The Tripod Rock Caper

Story and phtos by Mary Jasch

Tripod Rock ­ begetter of mystery, artifact of glacial motion or signpost of American Indians? Two such monuments decorate the Northwest Jersey landscape ­ one on a Morris County mountaintop, the other protected by rock outcrop on the side of Kittatinny Mountain in High Point State Park. The rocks are not to be missed ­ phenomena for all to enjoy.

Tripod Rock at Pyramid Mountain

The whole family can do this easy walk in the woods to see this glacial Tripod Rock . Most is on a wide, fairly flat trail with many points of interest along the way, with a feeling of being in a remote North Woods. Take Rt. 23 to High Point State Park and stop in the Office for a map. Head back south on 23, driving 1.5 miles. Park off road at the second gate you come to. Walk down the gravel road through light woods with fields a throw beyond. The road runs along the side of the mountain on its way to Lake Rutherford. Just inside a second gate, blaze your own trail to the right to an impoundment with young gray birch growing from the muck. Beavers are at work here, and some of their handy-work still stands.

Back on the road, look for critter signs ­ a possum skull, turkey tracks, coyote scat. Soon the road comes to isolated lake Rutherford, seemingly pristine. A visitor to the spot looks across the rocky shore to an outcrop of white pine leaning over the water and notes, "it's akin to a hike many miles into a wilderness where you would have to fly deep into the back woods."

When you've had your fill, turn around and head back up the road to the last gate you passed and turn right up a small foot path past a large white pine, then down the crest toward a stream. Tripod Rock stands before you, covered in liverwort, on three small piles of rock, stacked one upon the other. An outcrop stretches behind it, covered in ferns and mosses.

The accepted theory is that the Wisconsin glacier dropped this boulder from not too far away and is probably made from quartzite, Kittatinny Mountain's bedrock. Over the last 18,000 years or so, smaller rock and sand particles that were underneath it eroded away, leaving the boulder and its legs ­ smaller slabs of rock that it came to rest on. Someone has inserted other types of rock under the boulder, to replace the smaller support rock that now crumbles and erodes.

Pyramid Mountain

The other more magnificent Tripod rock sits atop Pyramid Mountain. This great voyeuristic opportunity demands more work from the hiker, and neophytes should take their time, bring water and wear good hiking boots. Take County Route 511 in Morris County to Pyramid Mountain. Take the blue trail and cross a rushing stream on a boardwalk, surrounded by a wild wetland garden. In late spring, there is bloom in the air ­ violets, viburnum, dogwood, geranium.

The trail comes out on a power line cut briefly, then sinks back into the shade of the trees, climbing steeply over rock. Along the way, overlooks lead to views. Pass the yellow, blue/white and red trails, but take the white to the right. Tripod Rock looms ahead on a scrubby stone altar among the laurel with two smaller Tripod Rocks, side-by-side facing out over a valley.

The Soltice Stones propped up on Pyramid Mountain.

Scott Stanford, supervising geologist for the New Jersey Geological Survey, says the rock is made of gneiss and so is the ledge it's sitting on. "It probably didn't come from very far because the glacial erratics in this part of the country only come from about 10 to 20 miles away." They tend to be on rock ledges or ridge tops that have not eroded away. "In many respects they are not super uncommon but it's not that unexpected or unusual. All they need to be produced is when you have a great number of boulders and cobbles, and when they hit something solid like that outcrop, there's a good chance for them."

On this mountain top, there is actually a triad of Tripods, with a fourth in the making. Some people may wonder about the odds of three Tripods in one location. Is it a monument to the power of sheer chance and geological forces? Or did someone build the tripods?

Allison Para, assistant naturalist for Pyramid Mountain, says that although park personnel believe that Tripod Rock is glacial, their opinion about the two smaller ones (two "Solstice Stones") is ambiguous. "We believe the Solstice Stones were placed there (by Native Americans) because it was probably a ceremonial site. The sun sets between those two rocks." The Solstice Stones each sit on three small rocks, forming small tripod rocks, just like the big one nearby. Para says you can sit on a certain cleft rock behind the two Solstice Stones and watch the sun set between them on the summer solstice. The fourth tripod-in-the-making has one or two stones under it and appears to be waiting for a third to officially make it a tripod rock.

Stanford has been to Pyramid Mountain twice and has not seen the three other tripod rocks, but he says it wouldn't be too difficult for someone to have jacked them up and insert small rocks underneath. He also says on closer inspection, a determination on how they were formed could be made.

Turn around and go back to the trail junction and bear right on the blue and white-blazed combo trail downhill on a rock scramble through intense mountain laurel to Bear Swamp. The walk here becomes fairly level and wet through American beech and yellow birch. At Bear Rock, purportedly one of the largest erratics in the state, bear left onto the white trail, which eventually leads back to the blue near the parking lot.

Through this lowland there are stone walls that make one think of struggling immigrant farmers eking out livings on New Jersey's rocky mountainsides. But here among the grassy glades stands a pile of rock next to a pit, known as Morgan's Ruins. Morgan, legend has it, was a robber who hid out here in the swamp. More about Pyramid Mountain...

This story was first published: Summer, 2004

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