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The Highland Lakes in New Jersey's Skylands region have always been special. The Highland Lakes area includes the Vernon Valley, known as some of New Jersey's most productive farmlands since Colonial times. Most lakes are the result of streams flowing from Pochuck and Wawayanda Mountains and dammed before the Revolutionary War. Some lakes are completely man-made while others are the result of small ponds enlarged by damming. Stretching north to the New York border, the Highland Lakes area was for many years the summer getaway destination for the well-to-do who built summer cottages along the many lakes. It is only in the past 50 years that development has increased and created whole communities of Lakelubbers.
Many lakes and large ponds are included in the Highland Lakes Management Area. Those named in most documents include Lake Wawayanda, Lake Pochung, Lake Glenwood, Pleasant Valley Lake, Lake Wallkill, Lake Panorama, Louemma Lake, Tall Timbers Lake, and the two Scenic Lakes (man-made) in the Scenic Lakes community. Five private Highland Lakes are often not listed in the Management Area (Highland Lake, East Highland Lake, Upper Highland Lake, Upper West Highland Lake, and Lake Wanda). The regional Master Plan states that over 122,000 acres of the area are wetlands, lakes and streams, but most lakes are small and only a few exceed 100 acres in size. Pochuck, a Lenape word meaning 'out-of-the-way place,' is not actually a mountain but a long ridge and one of the easternmost points in the Appalachian Mountains. The ridge separates the Wallkill River watershed from that of its tributary Pochuck Creek. The Appalachian Trail's Highland Lakes section travels across this ridge and includes one of its most popular and accessible areas: the Pochuck Boardwalk. This boardwalk across some of the wetlands includes a suspension bridge and a ground-level view of the area's wildlife and lush greenery.
Most of the area is within Vernon Township. Lake Wawayanda is the only lake of any size that is open to the general public. Many of the lakes have their own unincorporated communities with homeowners' associations, local necessity shopping and community events. Property ownership varies from community to community, with Lake Pochung primarily building on land leased from the local association. Most of the lakes are private with access limited to members. Property owners enjoy water skiing, fishing, swimming and boating. These communities often have their own beaches and parks for members, with boat slip permits purchased by boat owners. A few private guest rentals are the only options for lodgings on these lakes.
The private Community of Highland Lakes is under the governance of a private association that manages all property and access to the five lakes, seven beaches and multiple recreational facilities. All property owners pay an initiation fee and annual dues to the Highland Lakes Country Club and Community Association. Located just outside of Wawayanda State Park, there is no public access to any of the lakes. However, a great many homeowners in the area offer their homes as short-term guest rentals, making the Highland Lakes one of the areas most often seen by visitors. Unfortunately, there are no statistics published for lake sizes or fish present.
A number of public hiking trails can be accessed in the area. Besides the Highland Lakes section of the Appalachian Trail, Wawayanda State Park on the northeastern edge of the area offers over 60 miles of hiking trails, camping, nature tours and 265-acre Lake Wawayanda for swimming and fishing. Lake Wawayanda is stocked regularly with landlocked salmon and trout. Largemouth bass, yellow perch, crappie, catfish, pickerel and sunfish are also caught. This lake is one of the few lakes in the Highland Lakes area that is deep enough to provide the cooler water necessary to support landlocked salmon, so it draws a large number of fishermen. The Day Use area offers swimming, picnicking, playground, canoe rental, concession stand and boat launch. A Wildlife Diversity Tour within the park's 18,235 acres encompasses forest, ravines and a 2,167-acre swamp. The park's trails are popular for winter sports such as cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, while the lake is used for ice skating. Some areas are open for snowmobiling. A historic iron furnace is located within the park near the camping area. The lake's dam originally provided water power for the furnace in the 1840s.
One of the most accessible entrances to this section of the Appalachian Trail is located in Wawayanda State Park. A popular hike with steep grades and spectacular views, this part of the Trail is probably best for those in good physical health with plenty of stamina. A less strenuous mountain to climb is Pochuck Mountain with views to the west toward the Wallkill River. The Appalachian Trail runs across this mountain ridge also, so the trails see plenty of visitors in good weather. Bears are common in the area, and many hikers are most excited to report having glimpsed one somewhere along the trail.
Because the Highland Lakes area now faces increasing pressure from development, several local and regional agencies are involved in developing management plans to protect the wetlands, streams and lakes from possible adverse consequences from over-development. Future housing development is to be closely monitored and limited to specified areas. Provisions for new developments, sewer and water supplies must meet new regulations designed to protect both the watershed and the health of native species. The number of lakes leads to a wide range of real estate prices, with something in nearly every price range. Amenities in the immediate area depend on the local community. Highland Lakes community, for example, includes a country club and golf course and seven membership beaches. A few vacation rentals can be found on some of the lakes, while bed & breakfasts and inns exist in the surrounding countryside. The area is noted for excellent farmers' markets and a generally genial and relaxed population of lake dwellers.
So, if you thought there was no place to vacation within 50 miles of the New Jersey coastline, you must check out the Highland Lakes. Come spend a few days exploring Lake Wawayanda, the Appalachian Trail and the many lake communities in the Highland Lakes region. You will be amazed that these lakes have escaped your notice.
*Statistics are for Lake Wawayanda only. The other lakes have no reliable statistics found.
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