Columbia Trailis a recreational trail in rural northwestern New Jersey in the town of High Bridge. The quiet, scenic trail runs for 7 miles in Hunterdon County, starting in High Bridge and continues through Washington Township into Morris County for a total of 16.2 miles. The trailhead is in High Bridge with the terminus located on Valley Brook Road.
Originally, the trail was occupied by tracks owned by the Central Railroad of New Jersey, but the rails were removed, a gas line was placed beneath the ground and the trail was covered in gravel and then the surface rights were given to the community as a hiking and biking trail. Much of the former rail trail parallels the South Branch of the Raritan River from High Bridge in Hunterdon County north through the small towns of High Bridge, Califon, Long Valley and Washington.
At its southern end, it passes through the Ken Lockwood Gorge Wildlife Management Area where steep slopes reveal rapid water and dramatic rock formations. A 60-foot (18 m) trestle carries the trail over the river in the gorge.
Amidst all the wonderful wooded pathways and scenery, visitors will also find to their delight whimsical gnome homes surreptitiously placed along the trail for hikers and bikers to enjoy as they meandered along Columbia trail. The gnome houses ranged from tiny doorways nailed to a tree stump to little cabins containing plastic trinkets and small visitor log books.
Various publications, including Weird New Jersey and the Black River Journal have written about the gnome homes along the trail. The gnomes even inspired a little picture book entitled, “Jerome the Gnome” about a Califon gnome who goes house hunting. Califon is a town located along the trail.
One visitor to the trail left this comment in one of the notebooks placed aside the gnome homes. “Mr. Gnome, Don’t know what we would do without you. Thanks for making our rides a treat each and every time. Gracie & Kyle.” And: “Dear Gnome, Thanks for sharing your lovely home! PS: Thank you for the magic trail.”
Unfortunately, in 2014, a public policy empowered the Hunterdon County park rangers to remove dozens of gnome homes and associated paraphernalia. The rangers attempted to clear out the ones that were made of plastic or any kind of synthetic products. They left behind “anything that will biodegrade.”
Frank Bell, county director of land use and facilities management offered these reasons for the gnome apocalypse:
“We’ve received numerous complaints over the years about people placing these McDonald toys and things like that and creating those little gnome houses along the trail, and we’ve tried to bear with that … And when vandals strike, neighbors complain about the debris that litters their property…It just got to the point where we had to consider the natural setting of the park versus the synthetic installations.”
Comments on the issue ranged from “appreciated that we removed the litter,” while others asking, “Why did you take them down because they were nice to look at?”
A few of the more vocal comments to the purge of the gnome homes along the Columbia Trail included:
“So a few grumps decided to complain and they callously throw them all away? It’s terrible. The county should be PROUD that they have such a creative, imaginative way to get families together to explore the outdoors and to exercise. It’s an excellent alternative all-around to watching TV or playing video games. Instead, they let a few people ruin the fun for everyone.”
“What a shame – I love walking the Columbia Trail and every time I go to exercise I look for the homes – over and over and over again they’d bring a smile to my face. How sad that the rangers thought of them as “debris” or “trash” rather than what they really are, whimsical decorations to less than a mile of trail.”
“It was so fun looking for all the gnomes on the ride from High Bridge to Long Valley. Amazing that a few idiots complained and ruined it for everyone.”
To quiet the dissenters, plans for a “a magical gnome event” were to be sponsored by the county Department of Parks and Recreation in hopes of soothing the nerves of those who resented the removal of the enchanted gnome homes.
Meanwhile, park rangers will enforce policy against littering and “placing objects” in the park without permission.
In the end, the county officials are looking for a way “to maintain the integrity of the natural setting” while affording “some reasonable way of accommodating this particular phenomenon.”
Despite the removal of the gnome homes, there are those who returned to Columbia Trail and stealthily placed new gnomes in silent protest.
High Bridge Borough’s Commons Park
79 Main Street
High Bridge, NJ 08829