Northwest Corner: State Parks

| 20 Jun 2019 | 10:12

By Mandy Coriston
Greater Newton
Within the 07860 zip code there are two outstanding state parks; Swartswood State Park in Hampton Township and Kittatinny Valley State Park in Andover Township. With a combined 9,116 acres, there are activities for every interest and ability level, and countless reminders of Sussex County's colorful history.
Swartswood: A New Jersey first
Swartswood State Park is New Jersey’s "original state park;" it was given that designation when it was created in 1915 to preserve the beauty of the largest freshwater lakes. The glacial Big Swartswood Lake and its neighbor, Little Swartswood, are named for early settler Anthony Swartwout, who held farmland nearby; Swartswood and his family were casualties of the French and Indian War in 1756.
Visitors were attracted to the lake in the early 19th century, where the summer enclave of New Paterson was established by the shores in the 1820s. Hotels popped up to accommodate tourists and farmer George Emmons built a picnic grove on land he later donated. The foundation of his barn can still be seen near the parking lot.
The Albright family, industrialists from Newark, built an estate on the lake in the late 1880s. Patriarch Andrew Albright charged fishermen a dollar a day to use the lake, claiming that he also owned everything under the surface. In 1914, Albright’s children sold the land to the state, which set it aside for public use.
One of the more interesting features of the park is an aeration system installed in 1993 to prevent weed build-up and improve water quality. The lake, like many others, falls prey to the invasive Eurasian milfoil and water chestnut, and the aerator keeps the fast-growing species at bay. The system was upgraded in 2003; signs inform visitors about its function.
The main entrance of Swartswood Park is on CR 619, five miles from Newton. Many associate Swartswood today with its family-friendly swimming, picnic and play areas, and the park has a wide range of hiking trails, in addition to boating, fishing, and camping. While this entrance is the hub of the park, there are a multitude of areas to explore.
On CR 521, at the southern end of Big Swartswood Lake, visitors will find Keen’s Grist Mill. The 1838 stone building is the last of several at the site and was used to mill locally-harvested grain. After the 1902 Swartswood dam breach, it was retrofitted to be a controlled mill race for electricity for Blair Academy. The site is also the head of the Grist Mill Trail, a mile-and-a-half loop of rugged terrain with stunning views looking north across the lake. There’s access for fishing and boating near the mill.
Hikers can travel from the main portion of the park through the hamlet of Swartswood and a narrow slice of Stillwater to the Willow Crest Loop, a three-mile hike which is rated easy-to-moderate. There’s a trailhead with a parking lot between 921 and 931 Hampton Road, 07860. The blue-blazed trail winds through mature woodlands surrounding Willow Crest Lake, offering views of the water. It’s a premier birdwatching venue.
Swartswood State Park is open sunrise to sunset year-round, and there is a small fee for the main parking lot between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Campsites and large group picnic areas must be reserved, and boat rentals and concessions are available in summer. To make reservations, the park office is open daily from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and can be reached at 973-383-5230 during business hours. Fee schedules can be found at
Kittatinny Valley: Planes and trains and trails, oh my!
Eleven miles from Swartswood sits another, much ‘younger’ state park. Kittatinny Valley State Park in Andover Township was not established until 1994, when New Jersey used Green Acres funds to purchase much of the acreage. Despite being one of the state’s newer parks, KVSP is rooted in some of Sussex County’s oldest families and the industrial boom of railroads and the second World War.
Today, the Interpretive Center and park office of KVSP are housed off Goodale Road in the 1825 homestead built by Sarah Hill, who purchased the property from John Stickle in 1817. The farm passed first to William Drake, then to the Puder family, who operated creameries; many of the outbuildings still stand today. Over the years, parts of the property were used for farming, forestry, and a Y.M.C.A. boys’ camp, until it came into possession of Fred Hussey, owner of the Aeroflex Corporation, maker of aircraft gyroscopes and navigational equipment during and beyond WWII.
Hussey expanded the original Hill farmhouse and built an airport on the western shore of what’s now known as Lake Aeroflex, the state's deepest glacial lake at 110 feet. It’s rumored that a derailed locomotive sits on the lake bed, too far to be retrieved. Access to Lake Aeroflex for picnicking, boating and fishing is available from the Limecrest Road entrance. The airport is still operational, but is closed to pedestrians; plane-watching can be done from either side of the fenced runway.
There are 15 miles of trails within the confines of KVSP, and the Sussex Branch Trail and Paulinskill Valley Rail Trail both transect the park. Artifacts from the heyday of rail transport in Sussex County can be seen along these routes, including signal boxes, concrete obelisk mile markers, and telegraph poles. Both rail trails offer flat cinder railbeds suitable for hikers and bikers of all ages and abilities, and many of KVSP’s internal trails are gravel or paved for open access.
For the adventurous, the Mt. Nebo Trail and the Twin Lakes Trail, both accessible from the Sussex Branch, provide more moderate hiking. Mt. Nebo crests to the highest point in the park and looks down onto the Twin Lakes. The Twin Lakes Trail takes visitors on a loop near the smallest of the park’s four lakes. Maps and descriptions of all of KVSP’s trails are on the park’s website.
KVSP offers; camping, fishing, boating, hiking, biking- but what sets it apart is its Interpretive Center. Behind Hill’s stone farmhouse is an award-winning butterfly garden, planned and built by the park’s Interpretive Specialist Lynn Groves and maintained by volunteers. The garden contains a wide variety of native plants and serves as an outdoor classroom and event venue. The Interpretive Center also offers more than 100 educational programs a year, including youth activities.
Kittatinny Valley State Park is open year-round from sunrise to sunset, and the office and Interpretive Center are open daily from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. There are no fees to park, but group camping must be reserved in advance and some programs have a nominal cost. To learn more, call the office at 973-786-6445 or find KVSP’s calendar of events at
Know Before You Go:
- Both Swartswood and KVSP have extensive acreage with limited amenities. Use restrooms where available and wear appropriate clothing and gear. Carry water, a trail map, and a charged cell phone.
- Be mindful of wildlife and do not remove plants while exploring. The parks protect fragile ecosystems.
- State parks are “carry in, carry out” facilities, subject to littering fines. Alcohol is strictly prohibited.
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