The Columbia Rail Trail follows the railbed of the High Bridge Branch of the Central Railroad of New Jersey. It forms part of the 150 mile Highlands Trail which will eventually link Hunterdon and Passaic Counties. Only 55 miles from New York City, this quiet, well-maintained, wide, natural surface rail trail is perfect for a family or romantic mountain bike ride (no motorized vehicles). It is relatively flat and provides some of the best scenery of any rail trail in the state.
The Columbia Trail curves along the mountainside above the South Branch of the Raritan River for 7 miles between High Bridge and the county line with Morris County. At one point, you cross the river over a 260 ft. long trestle bridge, 80 feet above the Ken Lockwood Gorge Fish & Wildlife Management Area. The views of the gorge from the bridge are just spectacular at any time of the year. Watch as the river tumbles over the glacially strewn boulders far below. Beyond the Morris County Line, the trail is undeveloped and continues for several more miles through a mixture of farmland and forest to Long Valley and beyond to a point where where it ends at Bartley. The Columbia Trail forms part of the Highlands Trail which will eventually span between Hunterdon and Passaic Counties.
There is easy access from roads along the trail and benches to rest on and enjoy the scenery. The trail travels through deliciously shaded deciduous and evergreen forest habitats, making it the ideal choice for a bike ride on a hot summer morning or afternoon. It provides a natural corridor for wildlife to move through, including deer, raccoon, coyote, fox, reptiles and amphibians. When we biked here in August, there were also lots of butterflies! All kinds. There are excellent views of Lake Solitude at the northern edge of High Bridge, a sanctuary for waterfowl. You may spot a Pileated Woodpecker, if lucky.
Food and beverages and other services can be found close to the trail in High Bridge, Califon and Long Valley. Also, several portable toilets are stationed at the trailhead in High Bridge. Most people start at the trailhead in Highbridge and end at the restored train station (circa 1875) at Califon.
Trail Description: Columbia Rail Trail
Trail Highlights: Ken Lockwood Gorge, 80-ft high trestle bridge, restored railroad station
We biked this trail one Saturday in the summer of August 2006 from High Bridge to about a mile past the Morris County line. High Bridge, a small town tucked into the hills of Hunterdon County, NJ was home to The Union Forge Iron Works, the longest running, privately held ironworks in the United States.
Before we began our bike ride, we took the time for a cup of coffee and freshly baked blueberry muffins at a charming cafe located on High Bridge's quaint Main Street lined with renovated old buildings and Victorian-style street lamps.
Start - The trailhead begins directly across the street from the municipal parking lot, and for the first 1 3/4 miles travels on a very slight (hardly noticeable) uphill grade though a narrow, shaded wooded corridor with private houses visible through the trees on both sides of the rail trail.
1 3/4 miles : At this point, all signs of civilization completely melts away. The trail widens and the mountainside slopes away more sharply on the right, the river now much further below us. For the next 3/4 of a mile the trail curves along the mountainside through cool, shaded forest. Despite this being a cloudless day on a busy Saturday in August, the trail was delightfully cool and uncrowded. You can hear the stream rushing below.
2 1/2 miles : Arrive at a 290 foot long, wooden trestle bridge which crosses the South Branch of the Raritan River 80 feet above Ken Lockwood Gorge. From the center of the bridge, the views of the gorge and the river tumbling over the boulders and ledges below are outstanding. For fly fishermen, this 1.2 mile stretch of the river is paradise and the State's premier fly fishing stream.
3.5 miles : Breaking out of the deep gorge, the trail corridor narrows again and travels through quaint, wooded rural countryside with private houses on both sides of the trail.
5 miles : Come to a restored railroad station at Califon. Built in 1875 of locally quarried stone by town volunteers, it is now the headquarters and museum of the Califon Historical Society. There is a bench outside where you can rest and take in this picturesque rural setting.
Hours: first and third Sundays of each month, 1-3 p.m., May through December. Admission: free.
Past the Station, at the junction of the Colombia Trail with Califon's Main Street - take a short detour and turn left. Califon, straddling the South Branch of the Raritan River, is where farmers from all around once came to shop and for a "Saturday Night Out On The Town". As we biked down Califon's Main Street, nothing seemed to have changed. Instead of "Saturday Night" it was "Saturday Afternoon Out On The Town". A group of "Old Timers" were hanging out, shootin' the breeze on the porch of a local cafe. At the foot of Main Street, a bridge crosses the river (nice views from the bridge). Turn around here and head back to the trail to continue.
5 1/4 miles : The trail narrows here and becomes more of a double track with tufts of grass in the median. Following the river, the trail continues for another 1 3/4 miles to the Morris County line.
7 miles : Morris County Line. Cross Vernoy Road and pick up the Columbia Trail on the other side of the road after crossing a small wooden footbridge.
After mountain biking the Columbia Trail out to Califon you have several ride options.
Columbia Rail Trail Connections
Califon To Long Valley
The trail continues on for another several miles through a mxture of forest and farmland to Schooleys Mountain Road in Long Valley and beyond.
The path is a continually developing network of hiking, biking and equestrian trails and green open spaces. It connects the village of Highbridge to Allamuchy State Park mountain bike trails in Sussex County via the Lenape Trail. Just north of Long Valley, Patriots' Path provides links east towards County Route 513 and west towards Schooley's Mountain Park. Also in Long Valley the trail runs adjacent to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection South Branch Wildlife Management Area which has some unmarked trails to the north.
Vorhees State Park Mountain Bike Trails
While this is not a direct dirt trail connection from the Columbia Rail Trail, it is worth mentioning here. There is also the lightly travelled paved Highbridge - Califon Road. On one of our trips on the Columbia Rail Trail, we returned to the village of Highbridge from Califon via the Highgridge - Califon Road which also connects to Vorhees State Park.
The park is also just a ten minute drive from the village of Highbridge. Enjoy a picnic lunch at the family friendly Hoppock Grove picnic area. Rest a bit, then try a combination of the singletrack trails at Voorhees State Park for a full, fun day of cycling.
High Bridge Branch of the Central Railroad of New Jersey
The High Bridge Branch was completed in 1876 and accommodated both passengers and the shipment of iron ore from the mines in Morris County. The last passenger run was in 1935 and the last freight run on April 1, 1976. The railroad suffered a spectacular wreck on April 18, 1885. Engine #112, also known as the Columbia, pulling 45 cars plummeted off the 60 ft. wooden trestle into the South Branch of the Raritan River. The trestle was replaced by steel piers in 1930, now known as the Ken Lockwood Gorge Bridge.
Ken Lockwood Fish & Wildlife Management Area
Ken Lockwood was a noted journalist, expert fly fisherman and dedicated conservationist. He wrote "Out In The Open", one of the earliest known outdoor columns, for the once prestigious but now defunct Newark Evening News. Through his column, he introduced the idea of stocking adult fish in trout streams. The adoption of this policy by the New Jersey Division of Fish, Game and Wildlife has created many new trout waters in brooks, streams, and lakes that previously had supported few, if any, native trout.
It is befitting that one of the most beautiful wildlife management areas in New Jersey bears Ken Lockwoods name. The tract was acquired in 1948 and includes approximately 260 acres of woodlands and a two and one-half mile portion of the South Branch of the Raritan River. The area was purchased through the State Green Acres Program along with funds from hunting and fishing license fees.
The Union Forge Heritage Association/Solitude House Museum
Solitude House, built circa 1725, later became the centerpiece of the iron plantation that became Union Forge Ironworks in 1742. Later called Taylor Iron and Steel Company, it eventually became known as Taylor-Wharton. It was, until its closing in 1972, the longest running, privately held ironworks in the United States. The museum houses the Taylor-Wharton Collection as well as changeable exhibits to depict the life and times of the residents and ironworkers who lived in High Bridge.
Location: 7 River Rd, High Bridge, NJ.
Hunterdon County Department of Parks and Recreation
PO Box 2900, Flemington, NJ 08822-2900
Trail Website: Columbia Trail Maps : On and Off Road Trail Connections