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Amber maple leaves flit around me as I trek northeast on the Appalachian Trail along Kittatinny Ridge. A screech overhead reminds me that this blushing forest signals more than just fall’s arrival—it marks the appearance of thousands of guests. The first third of this 15.1-mile route traces Kittatinny Ridge, which thousands of birds of prey use as a guideline when migrating south. I look up and see a flock of red-tailed hawks floating on thermals. I still have a few miles to make before my lakeside camp, and for a moment, I’m jealous.
Distance: 15.1 miles (loop)
Time: 2 days
From Culvers Gap
(1) Take the Appalachian Trail 5.6 miles northeast along Kittatinny Ridge to a junction. (Cross the 1,653-foot summit of Sunrise Mountain at mile 5.3.)
(2) In order to do the trip as an overnight, from here you need to connect roads (some gravel, some paved) to land at the closest designated campsite, so veer west off the ridge and link the Cartwright, Swenson, and Tinsley Trails 3.4 miles to Skellenger Road at mile 9.2.
(3) Follow the gravel road .6 mile west and north to 8-acre Lake Ocquittunk.
(4) Retrace your steps .4 mile down the road.
(5) Pick up the Blue Mountain Trail and take it 1.9 miles southwest.
(6) Connect Kittle and Coursen Roads 1.1 miles south.
(7) Pick up the Coursen Trail and go 1.4 miles southwest to Sunrise Mountain Road.
(8) Walk .7 mile back to the parking lot on the narrow, gravel road.
Lake Ocquittunk (mile 9.6)
If you’re not thru-hiking, then you’re limited to designated frontcountry campgrounds in Stokes State Forest. Luckily, hardwood-rimmed Lake Ocquittunk can feel pretty backcountry if you grab one of the tent sites on the northeast shore. The lake is stocked with rainbow and brown trout, so cast a line for dinner. Reserve a space online ahead of time ($20 to $25 per night; reserveamerica.com).
In autumn, see thousands of golden eagles, Coopers and sharp-shinned hawks, turkey vultures, and American kestrels stream over the summit of Sunrise Mountain, one of the highest points on 28-mile Kittatinny Ridge. The raptors (and more than 150 species of songbirds) follow the ridgeline south en route to the Bahamas. Hawks typically fly closer to the ridge than the others, so scan for them at dawn when the air currents are lowest. (They fly by throughout the day, but the updrafts carry them higher in the sky as the day progresses.)
Perfectly situated in a transition area between the hickory and oak woods of the central Eastern states and the maple, birch, beech, and hemlock trees of the more northern forests, Stokes State Forest delivers kaleidoscopic color every fall. Get the best of it in mid-October.
Climb to the top of 47-foot-tall Culvers Lookout Fire Tower near mile 1.7. Spot the winding Delaware River to the west and the wooded Kittatinny Valley and rolling Highlands to the east.
DO IT Trailhead 41.180555, -74.787657; 4 miles northwest of Branchville on Sunrise Mountain Rd. Season Year-round; spring and fall for temps in the 60s Permit None Custom mapbit.do/BPmapKittatinnyRidge ($15) Contactbit.do/stokes-sfTrip databackpacker.com/kittatinnyridge
- State: NJ
- City: New York, NY
- Distance: 15.1
- Contact: bit.do/stokes-sf
- Land Type: State Forest