We took a day off from work — the forecast called for 75 degrees and sun. Would this be the final glorious fall day? Hopefully not, but we weren’t going to pass up a perfect blue-sky day. Time for the third leg of the Tour of Pines, one in an unfamiliar part of New Jersey.
This ride started in Wells Mills County Park and was billed as a loop of the Forked River Mountain Area. There’s a lot of hyperbole in that name — these “mountains” go up all of 178 feet above sea level and were created as many as 15 million years ago. Oh, and that’s Fork-ed, as in two syllables.
The loop circumnavigated about 100,000 acres of the Pinelands Natural Reserve, almost 10% of its 1.1 million acres. The downside is that we were on lots of busy roads. NJ 72 has a wide shoulder, so you could ride two abreast if you were OK with vehicles zooming not far from you at 55 mph. County Road 530 had a thin shoulder with only slightly slower traffic, so it was even less fun. And when we got to U.S. 9 — well, there might be a wide shoulder but I was sick of traffic at that point and opted for a couple of miles of the stone-dust (and kind of sandy) Barnegat Branch Trail than parallels it.
Would a weekend have been quieter?
We did enjoy one fairly empty road through the Pine Barrens but were nonetheless surprised by the number of trucks using it. Turns out there are still about 40 sand and gravel mines still operating in the Pine Barrens, and our route must have taken us past one.
Would this make a good rail-trail?
We took a break at a deli as we reached South Toms River … but no table, no place to eat. So we biked another mile or so to Jakes Branch County Park for a bench … and to go up the observation tower. Pines just about as far as you can see. (Lakehurst, where the Hindenburg Zeppelin crashed in 1937, is on the horizon, and that’s maybe 9 miles away.)
Take the time to go through the ground-floor exhibit, at least to read about the 2002 fire that burned through almost 1,300 acres during a drought. It took a day to contain it, but it wasn’t officially declined out for 26 days.
Apparently we biked past a Pygmy Forest — this is one of those cases where signage sure would help and perhaps encourage people to explore. We biked past but didn’t stop for Double Trouble State Park and its historical village, just two miles from Jakes Branch. Next time?
All told, a 51-mile day. One more leg of Tour de Pines to go.