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Hidden Gems of New Jersey’s Park System: Kittatinny Valley State Park

Located in the northwest corner of New Jersey, Kittatinny Valley State Park offers glacial lakes, 75 miles of hiking and mountain biking trails, secluded fishing and hunting spots, and kayaking and canoeing.

Editor's Note: The following is the fourth in a series of news releases from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection about locally popular state parks in New Jersey.  The series will highlight aspects of these parks such as recreational activities, natural history that residents of other parts of the state may not be aware of, as well as volunteers and employees who make these places special.

It takes just a quick turn off busy Route 206, only a few miles from the Sussex County seat in downtown Newton, onto aptly named Goodale Road, to be transported from the rigors of everyday life into a largely unknown oasis of nature and solitude.  

You are quickly immersed in a world of tall grasses, meadows filled with wild flowers, a haven for the likes of wild turkeys, beavers, muskrats, foxes and black bear.

If you listen carefully, you can hear the sounds of silence that are sometimes so hard to find in an increasingly frenetic and wired world. Nature here buffers out most of the noise of highways and civilization, replacing it with whispers of light breeze, natural harmonies of songbirds, croaking of frogs, and the hums and clicks of bugs that call this place home. Butterflies gently roam the gardens and meadows. Egrets stand stoically in shallow waters. Bees buzz matter-of-factly through flowers, oblivious to the intrusion of humans.

Welcome to Kittatinny Valley State Park, a more than 5,000-acre oasis southeast of the Kittatinny mountains in the northwest corner of the state  – a short drive from Route 80. It is a Hidden Gem of the New Jersey State Park system, a bit of paradise that is especially frequented by hikers and nature lovers, mostly from nearby Sussex County towns.

But the park’s glacial lakes, 75 miles of hiking and mountain biking trails, secluded fishing and hunting spots, and kayaking and canoeing possibilities offer a mix of tranquility and fun and adventure that is available to all state residents and out-of-state visitors. It also is the only state park with its own airport. Aeroflex Airport is managed by the New Jersey Forest Fire Service and is available to private flyers.

“Kittatinny Valley is another of the many incredible venues in our state park system, providing affordable and exciting recreation opportunities,’’ said Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Bob Martin. “The Christie Administration is committed to keeping all of New Jersey’s 39 state parks, like Kittatinny Valley, open during tough economic times, to provide excellent, convenient and affordable recreational opportunities for state residents.’’

“It is amazing that a remarkable place like Kittatinny Valley State Park, with so many unique and special offerings, can be virtually unknown. We invite residents from across the state to come up and explore, relax and soak in the park’s subtle natural wonders.’’

Located in central Sussex County, Kittatinny Valley State Park was officially dedicated in 1994, purchased entirely with state Green Acres Program funds. Its name comes from the Lenape Native American word “Kitahtene,’’ which is translated as endless hill or great mountain, and refers to the nearby Kittatinny mountain range, a long ridge of mountains that extends from the Delaware Water Gap northeast to High Point State Park. 

The park’s origin is connected to the development of two rail trails, including the Paulinskill Valley Trail and the Sussex Branch Trail, that were established in the 1980s and early 90s after a successful grassroots campaign by the Paulinskill Valley Trail Committee. They take advantage of abandoned rail lines of the Delaware Lackawanna and Western Railroad and also the New York Susquehanna and Western Railroad. Where trains once thundered, hikers now connect with nature.

Today, you can wander aimlessly through the park and get an eyeful of the vibrant colors offered by a myriad assortment of wildflowers such as Queen Anne’s Lace, wild bergamot, and Black-eyed Susans. You can ride your bike over its trails, stake out a quiet spot to catch a glimpse of a kingfisher or sandpiper, or ride your horse. You also can slide your canoe or kayak into one of its lakes - including the state’s deepest natural lake, Lake Aeroflex, at 110-feet deep - and take in the sights from the water, or cast a line to catch some brown or rainbow trout, or even a land-locked salmon.

Communing with nature is a simple task at Kittatinny Valley. Start with a visit to a specially designed organic butterfly and hummingbird garden, bursting with the vibrant colors of native perennials growing just behind the park’s visitor center.

A creation of park naturalist Lynne Groves Lussier, the garden offers an opportunity for nature study, photography and quiet reflection. You are likely to encounter a host of butterflies flitting through the flowers -- Eastern Tiger Swallowtails, Monarchs, Red Admirals and American Painted Ladies are some regular attractions. If you are lucky, you may even catch a fleeting glimpse of a ruby-throated hummingbird.

Then it’s off to meadows or deep woods, filled with hemlocks, oaks, white ash and maples, via a host of well-marked network of trails. Or, if you prefer a more structured day, sign up for one of Lussier’s many organized programs to get a first-hand, guided tour of some of the park’s wonders. Nature hikes, mountain bike rides, kayak tours and nature talks are regular features.

“It’s wonderful to create great parks like this but what’s the point if people don’t know about them, don’t take advantage of them,’’ said Lussier. “I’m really thrilled when I see our parking lot packed with people of all ages enjoying what we have to offer. Not enough people know the park exists, that we offer more than 100 outdoor events each year. We are here to provide affordable recreation to the people of New Jersey, so we hope everyone gets a chance to come out and visit Kittatinny Valley.’’

Kittatinny Valley State Park offers a variety of interpretive and educational programs on a year-round basis. Some upcoming offerings: “Little Tykes Hike’’ on Sept. 13 and 27, aimed at getting kids and adults out together into nature; “Autumn Equinox Hike,’’ on Sept. 22, that will give an early look at changing fall colors; “Aeroflex Paddle’’ on Sept. 29 that offers scenic exploration of the deepest natural lake in New Jersey; and a Lussier favorite, “Geocaching,’’ on Sept. 29, that mixes technology and nature in a sort of outdoor scavenger hunt.

Governor Christie last year launched a long-term strategy for keeping parks economically sustainable for future generations by improving visitor services, amenities and activities to draw more visitors. At Kittatinny Valley that effort will include the creation of three group campsites that will open later this year. They will add a new dimension to the park, marking the first permanent campsites offered at Kittatinny, and should draw a new group of visitors to the park.

“We have so much to offer here. But I think a lot of people may have overlooked us,’’ said Lussier.” Now we want to change that, and get kids and families out here to our trails and woods, to help them fall in love with the outdoors. There’s nothing better.’’ 

For more information on Kittatinny Valley State Park, including activities, programs, and directions, please visit: www.njparksandforests.org/parks/kittval.html

For information on Groves’ favorite, geocaching, visit: www.geocaching.com

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