Sleeper Branch Trail – Marilyn Beard Trailhead – Wharton State Park – Waterford, Camden County, NJ
Distance – Listed at 5.4 miles on the new map, but this DEFINITELY does not include mandatory backtracking. Actual hike is 8.2 miles total according to the old map and me walking the trail.
Type – Lollipop
Difficulty: 5 of 10 (puddles, flooding, missing trail markers)
Website – Wharton State Forest
Open – Sunrise to Sunset.
Terrain – Woods and swamp
Surface – Sand
Directions – located at the end of the paved section of Burnt Mill Road in Waterford Township
Dog friendly? Yes
Stroller friendly? No
Rules – Usual rules apply. This trail is also available for biking and horseback riding.
Christmas had a weekend before it this year, which meant two extra days off from work. Yay! So the Sunday before Christmas, Kite Flyer and I went out for a little Daddy-Baby hike on the Sleeper Branch Trail, part of the Maple Island Trails in Wharton State Forest at the Marilyn Beard Trailhead. This is the blue trail, the shortest of the three trails that start from the same spot. Note that this trail is open to hikers, bikers, horse riders, and most of it is open to motor vehicles.
Anyway, on a slightly chilly morning, we parked the car, chased a bird out of the van (seriously, bird, seriously? We got it out of the car without hurting the bird or the car), walked back out to the paved road, turned left, and started down the dirt road that is the first part of this trail. At the start, the blue Sleeper Branch Trail, the red Burnt Mill Trail, and the white Goshen Pond Trail all follow the same path. This first stretch is pretty much exactly a mile from the parking lot to the power line cut.
Under the power lines, the trail splits. If you go straight here, you’ll continue on the red Burnt Mill Loop and the white Goshen Pond Loop (NOTE: According to the New Jersey Audubon Society, heading down to the right you’ll find beaver ponds 1/3 of a mile and again at 3/4 of a mile in… wish we knew that BEFORE we hiked this!).
We turned left, which continued us on all three of the trails together. The road/trail passed under the power lines at an angle and quickly reentered the woods. After a bit (1.4 miles), we crossed the Sleeper Branch on a small bridge, which had a pretty view on either side. 1.5 miles into our hike, the blue trail turned right onto a smaller dirt road.
Despite the endless amount of rain we’ve had this Fall, the trail was perfectly dry up to this point. The next stretch was along a smaller dirt road, but was also the start of a pretty good run of puddles, some of them huge. All of the ones here were easy to get around. At 1.9 miles into our hike, the trail ended up at a “T” intersection back at the powerline cut.
Along this stretch, we also found a balloon. Balloons, as would be expected, are pretty terrible for animals. Because they fly, they often end up waaaaay out in the woods. One of our favorite New Jersey hiking blogs, Gone Hikin’, makes it a point to pick all of these up, to the tune of dozens each year. We are going to do a better job next year of copying them by getting balloons out from the woods and keeping track of them. This one makes three for 2018, a number we can totally top in 2019. Anyone who wants to join the balloon cleaning crusade with us, the more the merrier!
Anyway, when you get to the power line cut, the three trails turn left, while the Blue Trail along also goes right (this is the beginning of the lollipop loop part of the Sleeper Branch Trail). This is also where things break down. To your left, as far as we could figure out, there were absolutely no markers of any color anywhere. But looking at the map and our track, it has to be where the trail was.
So we did the only sensible thing, we turned right and decided to do that part of the Sleeper Branch Trail first, as there were plenty of blazes. Despite this being muddy and under power lines, it was a pretty interesting stretch, with birds and half iced over puddles.
But it was also a tricky section because there was at least one blaze missing… the one that tells you where to turn left to leave the power line cut. But it gets worse! The trail (a MUCH smaller and not much used old dirt road) had a tree down right in front of it, so it was impossible to even see the trail. Even worse, a puddle was here that you had to step over to go the right way, which made it even more confusing. Luckily, you don’t get to 170 some posts about different South Jersey Trails without getting an instinct for when something isn’t right (or else the boys and I would be living off of balloons in a stick shelter out in the woods of South Jersey somewhere, possibly for the last several years). So just know that you aren’t on the power line cut for long, and keep a sharp eye out for a path heading under the power lines and toward the woods. And also for this tree:
View back at the power line cut from the tree, for helpfulness.
Anyway, Kite Flyer (who by this point was being super helpful by deciding to take his morning nap) and I got up over that tree and onto the trail, which had a very visible marker immediately to make us feel better. The trail also had about six to eight very large, deep puddles taking up the whole trail for the next stretch, by far the worst stretch of the trail. These can’t be normal, because only the last puddle had any sort of visible go around. The rest required hugging the edges very closely (hooray for waterproof boots) or, for a few, some serious bushwhacking, made even better with a sleeping baby on your back. I even did something I never do… I considered turning around. But when I was ready to call it quits (which would have required bushwhacking backwards), the trail dried up and stayed that way for miles until it hit a “t” intersection 3.7 miles into our hike.
At the “T”, the Sleeper Branch Trail goes both ways. To the left, the loop continues. To the right, the trail heads down to what’s marked as a viewpoint on the map. We, of course, headed right.
We also, of course, almost immediately hit a puddle we had to bushwhack around.
We soldiered on for almost a dozen feet when we finally hit a roadblock… everything on three sides of us was majorly flooded. I guess we weren’t getting to the view! If anyone ever gets there, send us a picture please!
So we turned around and headed back up the spur. 4.2 miles into our hike, we were back at the three way intersection where we’d turned right. We chose straight this time to cover the last part of the Sleeper Branch Trail at this intersection that we hadn’t hiked yet.
This stretch of trail, the furthest bit from the trailhead, ran pretty much straight. There were more puddles here (easily navigated around without bushwhacking) and, excitingly, more cedar trees. The trail ran right up until it intersected with Maple Island road, a wide, well traveled road. Also, I ran into dirt bikers at this point of the trail. They were very courteous, crawled past me and the baby at slow speeds, and stayed on the roads, but just be aware that they are out here.
At this point, the trail system broke down again. I strongly suspected that this is where the trails went their separate ways. To the left down Maple Island Road, all three trails should head. Straight should have taken me onto the white Goshen Pond Loop. I suspect that right would have taken me onto just the red Burnt Mill Loop. But I couldn’t find any markers other than where I had just been. After a bit, a fellow drove up in a truck (down the road that the Goshen Pond Loop should have followed) and said he thought that he saw white blazes along where he just was.
Anyway, I knew that turning left onto Maple Island Road would put me back at the power line cut, and that it looked on my GPS like it exactly lined up with the map. So that’s the way that Kite Flyer and I went. It was a long straightaway (with a few, easily navigated puddles) back to the power line cut, which marked us as 5.4 miles into our hike.
When we hit the powerlines, the trail on the map clearly turned left (otherwise, I would have ended up in a neighborhood). So we turned left, but there were still no blazes to be found as we followed the power line cut, at least not until we got back to where the blue Sleeper Branch Trail had originally turned off, 6 miles into our hike. So not sure if they don’t exist, or we just missed them, but at least the part of the trail that wasn’t blazed was the biggest dirt road that we walked on the whole day, plus an un-missable power line cut.
When we hit the giant puddle that marked where the loop part of the trail ended, we turned right onto the “stick” of the lollipop away from the power lines, hiked back past those first puddles we had encountered, turned left to cross the bridge over Sleeper Branch and followed that road back to the power lines, just under 7 miles into our hike.
We arrived safely back at the very first intersection of the trail. If we knew then what we know now, we would have turned left to check out the beaver ponds. But we didn’t so we turned right for the home stretch, arriving back at the bird-free car with 8.1 miles completed.
Nearby: The longer Burnt Mill Loop and Goshen Pond Loop each leave from this same trailhead and follow much of the blue Sleeper Branch Trail,
Some high adventures, nice stretches of swamp, and some interesting areas to explore along the power lines. Also, beaver ponds a short way off the trail, which we missed.
Flooding was a problem, but I don't think it's a regular problem. Missing trail markers were a real problem, however.