Did you know that just a short trip from New York City, you can find incredible hiking trails and amazing nature areas? I was floored when we read about some of the beautiful and challenging hikes near NYC, so I decided to try a few of them out. In addition to Breakneck Ridge, the Stairway to Heaven (NJ) trail was one that I wanted to try, largely because of its cool name (you know, like the Zeppelin classic) and connection with the Appalachian Trail. I detailed out my entire Stairway to Heaven hike experience so you know exactly what to expect from this fun, thrilling, and challenging hike in the New York City area.
Stairway to Heaven NJ Trail: The Basics
If you’re looking for a hike near New York City that’s moderately challenging, offers pretty views, and is mostly shaded, the Stairway to Heaven hike is a great option. Located in Vernon, NJ, it’s in a very wooded area with lots of beautiful scenery. As part of the Appalachian Trail, it can also be extended to a much longer forest hike if you so choose! We loved this hike for its calm, scenic pathways and its relaxed viewpoint. Plus, it’s super dog friendly.
Here’s a quick snapshot of the Stairway to Heaven NJ trail:
- Trail Distance: 3 miles
- Elevation Gain: 892 feet
- Difficulty: Moderate
Things to Know Before Hiking Stairway to Heaven
This trail is clear and self-explanatory, but there are a few things I wish I knew before embarking on the Stairway to Heaven NJ trail:
- The Stairway to Heaven trail is an offshoot of the Appalachian Trail. This means that you can extend your hike, if you’d like, past the ~3 miles if you’d like a bit longer of an adventure. It also means you may run into through-hikers along the way!
- Some online/published guides to this trail are incorrect. If you’re planning on using a certain popular hiking app (cough, AllTrails, cough), know that the Stairway to Heaven NJ trail outlined in the app is incorrect. The app will take you all the way to the Appalachian Trail junction, which is cool and all, but didn’t give very good instructions on how to get to the viewpoint. We ended up trying to find the viewpoint for an extra 30 minutes, only to realize we’d missed the turn much farther down the hill. See our review below for details.
- The parking lot for Stairway to Heaven is tiny. We got there before 7 AM, so it was completely empty when we arrived, but when we arrived back at the car, it was completely full (on a Monday morning). I can imagine it gets very crowded on weekends and holidays, so plan accordingly if this is when you plan to go.
How to Do the Stairway to Heaven Hike in NJ: Our Review
Getting to the Trailhead
Arriving at the Stairway to Heaven trail in NJ was a big part of the battle. The trailhead is in an unmarked parking lot off the main road across the street from a farm, so we ended up having to drive around a bit before eventually finding the right place to park. I used Google Maps, and it was correct, but the entrance is so nondescript that I ended up missing the first time I drove past.
When I finally found the trailhead, we were luckily the first people there so I had my pick of spots to park in. However, I did notice right off the bat that the parking lot is really tiny, especially given the popularity of this hike. When we returned later in the morning, the lot and the roadside pullout areas nearby were completely full (and this was on a Monday morning, too).
Once you find the parking lot, the trailhead is right at the end. Here, you’ll find information about the hike and a reminder about the ticks in the area (which is why it’s always important to do a tick check after you hike!).
Starting the Stairway to Heaven Hike
Once we got started, the hike was pretty smooth sailing. The first part is a very steady, easy incline through a few fields with tall grasses and wildflowers. From here, you can see the mountainside you’re about to climb, but it’s not too intimidating.
After a short period of easy incline, the trail becomes a bit steeper and rockier, with several flights of rock “stairways” that lead you up the side of the mountain. The trail is lined with trees and big boulders, and is completely shaded, which offers a nice cool feeling as you hike upward. On the way up, we followed white blazes that seemed to be leading us to the trail’s rocky viewpoint.
And then, we kind of got a little lost. Once we made it to the “top” of the trail, we saw a mailbox with a bunch of stickers on it, and then walked a little further to try and find the viewpoint. Nothing but forest surrounded us, no matter which way we walked.
I looked again at my AllTrails app and realized that the offshoot for the viewpoint was actually farther behind on the trail we’d come from. So, we descended and found this large rock pile and crossed over a fallen tree trunk, which took us to the viewpoint I’d seen in so many of the photos of this hike. Note that there was no marking designating this turn off, but if you know that the viewpoint is to the left of the rock pile, it’s pretty easy to find after that.
Reaching the Viewpoint
After passing over the fallen log and hiking for about 5 more minutes, the rocky outcropping of the viewpoint came into view. Finally, we found it!
The Stairway to Heaven viewpoint is small but pretty, especially in the morning light. There are several rocks you can climb over or sit on. Below, you can see the Vernon town area and the rolling hills and farms below, as well as the surrounding mountains in the distance. We sat up there for a while and ate our breakfast, then headed back down the way we came.
On the way down, we passed lots of other groups of hikers, and the trail became much more crowded than earlier in the morning. I’d imagine that the narrow trail is fairly difficult to navigate when there are lots of people there, so I would strongly recommend going early in the morning if you want a more peaceful, less crowded experience.
Additional Resources for Hiking in New Jersey
What to Bring
- Breathable hiking clothes – For warmer hikes, you’ll want to stay cool in a sweat-wicking shirt/tank top and breathable pants, like these Patagonia hiking shorts for men and women. For cold-weather hikes, we recommend dressing in layers, including merino wool baselayers for men and women, a down puffer jacket for men and women, and a Northface waterproof outer shell for men and women. And don’t forget a pair of the best women’s and men’s hiking socks in the world! For more information, check out our guides to hiking shorts for men and women and our top tips and gear for hiking in winter.
- Trekking poles – You won’t need these for every single hike, but we suggest throwing them in your car just in case. We recommend the Black Diamond Trail Ergo cork trekking poles, which are lightweight, easy to transport, and durable. For more information, check out our guide to the best trekking poles.
- Water bottle – Having water available at all times is a huge must. To limit disposable plastic, we recommend bringing your own refillable water bottle. We’re obsessed with Hydro Flask water bottles because they keep water cold for hours.
- Sunscreen and bug spray – This should be self-explanatory, but sweatproof sunscreen and DEET bug spray can help you avoid sunburn and bug bites, two of hiking’s most annoying after-effects. Our favorite kind of sunscreen is Sun Bum, as it is free of harsh chemicals and safe for marine life, including coral reefs.
- A brimmed hat or cap – The sun can be brutal in open hikes, so always pack a brimmed hat or cap for day hikes in the sunshine.
- Emergency blanket and first aid kit – We’d strongly recommend bringing a first aid kit and a lightweight emergency blanket on every hike. Why? Because the unfathomable can happen, and it’s always best to play it safe.
- Durable day pack – A durable day pack is the perfect spot to stash all your hiking gear. While any backpack will do, we recommend the Osprey Tempest 20 or the Talon 22 day packs because they’re comfortable and breathable for long hikes. For more information, check out our best day packs for any terrain guide.
Wondering what exactly you should pack for your next hike? Visit our Complete Day Hiking Packing List for our full list and our top gear recommendations.