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Snapshots of New Jersey: Montague -- Solitude With All the Comforts of Home

In Montague, you can observe a diversity of wildlife, hit the trail, plan a cross-country skiing trip -- and even visit the local bagel shop and enjoy the electricity and running water.

While NJ Spotlight is on summer hiatus, we've made sure you won't lack for intriguing reading. We've put together a series of Snapshots of New Jersey, a close look at some of the varied and vibrant places that make up the Garden State -- from Wildwood to Montague and Barnegat Bay to Teaneck. Enjoy. We'll be back August 28.

Known as “The Top of New Jersey,” Montague is home to both the northernmost point and the highest elevation in the state. It has a total area of 45.34 square miles and a chipmunk to human ratio of 30:1. Actually, I made that up. However, with a population of 3,847 and about 70 percent of the town's geographic area protected as preserves, forests, parklands, wetlands, and recreational areas. Well, you do the math.

Montague has no traffic lights, but it has six gas stations, which routinely sell gas as much as 50 cents cheaper than their New York neighbors to the north and Pennsylvania neighbors to the west. And, yes, Montague does, in fact, have electricity and running water. Not to gloat, but following 2011’s late storms, Montague lost electricity for a mere 24 hours. Not only does Montague have electricity and running water, but also it has it own Shop-Rite. How’s that for civilization?

If you find yourself in Montague and want a good bagel, go to the Montague Bagel Factory on Route 206 and try the cheddar or asiago cheese bagels. If you want to follow that up with some wine tasting, visit the Westfall Winery on Clove Road. Be sure to try its award-winning blueberry wine. Next, you may want to take in 18 holes at the High Point Golf club and then lunch at the Blue Heron Grill.

Stop! Where do you think you’re going? You can’t go home, yet. Home? You haven’t even scratched the surface. What you need to do is go over to the High Point State Park Headquarters and rent a cabin on Steenykill Lake. Be sure to bring your fishing rod and something that floats, like a boat or kayak or wood plank … Can you fish from a kayak? Doesn’t matter. Just don’t bring a gas-powered motor. That’s a no-no. Don’t bring your swimmies either. There’s no swimming allowed in Steenykill.

If fishing and floating aren’t your bag, you can lay out on a blanket or beach chair and bask in the solitude. If you’re lucky, you’ll get to see a bald eagle swoop down over the lake. The lake also has gigantic, man-eating snapping turtles, so no foot dangling. OK, there are no documented cases of anyone being eaten by one of these turtles, but why take a chance?

Once you’re done cleaning and gutting your catch, soaking in the solitude, and tempting the snappers, head on over to Lake Marcia for a swim in the 20 acres of spring-fed refreshment. Guess you'll need your swimmies after all. Lifeguards are on duty during the summer, so go ahead and take a couple of laps. Now dry yourself off, put on your hiking boots and … Tired? Don’t be a wimp.

Get your butt over to the red/green-blazed Monument Trail and take a jaunt up to the High Point Monument, which is a tower built in 1930 to commemorate the war dead. Stop at the interpretive center on the way and talk to Interpretive Specialist Kate Foord, who will tell you some cool stuff about the park. She’ll probably tell you about the Dryden Kuser Natural Area, also known as the Cedar Swamp, which is an Atlantic white cedar swamp and the first designated natural area in the state of New Jersey.

“As far as we know,” says Foord, “this is the highest elevation where Atlantic white cedar grows in the world.”

Be sure to pick up a Cedar Swamp Trail guide before continuing on to the monument. Once you get there, climb to the top of the 220 foot-structure and take in the panoramic views of the Poconos Catskills, and Wallkill River Valley. Then go check out that white cedar swamp.

At this point you should probably go back to your cabin and get some rest. Tomorrow, you have to explore the rest of the 50 miles of trails that traverse High Point State Park, which includes the Appalachian Trail. Of course, if you’re too tired, you can always find a quiet spot in the park or Stokes State Forest or the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area or any of the several Nature Conservancy and New Jersey Land Trust preserves sprinkled throughout the town.

Be very still and enjoy the incredible diversity of wildlife that lives here. Might I suggest a swamp for your viewing pleasure? Yeah, they’re a bit smelly, a bit buggy. But you will not find a place that’s more alive. With a bit of luck and patience, you’ll be treated to great blue herons, black bears, otters, mink, fishers, beavers, porcupines, muskrats, and perhaps a bobcat. While waiting, you'll be entertained by the birds, frogs and snakes.

In the fall, you don’t need to go to New England to see mountains of red, yellow, and orange. They’ll be right here on the Kittatinny Ridge, which is part of the Appalachians. In the winter, the roads through High Point State Park and Stokes State Forest are not plowed, which makes them perfect for snowmobiling, snow shoeing, and cross country skiing.

Montague is, truly, a year-round haven for those who love the outdoors. So if you’re not too busy doing something exciting, like watching "Jersey Shore,” take a little drive north and see what living really is.

Dawn Benko is an award-winning photographer based in Northwestern New Jersey.

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