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Saturday, May 25, 2024

Nature & History, Perfect Together at White Lake for an Afternoon Escape

Hardwick Day @ Vass House is scheduled to take place Sunday, October 8th. Much is planned, including the very popular reptile show, raptor show, and gourmet food for sale, plus much more. For details, call 908-362-6528.

Looking for someplace alluring, fun and free to visit, either on your own or with family and friends? Look no further than White Lake Natural Resource Area in Hardwick.

Complete with its beauty and rich history, this natural area is truly a hidden gem in Warren County. The 469-acre resource area located at 97 Stillwater Road is home to a pristine lake along with a variety of habitats for animals, plant species and even rare butterflies some visitors have sighted during their visit. The natural beauty provides the perfect backdrop for a variety of activities and events, making White Lake a great place to visit without a long drive.

Young child enjoys trying out kayaking at a previous Hardwick Day event held at the Vass House across Route 521. Photo by D.L. Dunn, 9/2023

The land originally belonged to John Vass—formerly known as Johann Wass—a German immigrant who had been born at sea in 1764. After working as an indentured servant, he grew to eventually marry three wives and fathered many children. Vass bought the 550-acre plot that makes up the present-day Vass Farmstead and White Lake Natural Resource Area in 1802.

A year after his third wife’s death in 1804, Vass remarried for the last time to Margaretta Flock. They had six children together, leaving Vass with 13 children from all four of his marriages. A family of this size needed a big enough home, which led to the building of the Vass Farmstead house in 1812.

Vass worked as a farmer, growing apples, alfalfa, buckwheat, corn, flax, oats and rye. He also raised poultry, pigs and sheep to sell, and left the Farmstead to his son Isaac when he passed away at age 88, in the year 1852. Isaac had been involved in local politics starting in 1848 and was a member of the Township Committee for many years.

While the Farmstead belonged to Isaac Vass, the Knickerbocker Ice Company of Pennsylvania bought a portion of the land on the south shore of White Lake. They processed the marl that makes up the lake bottom.

White Lake, the main attraction of the area, was originally named White Pond after its white marl bottom; marl is a type of rock or soil that consists of lime or clay and was once used as fertilizer.

In the case of White Lake, the marl bottom is made up of fossilized mollusks and shells left over from an ancient sea. The ruins of the Marl House can be seen on the Ridge & Valley hiking trail, though it is not open for the public to walk through.

For a short period of time, the Newark Sanitary and Manufacturing Company also mined marl from the lake’s shore, but with the arrival of the 20th century, agriculture declined in the area.

After Isaac Vass’ death in 1893, his son, Frank Vass continued managing the farm for a time while staying active in local politics. The name was changed to White Lake around the time that Frank Vass took over.

He later sold the property to George Van Riper in 1922 and ownership of the property changed hands a few more times until 1997, when it was acquired by Warren County and the State of New Jersey, with help from the Ridge and Valley Conservancy and several other non-profit organizations.

Managed by Hardwick Township and the Hardwick Township Historical Society, Vass House is described as being constructed cut stone. “(It) initially contained a dining room, side hallway with a simple but elegant stairway and a double parlor. There were two large bedrooms, a large birthing room or storage closet on the second floor. An addition was added to the main block containing a dining room-kitchen and after that the roof on this addition was raised to provide more sleeping space. The main rooms were large with high ceilings designed for comfortable and spacious living. It is a fine example of an 18th Century Warren County farmhouse.”

Many grants have been approved by the Warren County Municipal & Charitable Conservancy Trust Fund for the upkeep of this impressive structure and in 1999 it was designated on the National Register of Historic Places and the NJ Register of Historic Places. For more information, visit The Vass Farmstead website.

The 69-acre, 40-foot-deep lake is home to all kinds of fish, including: bass, brown and rainbow trout, sunfish and landlocked salmon. The lake itself is spring-fed, meaning its water mostly comes from a deep aquifer—the body of rock or sediment that holds groundwater—and flows up into the lake.

While swimming in the lake is not permitted, visitors can kayak and canoe. Fishing is permitted from non-motorized or electric crafts, as well as from boat launch areas and floating docks.

The park also boasts a few fun hiking trails of various lengths around the lake for people and horses. Some parts of the hiking trails are smooth and take you through the meadows and other parts take you through the woods; no matter what part of the trail you are on, though, the scenery is enchanting.

None of the trails are longer than three miles on their own, but to get around the entire lake, you will have to switch trails a couple of times, so make sure you are well prepared. The trails can be hilly and rocky in some areas and muddy in others if it has rained recently, so wearing the proper shoes can make all the difference. It is also important to remember to stay on the marked trails at all times; they are there for a reason!

White Lake Natural Resource Area is home to quite a few habitats, all of which can be seen if you choose to hike all the way around the lake. These include mature hemlock and hardwood forests, fertile meadows, sinkhole ponds and karst limestone exposures.

Many endangered or threatened species of plant life make their home on the lake’s shoreline—just another reason why staying on the marked trails is important. Additionally, many plants and animals make their home in the White Lake Natural Resource Area, so it is important to remain respectful of their home and of the animals you happen to see while visiting. The animals most often spotted by visitors include osprey, bald eagles, snakes, lizards, black bears and bobcats, plus rare and common butterflies.

Content to be left alone, this healthy green lizard was spotted along one of the trails. Photo by A. Svendsen, 9/2023

In addition to seeing the ruins of the Marl House, further down the Ridge & Valley Trail sits an old lime kiln. The boat launch and floating dock where you can fish are found on the Blue Trail, and the scenic overlook can be found at a point where the Blue Trail converges with the shorter Red Trail.

The floating dock at White Lake was installed last year for fishermen and simple enjoyment by Warren County. Photo by D.L. Dunn, 9/2023

There are three parking locations for convenience: two on Stillwater Road—one next to a white building and the other with restrooms nearby—and the third is located on Spring Valley Road. The main parking lot on Stillwater Road will lead visitors to the Blue Trail; please keep in mind that, while you can drive down to the boat launch, you cannot park there.

The other parking lot on Stillwater Road will let visitors out near the Red Trail, and the parking lot off Spring Valley Road will place visitors at one end of the Ridge & Valley Trail.

The park is open from sunrise to sunset and remains open year-round. In addition to the permitted recreational activities (walking, hiking, fishing, boating, paddling, picnicking, permit-only hunting and horseback riding), each year, a series of public programs are offered since the park doubles as an outdoor educational center.

Examples of these programs include songbird and butterfly walks, free kayaking, hikes and outdoor yoga classes. For more information about scheduled events, you can visit www.warrenparks.com/calendar/, call White Lake Information at (908) 763-1760 and speak to the land steward or check the information area by the main parking lot during a regular visit.

There, you can also pick up an information pamphlet on the area that includes a map with the trails and a list of activities that are not permitted, including drinking alcohol, swimming, camping and hunting unless given special permit from Warren County. The collecting of animals, plants or historic artifacts is also prohibited.

White Lake Natural Resource Area is an amazing place to visit for some local relaxation. There are scheduled events for those who want to try something new and recreational activities for those who just want to get out of the house and have fun. The gorgeous scenery makes for a picture-perfect view and its deep history calls for reflection on the land and county’s entwined pasts.

Annalyse Svendsen
Annalyse Svendsen, Contributing Writer

Annalyse recently graduated from Fairleigh Dickinson University with her B.A. in Humanities. She also minored in Creative Writing and studied French and American Sign Language in an effort to learn how to communicate with more people. Annalyse only recently moved to Hardwick but grew up in Stillwater and attended Stillwater Elementary School and Kittatinny Regional High School. While in high school, she was an active member of both the Book Club—where she served as president—and the Marching Band—where she served as the band’s librarian. At FDU, she served as the secretary of the Ping Pong Club, as well as the vice president of Rose & Thorn. Annalyse has always been passionate about learning. She has a passion for writing and plans to pursue a master’s degree in either Library Sciences or Creative Writing.