Overview: Hilltop Reservation is a relatively new park in Essex County that can best be described as a work in progress – and one you should visit. The 284-acre nature preserve is an oasis on the Second Watchung Mountain surrounded by a sea of suburban sprawl. Nature, with the help of volunteers, is reclaiming the land. The park is criss-crossed by over 10 miles of trails.
History: Hilltop Reservation is located on lands that have experienced intense human use since the 1600’s, beginning with agriculture and later through institutional uses including the Essex County penitentiary, tuberculosis treatment sanatorium, mental hospital, and leaf composting site. Since its designation as a Conservation Easement in 2001, the volunteer-run Hilltop Conservancy has worked with Essex County and other partners to restore wildlife habitat on former demolition sites. Some parts of the Reservation have now been certified by the National Wildlife Federation as a “Wildlife Habitat,” while other elements of the restoration will take years of hard work to complete.
Lenape Trail: Established in 1982, the 38-mile Lenape Trail is a unique urban/suburban trail connecting 18 parks and 11 municipalities in Essex County. Previously, the Lenape Trail skirted the eastern edge of the Hilltop Reservation, but in 2017 it was rerouted through the park. The trail now leads hikers up to the forested ridgetop of the Second Watchung Mountain, through recently-restored meadows, and alongside historic features like White Rock and Prisoner’s Pond. See the Lenape Trail guide (by NY/NJ Trail Conference).
Hike length: 2 miles or less, depending on how far you want to go (4 miles roundtrip)
Elevation gain: +250 feet
Location: Hilltop Reservation, Cedar Grove, North Caldwell and Verona, Essex County, NJ
Parking: Verona Community Center, 880 Bloomfield Ave, Verona, NJ
- Hilltop Reservation (Hilltop Conservancy map, 2014)
- Lenape Trail – Hilltop Reservation (NY/NJ Trail Conference map, 2019)
Trail description: From the parking lot, walk across the baseball field towards the third base line and look for the wooden post with the “Lenape Trail” information and yellow blazes. You will immediately cross a small wooden footbridge and enter a wooded area.
Continue to follow the yellow blazes. The trail will enter a forest restoration area surrounding Prisoner’s Pond, a half-acre body of water that is the only year-round water source in the park. Volunteers have been removing garbage and debris, clearing out invasive species and planting native trees. This area is very much a work in progress and will take years of dedicated volunteer work to complete (consider joining and volunteering with the Hilltop Conservancy to help).
The trail continues and eventually passes another successful restoration effort, a 3-acre upland restoration area. Rubble and debris was removed and what was previously a asphalt surface has been seeded with native grasses and wildflowers.
You then pass some interpretive signs explaining the history of the park and wildlife.
The trail continues and soon reaches what is arguably the highlight of the park, the pièce de résistance: a 15-acre grassland restoration area at the top of the mountain, the first habitat restoration undertaken by the Hilltop Conservancy. Formerly the site of sanatorium buildings, the area was cleared and seeded with native grasses and wildflowers (and is arguably more picturesque in the spring and summer).
Continue to follow the yellow blazes either until it exits the part or until you decide to turn around. Retrace your steps back to the parking lot, or explore the network of trails throughout the park.