St. James walks across the state!

article on by Kimberly Redmond

Fifteen hikers are hoping to make history by becoming the first organized group to walk the entirety of the Liberty Gap Water Trail — a 130-mile trail that runs across New Jersey from the Statue of Liberty to the Delaware Water Gap.

The hikers, led by Montclair residents Craig Weeks and Jim Stoeffel, broke the trip up into 13 hikes, starting out in February 2013 on the Hudson River Waterfront Walkway in Liberty State Park.

Now, the hikers have one segment left, a 15-mile stretch that ends at the Delaware River, which they plan to complete on Oct. 4.

Steve Marano, who is involved with the Liberty Water Gap Trail Committee and the New York/New Jersey Trail Conference, said solo hikers have done the whole trail before, but there's never before been a group making a concentrated effort.

First proposed by Al Kent, a now retired Morris County Parks Department employee,the Liberty Gap Water Trail was completed about 14 years ago and consists of eight interlinked sections that treat walkers to a combination of forest, rural, suburban and urban settings across New Jersey.

It connects to 46 parks, crosses 36 waterways and hits 15 sites on the National Register of Historic Places in Hudson, Essex, Morris, Sussex and Warren counties. A few of the notable locations along the trail include Liberty State Park, Newark's Ironbound district, the Ford Mansion, Waterloo Village and the Walter Kidde Dinosaur Park Fossil Site.

"It's pretty exciting to be the first," said Stoeffel, who has been documenting the experience on his blog.

Stoeffel said the hikers inadvertently learned of the trail when they noticed yellow markers on trees near Weeks' home in Essex County.

After further research, they learned the signage was for the Lenape Trail, a segment of the greater Liberty Gap Water Trail, he said. The information they found piqued their curiosity enough to check out the trail, along with friends they knew through their church, St. James in Upper Montclair.

They aimed for once a month, though this past winter's cold and messy weather threw the schedule off a bit. Once the snow melted, they were back on track, Weeks and Stoeffel said.

"Some of us had hiked before, but nothing as fixed as this," Weeks said. "It's given us a good sense of accomplishment. After we did the first few legs, we realized it was pretty good and wanted to keep it going. It's been fun that way, it's taken on sort of a mission aspect to really finish it."

While many states have statewide trails, it's rare for a path to connect rural and urban areas, which, both men said, made the experience that much more interesting.

"It was a bit of a history lesson, too. With each of the segments, we tried to do some research ahead of time to learn about what we'd be seeing," Stoeffel said.

"It was a really dramatic cross section of the state and it's very much the history of New Jersey," Weeks said. "It started out as an agrarian society and then turned industrial. If I was a history professor at a college, I'd do this hike with students as a way to teach them about New Jersey development.

Weeks also said seeing the "incredible industrialization of New Jersey in Jersey City and Newark and juxtaposing that with Sussex County has been one of my favorite parts of the hike." But he admitted some of the stretches "were pretty boring," particularly the suburban parts of Essex County.

With the exception of Schooley's Mountain in Morris County, the hikes are not physically challenging to the group, which is comprised of men and women ranging from their late 40s to early 60s, Stoeffel said.

At the end of each hike, the group finds a local restaurant where members relax and enjoy a meal, Stoeffel said."It's nice to have that social aspect of it, to ease the pain of walking," he laughed.

Marano described the trail as "very obscure" and one "people are usually pleasantly surprised" to learn of.

"Curiosity struck me because I had no idea. I went online and learned the Lenape Trail was created about 34 years ago by Al Kent, when he worked for the Morris County Parks Commission. In 2000, he turned to creating a trail that crossed the entire state of New Jersey, The idea was to link together component trails with a route that went from Liberty State Park to the Delaware Water Gap," Marano said.

Marano said high-visibility signage specifically for the Liberty Gap Water Trail still needs to be put up across the state. He also advocates for a permanent maintenance plan by local, county and state government. The NY/NJ Trail Conference is also involved with those efforts, he said.

"Various agencies are coordinating from a signage standpoint. There are signs out there in designated areas, but not everywhere Marano said.