Sandy Ridge-Tulpehocken Trail Loop – Washington/Tabernacle, NJ

Sandy Ridge-Tulpehocken Trail Loop – Washington/Tabernacle, Burlington County, NJ
Distance – 38 miles total (18.2 of which are on the Sandy Ridge-Tulpehocken Trail)
Type – Loop
Difficulty: 4 of 10 (lots of road walking, but a few areas are flooded or overgrown and the blazes, though consistent, can be somewhat sparse; plus a few hills)

Website – https://nj.gov/dep/parksandforests/parks/whartonstateforest.html
Open – Sunrise to sunset, with overnight backpacking at designated campgrounds

Terrain – Lowlands, hills, cedar creeks, swamps/bogs/marshes, successional forest and grassland, ruins, abandoned railways, renaturalized cranberry bogs, sand dunes

Surface – sand roads, gravel, pine duff, boardwalks, bridges

Trailheads – Penn Swamp Branch – N 39° 41.034 W 074° 38.978 and Apple Pie Hill – N 39° 48.435 W 074° 35.341

Directions – Coming from 542, turn onto Batsto Road, then turn left towards the visitor center.
Parking – Park at Batsto Village – N 39° 48.435 W 074° 35.341

Dog friendly? Sure; just leave no trace!
(Note – If doing this as an overnight, Hawkins Bridge Campsite does not currently have pet camping.  Batona Campground does allow dogs in pet friendly sites)
Stroller friendly? No, overgrowth and large puddles would be an issue.
Benches? No.
Facilities? Bathrooms and water pump at Batsto, Hawkins Bridge Campground, and Batona
Campground.

Markings – Blue blazes on Sandy Ridge-Tulpehocken Trail, pink blazes on Batona, other blaze
colors on Batsto trails

Map – https://nj.gov/dep/parksandforests/maps/wharton-area.pdf

Description –

A guest post by Boggs!  Thank you for writing this (now I really want to hike this loop too!)!

On the second of three days hiking in Wharton Forest, I realized how rare a route I had found. I was halfway through a nearly 40-mile trip and making my final approach toward Apple Pie Hill

(the “thunderstriking hill” at the center of Pinelands hiking) when a pickup truck came lumbering downhill on the ancient, deeply carved roadway. Because of the weight of the multi-day pack on
my back and the distance I'd carried it in the past day, I was not keen to climb the shoulder- height berm and completely vacate the roadway. Thankfully, the truck carefully passed. The
driver rolled the window down, and I feared they were going to give me grief for not getting out of the way. The Pines often feel like a different world, but this is still Jersey, after all.

To my surprise, the man behind the wheel (who, if I were to call him a Piney, I would mean it with nothing but admiration) merely asked whether I'd come up the entirety of the “new blue
trail.” I’ve seen that term used before among Pine Barrens Explorers online, but I don’t use it myself, since blue is the blaze color of the unrelated NJ Long Trail (which traces the Batona
Trail and Mullica River Trail, then runs from Tom’s Pond near Batsto Village down to Pleasant Mills, and beyond to Cape May). I prefer to call a spade a spade and call the new blue trail “the
Sandy Ridge-Tulpehocken Trail.”

I told the man that indeed, I had come up the blue trail, and I was going to meet the Batona Trail on Apple Pie Hill and take it all the way back down to Batsto. He told me that though he lived
nearby, he had never seen a single person backpacking on the blue trail. For my part, I hadn’t seen anyone but him along the route since I arrived, and I wouldn’t encounter anyone else before my journey was through.

The man wondered if Wharton administrators were doing enough to promote this trail after having it blazed a few years ago – ostensibly, he said, to form a productive backpacking loop with Batona. I thought back on the many beautiful sights I had seen on my journey, and I was unable to put it any better than to simply say it was a remarkable loop, and I was surprised people don’t talk about it. My new friend wished me a good day.

As I left, I thought to myself that those parting words were strange, as if I expected the man to help spread the word about this trail. Nevertheless, I did feel there was something about the experience that I needed to share with others. It was remote. It was peaceful. The route was dotted with too many historical and geographical landmarks to list in an introduction, and yet I found very few materials referencing the trail online. I pushed the thought from my head and continued up the hill to meet my turnaround point and head back homeward, but at this point in the story, I risk getting ahead of myself.

Day One

Batsto Lake.

My trip actually began the day prior, in the morning mist. The trees around Batsto, where I left my car, are a mix of mostly pines and scrubby oaks. This being late March, the ground was still littered with dead oak leaves, and the smell of forest floor was strong from the morning condensation. I followed the Batsto Red, Blue, and White Trails upwards along Batsto Lake, stopping at a few of the old canoe put-ins to enjoy views of the sky reflecting moodily in the glassy water.

Trail improvements

There are a few trail improvements like stairs and boardwalks along the lake, and I cut past beautiful cedar swamps to join the Batona Trail heading north. I passed at least one nice beach on the Batsto River, and once Batona hit the Penn Swamp Branch, I was where I needed to be: the start of the Sandy Ridge-Tulpehocken Trail.

ATV damage.

The trail begins on an old sand road for a few miles. Motorized traffic has brutalized the doubletrack here, cutting deep ruts every few yards. Some of these ruts collect standing water. However, ATVers often drive around minor obstructions at nearly any cost to the environment, so in many flooded stretches, the road splits in two and goes around. The ATV-damaged section of trail then enters the Mullica River Burn from last year. The 2022 fire scarred the open center of the Batsto hiking trails, as well as the adjacent woodland between the Batsto and Mullica Rivers. The three blazed routes that intersect the Sandy Ridge- Tulpehocken Trail (Penn Branch, Batona, and Huckleberry), as well as the Batsto Fire Trail, pass through the burn. The forest here is in a young successional stage that resembles a savannah. Woodpeckers, owls, and wrens make their homes in the torched-out deadwood that remains standing as far as the eye can see. It is also one of the quietest parts of Wharton Forest, and it doesn’t see a lot of traffic besides the occasional mountain biker.

Penn Swamp

The trail then has the distinction of being the only blazed route leading to the beautiful Penn Swamp. Based on names alone, one might think the Penn Branch Trail hosts some degree of access to Penn Swamp, but it does not. On the other hand, the Sandy Ridge-Tulpehocken Trail features ephemeral bogs and tall cedars as it passes through the swamp on Washington- Quaker Bridge Road.

First singletrack.

The blue blazes then diverge onto Hay Road and the unfortunately-named Jemima Feedstrip Road on the approach to the road’s namesake, Jemima Mount. Here, hikers enter a unique scrub pine community on an honest-to-God hill, with a singletrack hiking trail running through it, picking up around 50 feet of elevation gain in a quarter mile. It reminds me of a smaller, more scenic Apple Pie Hill, and I was impressed with the views and the length of the “ridgeline walk” at the top of the hill.

First elevation gain.
Looking back at Jemima Mount from this angle, you can see the resemblance to Apple Pie Hill

Hikers then descend the hill and meet up with a road heading out of the scrub, across Tuckerton Road, and into the Hawkin Lowlands along Tulpehocken Creek. I was extremely excited for the
lowlands due to the high regard in which many Pine Barrens Explorers online held it, and due to positive mentions by John McPhee in The Pine Barrens, my atlas for the Pines. While it wasn’t
bad hiking by any means, and it’s a quiet neck of the woods, I found myself disappointed by the Hawkin Lowlands.

Sand road.

The trail here is doubletrack, not quite as heavily trafficked as a “sand road,” but the same width. Despite the seclusion, I saw only one or two bogs in the lowlands (they are truly forest lowlands, not wetlands). In addition, this is the closest approach to the banks of the Tulpehocken, where McPhee teases that folks used to bury and forget treasures, yet there are neither historic ruins along the wayside nor any actual sighting of the Tulpehocken: hikers merely cross two of its small tributaries. The best sighting of the creek would occur the next day, at Hawkins Bridge, where Hawkins Bridge Road crosses the Tulpehocken near its mouth with the West Branch Wading River: hardly the heart of the storied waterway.

Hawkin Lowlands iron-forming bog.

One redeeming factor was that as I approached the end of Hawkin Lowlands Road, I stumbled upon five or six wild turkeys. They took flight awkwardly into the pine canopy to escape me, as if hurled by catapults.

After that encounter, I rounded a few corners to reach Hawkins Bridge Campground, where I’d stayed the year prior for Labor Day. I learned my lesson then about the tent site closest to the group sites. It can be very loud there, headlights may be visible in the parking lot, and it’s a further walk to both the well and the outhouse than the middle sites. This time, I chose the second site from the parking lot.

Although I was spared the racket of a large group camping in the campground, some random guys did show up around dusk in a pickup, scouting the place out for a stealth camping spot. They stared for a while, then left in search of somewhere else to camp. The interaction made me uneasy, and I stayed up around the fire later than normal.

Day Two

Hawkins Bridge.

I rose late the next morning, regretting the late night I’d had. The sun rose at 7, yet I didn’t leave camp til 9:30. The trail leading away from the camping area is scenic and heavily wooded, but by the time I reached Hawkins Bridge, the sun was high and the day was beginning to heat up.

There are nice bogs just north of the bridge – one particularly nice one is drained by a clear but iron-rich creek which meets the Tulpehocken right next to the bridge, which was bathed in bright
sunlight. I continued on my way, hoping to make up for lost time.

More sand roads.

My route for the day could be roughly divided into three parts: first, a section of the Sandy Ridge-Tulpehocken Trail that I had hiked before on the aforementioned Labor Day trip, then the section north of Friendship, where I’d never been before, and thirdly, the section of Batona leading back from Apple Pie Hill to Batona Campground, my campsite for the second night.

The new footbridge.
Drainage from Friendship Bogs.
Hummocks
Dead turtle.
Pioneer trees growing in the bog.
Old cranberry bog access road.

The first section is primarily a repetitive trip down more sand roads. However, the most memorable part is when the trail narrows onto an old access road and cuts through the historic Friendship Bogs. The bogs had a key bridge out in September 2022, so I had skipped them entirely on my previous trip, heading straight to Friendship along the road. This is a must-hike area now that the footbridge has been rebuilt. Not only had I skipped the best part of the entire Sandy Ridge-Tulpehocken Trail, I had arguably skipped the finest complex of wetlands in Wharton Forest. These old cranberry bogs have begun to turn into a marshy wetland, and vines and moss have begun to permanently protrude from the water in hummocks. The degree of rewilding at this human-affected site is simply incredible. I was initially reminded of the A.R. DeMarco bogs at Franklin Parker Preserve, but the Friendship Bogs are easily decades further along into their return to wilderness.

Coyote prints.

I returned to the sand road and was surprised to see tiny canine prints all over. My first thought was that it was a dog walker, but as I looked around, I realized it would have to be at least a dozen dogs running wild in the woods; in other words, coyotes.

An old foundation with native yucca growing.
A cellar and chimney.
The bridge to Friendship.
The creek running under the bridge.

The road quickly reached the ghost town of Friendship, where the high noon sun illuminated the ruins much better than on my prior trip, and I was able to see foundations that I had previously missed, including the remnants of cellars and chimneys. The town is encircled by a small loop trail visiting most of the old foundations. I stopped for a moment to look out over the meandering
creek under the bridge, then stepped over onto the remotest stretch of Carranza Road and began the second section of my day’s hike: Sandy Ridge.

Carranza Road.

I booked it up Carranza, which is unpaved here, trying to stick to the shade, but it was difficult as noon and 1 PM crept by, leaving the sun to hover directly overhead just as it had been hovering for the past two hours. The route went around a few curves before departing Carranza Road onto doubletrack, albeit with spotty tree cover.



Sandy Ridge Bogs access road.
Sandy Ridge Bogs.

 

Ghost forest.

The doubletrack passed a few more (inaccessible) cranberry bogs edged by thick blueberry understory. My research suggests that these are the old Sandy Ridge cranberry bogs, once farmed by industrialist Joseph Wharton's estate. Here, the path takes two strange dips into the treeline on badly overgrown singletrack, to encircle what looked like cripples or dried-up sphagnum bogs. Past the bogs, I checked my map and verified that I would soon be “climbing” onto Sandy Ridge, whose elevation gains are barely perceptible.

The name Sandy Ridge is more often associated with the Carranza Memorial due to the former presence of a rail station and hamlet named after the nearby sand formation, but indeed, the actual ridge sits slightly northeast of Carranza Memorial. The station was renamed in honor of Emilio Carranza, a pilot who famously crashed in the region. Carranza had engine trouble on a
goodwill flight back to Mexico City and struggled to find an emergency landing spot in the difficult wilderness. Now, the hamlet is gone, and all that remains of the former rail station is a monument erected with the donated pennies of Mexican schoolchildren. I was interested to see the actual terrain that Carranza would have crashed into – it is said that rescuers had to cut
some 50 feet into the brush down the side of a hill to retrieve the aviator’s body.

However, I knew that the trail goes dry from Sandy Ridge to Apple Pie Hill, and it remains dry until Batona hits the Skit Branch near Batona Campground. Plus, tree cover only gets worse from Sandy Ridge to the Central Line railway. I assessed my water levels and, having enough on hand, stopped for lunch near a sand dune in a shady grove. Judging from a blackened patch of lichens where someone had burned an illegal campfire (the first of several I would see between Sandy Ridge and Batona Campground), I was not the first person to stop there.

Sandy Ridge.
Central Line.

Sandy Ridge itself is scarred with what look like ATV tracks, which make the entire side of the ridge quite walkable, albeit with the usual annoying ups and downs that come alongside offroading trails. At the north end of the ridge, the trails link up with the wide ATV route that runs the length of the historic Central Line. After crossing the railway, the Sandy Ridge-Tulpehocken Trail heads parallel to the rails for a while. Here, hikers enter into a zone that is more obviously impacted by illegal camping and offroading. There are a number of clearings and fire rings along the trail, all of which should be left alone, since the repeated compaction of the sand around these sites prevents renaturalization of plant life.

Road to Apple Pie Hill (far).
Road to Apple Pie Hill (close).

Finally, the trail narrows back down to one final section of singletrack before rejoining the roadway on the approach to Apple Pie Hill, where I already mentioned that I had met a friendly Piney in his truck.

Climbing Apple Pie Hill.
The turning point.

I continued up Apple Pie Hill, which is an admittedly gradual hill, only slightly more prominent than the climb up Jemima Mount the day prior. I stood on the hilltop to briefly revel in the success of my climb, which marked the end of my successful thru-hike of the Sandy Ridge-Tulpehocken Trail. Now I just had to hike out.

Boardwalk over Skit Branch.
Ghost forest on Skit Branch near Batona Campground.

I descended with ease, then went up and back down Tea Time Hill, aka Mount Korbar on my way to the Skit Branch wetlands. I was tired, more than halfway through my trip, and ready to
camp for the night, so I rushed on boardwalks across the mossy creek to get to camp.

Batona Campground at Skit Branch.

I arrived at Batona Campground, set down my bag, and went to the water pump. I will give the caveat that the following has only happened to me this one time, but when I tested the pump,
due to the tremendously low water levels this spring, I wasn’t able to get anything from it at all. I pumped for thirty seconds, then sixty, then a hundred and twenty, and nothing.

Luckily for me, a week prior, I had struggled to get water from the pump at Mullica River Campground, so I anticipated that dry wells could be an issue on this trip. I brought a filter this time in case I needed to drink the cedar water in the creeks. In The Pine Barrens, McPhee helpfully documents a long history of folks safely (and preferentially) drinking cedar water, as the water was thought to keep for a long time in bottles and was carried by soldiers leaving the Pines during the Revolution. I was able to draw and filter water slightly downstream from Batona Campground on the Skit Branch.

Turkey.

Back at camp, I laid down, my body battered from carrying my admittedly not ultralight backpack up and down some of the largest hills in South Jersey, and I tried to get some early sleep.
However, as I tried to fall asleep, I heard footsteps outside my tent. I angrily stuck my head out of my tent flap and came face-to-face with two wild turkeys picking granola from the campground floor. They ran screaming back into a thicket in the woods.

I slept around 7 PM, periodically waking to listen to the eastern whippoorwill, the Pinelands’ resident annoying night bird.

Day Three

The next morning, I took advantage of my early night’s sleep and rose as soon as it was warm enough outside to leave the tent. The well had recharged overnight, so I didn’t need to drink iced tea water again, and it was a much quicker process to refill my bottles and make breakfast.

Central Line (again).
Drinks at Lower Forge.

I was on the trail by 8 AM, where I immediately passed the Carranza Memorial and crossed back over the Central Line rails; this time on Batona. I hiked the relatively repetitive, dry hike down from there to Lower Forge, where there is creek water access. I sat for fifteen or twenty minutes by the Batsto at Lower Forge on one of the beaches, drank a Gatorade packet, and hiked away feeling refreshed and ready to crush the route out.

Cedar-shaded beach on Batona.
Goodwater Road Burn.
Trail Junction of Batona and Sandy Ridge-Tulpehocken.
Final beach on Batona.

From here, I simply speed-walked down the Batona Trail – past Quaker Bridge, several beaches and canoe put-ins, the Goodwater Road burn, eventually passing the junction with Sandy Ridge-Tulpehocken Trail where I’d started two days prior. I passed one final beach and climbed a few final hills before turning and going past the picnic tables on the Batsto Blue Trail to reach the parking lot. However, if I were to repeat the trip, I would not go this way. Instead, once I got back to Penn Swamp Branch, I would immediately turn southward onto the Penn Branch Trail. From there, I would meander down and turn southward onto the Huckleberry Trail, then turn eastward onto the Batona Trail. I would then follow Batona back to the parking lot as described above. The
route along Penn Branch and Huckleberry is undervalued by hikers and mostly only used by mountain bikers, and I always prefer a scenic alternate route to backtracking.

Overall Impression

My overall impression of the trail was that the Sandy Ridge-Tulpehocken Trail loop, though badly damaged by motor vehicles in places, is a gem of Wharton Forest that needs to be mentioned as a backpacking alternative to a Batona thru-hike (54 miles) or the Mullica River-Batona Trail backpacking loop (my preferred loop is 23.5 miles). Sandy Ridge-Tulpehocken runs 38 miles, with campsites positioned perfectly to divide the route in three. That makes it the second-longest backpacking loop in the Pinelands, after Batona itself, yet it is far more remote and secluded than the Mullica River Trail.

The trail remains unknown to most hikers, despite being clearly marked on Wharton’s official map and intersecting several of the major Batsto-area trails: Penn Branch Trail (twice), Huckleberry Trail, Batona Trail (twice), and the Central Line. At Hawkins Bridge Campground, the Sandy Ridge-Tulpehocken Trail is the only trail accessible on foot. It is the only path that traverses Sandy Ridge, the only foot access to Friendship, and the only route that climbs Jemima Mount. It also features a unique approach to the summit of Apple Pie Hill, as opposed to the Batona northbound and Batona southbound approaches.

The trail packs all of these things into a three-day backpacking adventure that launches from the same forest service office as a Mullica River Trail trip. It is a route that has countless reasons to
be known, and yet is not; although arguably, the cat is now out of the bag. Now that you know about the trail, you’re free to enjoy it for yourself, and I encourage any and all respectful use.

Note that no motor vehicles are allowed on the majority of the trail, except on those sections which are defined as motor vehicle routes according to the 2015 Wharton Motorized Access Plan (and no ATVs are allowed on state forest land at all). Please respect the trail designers’ choice of route and stick to the center of the blue-blazed path to let the edges of these former roadways grow in and become more wild, so that this hiking route can continue to be around, in better shape, for future generations to enjoy.

Nearby – 1808 Trail, Batona Trail, Mullica River Trail, Penn Branch Trail, and Pleasant Mills

Thank you again to Boggs for his guest post!

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