Through most of the summer, I’ve avoided long runs due to my annual round of physical therapy to deal with my chronically painful right hamstring. But I’ve gotten tired of three-hour rollerski sessions, so I’ve gone on a bit of a running rebellion.Last week, I spent an afternoon in Rockaway’s Wildcat Ridge Wildlife Management Area (WMA). Covering over 3700 acres, this area was an iron mining center for 200 years. As often as I’ve run here, there’s plenty of undiscovered territory to explore. The few marked trails intersect with a latticework of old roads, making for plenty of opportunities to explore, and to get lost.
Rockaway was the site of one of America’s earliest iron mines, with extraction beginning as early as 1722. In the 1870s, the discovery of iron ore in northern Minnesota spelled the eventual downfall of the mining industry in Rockaway. The second growth forest you see today covers over what used to be a thriving community. The forest is gradually reclaiming an area that people used to live in. You’ll see mine entrances, slag piles and the cemetary for a Catholic church that no longer exists. You’ll see cellar holes denoting the location of old houses and stone walls and foundations; here and there there’s even remnants of dead, 50s-era cars.
Running from Hibernia up to Route 23, the Four Birds trail is the primary marked trail in the area. From the northern end of Splitrock Reservoir to Route 23, the land is owned by the Newark Watershed Conservation and Development Corporation (NWCDC). To run this section legally, you must obtain a permit from them. Write to NWCDC at POB 319, Newfoundland, NJ 07435, or telephone 201-697-2850.
I’ve run here dozens of times in the last 10 years without a trail map and still have much to learn. If you haven’t been here before, I’d recommend bringing a compass and/or a GPS if you have one. If you don’t want to do that, at least be prudent. The New York New Jersey Trail Conference does offer a map of the area. I don’t own it, so I can’t comment: all my running there has been by eyeball.
The hiking trails offer a lot of vertical gain and can be technically challenging, while the roads are easier going. Whether you want to get in a short run or a big overdistance excursion, Wildcat Ridge has you covered. At the edges of the WMA, the roads may take you on to land that’s been posted. All in all, this is a worthwhile place to explore. Remember to wear bright orange in hunting season.