The proposed Western Highlands Scenic Byway is a 13-mile long series of rural south to north roads that hugs the spine of Hamburg Mountain along Route 515 and Route 94 in eastern Sussex County. Flowing through two municipalities, Vernon and Hardyston, the Western Highlands Scenic Byway is mostly a two-lane road reminiscent of country roads that were once common in New Jersey but long gone with the onset of suburban sprawl. To find similar roads through bucolic landscapes and mountain terrain, one would have to drive to upstate New York, New England, and the Maine coast.
Located in eastern Sussex County, the Route 515/94 corridor, if approved as the Western Highlands Scenic Byway, would become the first such designation north of Route 80 located in the protected New Jersey Highlands, the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, and a mere hour away from the New York metropolitan area. The proposed Western Highlands Scenic Byway appears to satisfy all the criterion required by the New Jersey Department of Transportation Scenic Byway Program: outstanding scenic, natural, cultural, historical, or archaeological values.
Vacationers from the New York City metropolitan area have relied upon the Route 515/94 corridor as the gateway and main roadway to and from Vernon Valley and the Vernon Township ski resorts for nearly 50 years. Paralleling the growth of the ski industry, a thriving bedroom community whose population stands today at over 27,000 from a low of 2,200 residents in 1960, according to the US. Census, also uses the Route 515/94 to commute daily from the jobs in urbanized counties farther east. Today, the Route 515/94 corridor is a busy thoroughfare during the peak commuting periods of the morning and evening but can be surprisingly quiet and peaceful during the height of the day.
The proposed Western Highlands Scenic Byway embraces the best of active and passive recreational opportunities for the region if not the State of New Jersey. Golfing and skiing are probably the two most lucrative active sports that the local economy depends upon for revenue. The Crystal Springs Resort, based in Vernon and Hardyston Townships, provides a destination for active outdoor activities. Having acquired Mountain Creek Resort from Intrawest, the “mega” resort now boasts seven golf courses and two major networks of ski runs on Hamburg Mountain, less than a mile from the proposed byway. In fact, the Route 515/94 is the major artery to and from the Crystal Springs Resort where the bulk of tourists rely upon to get to their destination. Skiing, golfing, snowboarding, hiking and spa-related fitness are offered by the Crystal Springs Resort. A smaller ski resort located at Hidden Valley on Breakneck Mountain is merely minutes from the Rt. 515 junction with Breakneck Road.
Hunting, fishing, and trapping remain viable outdoor pursuits in the region. The Byway passes through thousands of acres of protected open space where wilderness conditions prevail. Varied wildlife habitats from pastoral fields to freshwater marsh to large tracts of mature woodlands provide havens for a great diversity of wildlife. Along the western portion of the Rt.515 corridor, the 2,857 acres of the Hamburg Mountain Wildlife Management Area share a border with nearly another 3,000 acres of the Newark Watershed, part of a 35,000-acre holding the City of Newark relies upon as its potable water source. Together, these lands are ideal hunting grounds for ducks, White tailed Deer, Turkey, small game, and even Ruffed Grouse.
Fishing is perhaps less of an avocation, yet there are plenty of pristine streams, lakes, and ponds that provide perfect settings for anglers. Green Swamp, Great Gorge Lake, Danny’s Pond, and Indian Pond are all accessible in the Hamburg Mountain Wildlife Management Area. The State of New Jersey stocks some of the lakes, while local resorts stock others. Pascack Creek, a headwater stream of the Pequannock River, is a little known trout stream that parallels the Route 515 corridor from its source to Route 23.
Hiking is another popular recreational pursuit in the region, with the Appalachian Trail bisecting the Route 515/94 byway in the heart of Vernon Valley. This important highlight of the Western Highlands Scenic Byway makes it part of any destination for day trippers since there is parking available, and a wheelchair accessible portion of the Appalachian Trail is found here, too. Hiking the Appalachian Trail in Vernon Valley can take one to Wawayanda State Park, where there is a well-established series of blazed and mapped trails encompassing over 60 miles throughout the 34,350-acre park; one of the secondary paths on Wawayanda Mountain ends at the Pinwheel Vista. Here on a clear day, one can see the obelisk at High Point State Park in the Kittatinnies to the west, the Shawangunks in New York to the northwest, the great massif of Slide, Cornell, and Wittenberg Mountains; the highest summits in the Catskills, and the knolls of Mount Adam and Eve, rising gently from the onion fields of Pine Island in New York. Ranging from easy to strenuous, all the trails within Wawayanda State Park have well travelled paths to follow and accessible parking areas.
Vernon Township is working on developing the Four Seasons Greenway, a north to south trail for hiking and biking. The goal one day is to bike continuously between Warwick, NY, to Hamburg, NJ, while providing for an alternate route for transportation. The trail is intended to be an easy biking for young and old. For the intrepid biker, Mountain Creek Resort runs the high strung Diablo Freeride Park, where bicyclers experience the wilds of Hamburg Mountain. Vernon Township has many miles of streetscapes dedicated for road bikes especially along the Route 515/94 stretch before the New York border.
It is important to also note that within this area of our eighth officially designated New Jersey Department of Transportation Scenic Byway, there is the Ring Quarry, owned by the National Park Service. This Ring Quarry is an amazing site where the lithic material 10,000 years of Native American tools were mined and crafted. National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" show did an entire show on this site. The audio of this show can be found at http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1141987.
This Ring Quarry has been nominated for inclusion on the New Jersey and National Registers of Historic Places. The Ring Quarry, within the corridor of the scenic byway, is a prehistoric mining district. At the Ring Quarry, the native peoples found the raw materials, known as chert or flint, to manufacture spear points and tools. This chert from the Ring Quarry is found in the form of manufactured points and prehistoric tools throughout the township at other Native American sites such as the Black Creek Site. The Ring Quarry is evidence that native people found the raw materials for their tools right here in the township.
Within the corridor of the scenic byway is also the Wallkill River National Wildlife Refuge, part of the National Wildlife Refuge system. Established in 1990 by Public Law 101-593, this refuge straddles 9 miles (14 km) of the Wallkill River at and just south of the New York-New Jersey border. Most of the refuge is in Sussex County, New Jersey, with the remainder in Orange County, New York. 2 miles (3.2 km) of the Appalachian Trail travel through the refuge, and the refuge has four additional walking trails. The refuge has more than 5,100 acres (21 km2) of land and is managed primarily for migratory bird habitat, the endangered bog turtle and wetlands.
The Western Highlands Scenic Byway may well provide the visitor with the best passive outdoor recreational opportunity anywhere in New Jersey. Bird watching, botanizing, searching for butterflies, or any other nature-based study are superior experiences anywhere along the byway. From the thousands of acres of contiguous forest in the mountains to the limestone woods, pastoral fields, and marshes of Vernon Valley, the Western Highlands Scenic Byway takes you to the last best wilderness area within an hour’s drive from New York City.