, you could just put “Walpack Cemetery” into your GPS. Who knows how that will take you.
This hike begins at the gate blocking Mountain Road. Access to the Buttermilk Falls parking area has been cut off by the National Park Service, but there is plenty of room for cars alongside the road at this point. This adds about 4 miles to the trip-just under 2 miles in and 2 miles out-but it is a very pleasant walk. You will be following Mountain Road, the blue-blazed Buttermilk Falls Trail, the white-blazed Appalachian Trail, the orange-blazed Crater Lake Trail, the green/orange-blazed Hemlock Pond Trail and the yellow-blazed “Woods Road“. Note that the Woods Road trail does not appear on the Park Service map. I have drawn it in the map to the left. Overall this is a pretty easy route to navigate. With the added mileage, the hike comes in at right around 10 miles and you will be putting in about 1,300 total feet of vertical climb-1,100 of that coming from the 1.4 miles of the Buttermilk Falls Trail. Allot about 3 1/2 -4 hours for this hike, dependent upon how long you spend at the different points of interest you will encounter.
Find a place to park your car along Mountain Road. Walk around the gate that blocks vehicle access, then proceed south along the road. You will pass the trail coming down from Tillman Ravine on your left just after going past the gate. As you continue along the road, the Kittatinny Ridge rises immediately to your left and a wide expanse of abandoned farm fields will be off to your right. The road is basically level and the walking is easy. Take some time to appreciate the views across the old farms. This is a very peaceful place (unless there is a band playing at the Walpack Inn) and it is far from what most people think about when they consider New Jersey. As you walk this road, try to imagine that you’re under 70 feet of water. This valley would have been inundated by the construction of the Tocks Island Dam if a plan back in the 1960’s had been carried out.
It’s just under two miles along this road to the Buttermilk Falls parking area. You’ll see the falls to your left. There’s an interpretive sign near the base of the falls (which tells you the Buttermilk Falls Trail is 1.4 miles with 1,100 feet of climbing). You will see the blue blazes of the Buttermilk Falls Trail to the left of the falls themselves. You can take in appreciating the falls now, on your return trip or both-it’s up to you. Whatever your preference, begin this hike by climbing the stairs that take you up alongside the falls. Note that this set of stairs and the trail sections in between can be very slippery during the winter months, to the point they may be impassible if there is snow and ice present, so check on conditions before you go.
There’s no way around this, just start going up. Climb the stairs next to the falls, taking in the view as you go-but watch your footing. At the top of the stairs the trail will turn right and cross the brook before continuing to climb-sometimes steeply-up the face of the ridge. The trail can be very rocky along this stretch. You will get a couple of spots where the trail levels a bit, but this is a continuous climb for about a mile. The good news is that the climbing on this hike is all at the beginning. It gets easier from here. You will reach an intersection with an old woods road which, interestingly enough, is marked “Woods Road”. Note this spot, you will be coming here on the return trip. To your right this road is blazed with yellow markings. You go straight ahead on the blue trail.
The blue trail continues to climb. You will need to scramble up a section that goes over a rock outcropping. At the top of this scramble, you can look back and get a partial view out over the Delaware River Valley and Pennsylvania beyond. This is one of the few viewpoints on this hike. There are certainly better views along this ridge line in this area, but it’s not bad. In reality, there’s no such thing as a bad view from the Kittatinny Ridge. You will pass an opening in the forest where someone has left a garden gnome (you’ll know it when you see it) who seems to be meditating. Continue on and the blue trail will come to an end at an intersection with the white-blazed Appalachian Trail. Turn right here.
This is a relatively unremarkable section of the AT. The pathway is wide and mostly level here with a few ups and downs. It’s not nearly as rocky as the Buttermilk Falls Trail, so it’s a bit of a relief for your feet. In just under a mile you will come to an intersection with the trail to Hemlock Pond which is marked green and orange and heads to your right. The AT turns left here. Continue on the AT-you’ll be back here soon. The AT quickly comes to an intersection with the orange-blazed Crater Lake Trail and turns right co-aligned with the orange.
The map doesn’t do a good job of depicting this next section of the hike. It’s not that hard to follow. The orange Crater Lake Trail follows an old woods road on a more leisurely route while the AT leaves the road at several points. Continue on the AT/orange trail. The trails will briefly split-the AT bearing right. Take the AT to another west-looking viewpoint. The AT will come back to a crossing of the orange trail right after the view. Stay straight ahead on the AT. The trail will descend steeply down a rock outcropping. At the bottom of the descent you will again come to another intersection with the orange Crater Lake Trail. This time you will turn left to leave the AT and follow the Crater Lake Trail. The trail follows an old woods road. You will come first to a swampy lake on your right and then to Crater Lake on your left. This is a good place to take a break. You’re about at the halfway point and the view is very nice.
When you have had your fill of this place, continue to the Crater Lake parking area where there is an information kiosk with an area map, picnic benches and some rest room facilities. The orange trail skirts the parking lot and turns left to follow a utility right-of-way along the north shore of the lake. The trail begins to descend along the right-of-way. At the bottom the trail turns sharply left, leaves the utility line and begins to climb with the lake to your left. At the top of this rise the trail comes back to the Appalachian Trail.
Turn right on the AT and retrace a short stretch of the trail you followed on the way up to the intersection with the Hemlock Pond Trail. This is marked by the sign with the orange and green blazes you passed before. Go straight onto the Hemlock Pond Trail. The trail begins to descend, sometimes steeply, and you will enter a section of forest where, oddly enough, Hemlock Trees become common (go figure!). At the bottom of the descent you will come to an intersection with an old woods road. The road is marked with green blazes. An unmarked trail goes straight ahead to the shore of Hemlock Pond-don’t take that. You can turn either way here. The green trail circles the pond and you will get to the same spot no matter your choice. Turning right will cut about 3/4 of a mile from this hike. Either way, its a level and pretty section of walking. If you go left, just make sure you stick to the green trail as it circles the pond and don’t take any of the trails leaving to the left-they head off to Blue Mountain Lake and unless you were planning on a 15 mile hike you don’t want to go there.
The Hemlock Pond Trail will come to an intersection with the yellow-blazed Woods Road. If you went right on the green trail, you will make a right onto Woods Road. If you went left on the green trail, you will go straight ahead onto Woods Road. Head north on Woods Road. You will make a couple of jogs around a swampy area, but you will just follow this trail/road for about a mile. There are some ups and downs along this section, but it is basically level. At just about the 1 mile mark you will come back to the intersection with the blue Buttermilk Falls Trail you passed through earlier. Turn left on the blue trail and retrace your steps down the mountain back to the falls and Mountain Road. Turn right on Mountain Road and head back to your car.
This is a great hike. For as long the route is and as steep as the climb is it is still a pretty accessible walk for most people. That will be evident from the number of other hikers you will encounter. The falls themselves are a big attraction and can be “crowded”, at least comparatively for where you are at. The road walk at the beginning (and end) is not really a drawback because the scenery is pretty and the surroundings are peaceful. If you hike New Jersey, you’ve got to make this trip at least once. You will be happy you did.