The fairy colony I wasn’t expecting
I was just looking for a short after-work walk in the woods in a heat advisory. I trawled about on my AllTrails app for awhile, and couldn’t find a flat hike of a length I felt like we could do on a day when I was feeling lazy and the heat was intense. I studied the dense network of trails at the Millburn end of South Mountain Reservation (again, actually a forest preserve — “The presence of the early Lenape Indians lingers [merely] in the name given to the Watchung—the “high hills.”), and decided to take the Sunset, Rahway and Pingry Trails Loop and modify it to be short and sweet, down along the river on the white-blazed Rahway Trail, returning on the Sunset Trail so that we would ascend the gentler slope and descend the steep bit by the parking lot.
We parked in an immaculate lot full of very pricey cars, not exactly our usual set. It’s astonishing how quickly New Jersey goes from poverty in Newark
(“Aren’t you afraid to let your daughter live there?” people ask my mother. “You mean my daughter who lived a block away from the Egyptian Revolution? Nah.”)
to exclusive super rich suburbs of Teslas and Maseratis….
When we found the trailhead we were looking for, I was relieved to see big signs requiring masks in all parts of the park. While we wore ours mostly around our necks until people came into view, no one looked at us twice for pulling them up over our noses.
But it was the next sign that was entirely unexpected, announcing the Rahway Fairy Trail!
Now, these were not the “scavenge the forest floor for local materials” kind of fairy houses I’m used to from Maine. From the very head of the trail, New Jersey’s fairy houses showed a degree of human construction that rather unsettled my understanding of fairies.
Screws? Hinges? Paint?
These are not things I associate with fairy houses. And glitter, I know, is toxic to birds and other companions of the fairies. I’m more accustomed to the sort that are carefully balanced from all-natural materials.
I’ll admit, though, that I loved the bentwood chairs set out in front of so many of these miniature homes, and the ones elevated above the forest floor, and the ones that look more like altars to the glory of the fairies compelled me:
As the fairy houses tapered off, the trail descended down towards the west branch of the Rahway River, a rocky stream that we followed up to a small reservoir.
The Rahway Trail moves away from the water then, joining and then branching off from the broad, gravelly River Trail, until it meets up with the Sunset Trail — which, let me be clear, does not offer (at least in the small section we took) any vistas for watching the sunset, which is something I was kind of hoping for.
(Fairy houses went a long way to assuaging my disappointment in sunset views, though!)
We took a sharp right back onto the Sunset Trail. I read after the hike that this park was designed by Frederick Olmstead’s son-in-law, with early input from the Central Park architect himself, and I think perhaps the wide, gravelly paths like the River and Sunset Trails in South Mountain come from that original mid-nineteenth century design.
I had been paying attention to the elevation lines in my app when I planned this walk, hoping to avoid any steep uphill climbs, which was why we were returning on that Sunset Trail, but I guess I underestimated how out-of-shape I am, because I found myself huffing a bit as we ascended. I also hadn’t expected beautiful shallow stone stairs on the steepest bit.
In the last bit of the Sunset Trail, the roses and wineberries came close to the trail, angling gently down to a small gate at the upper end of the parking lot as we returned.