Into the Woods
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It’s the fact that I don’t have to return to my car for the entire day that excites me. That and the fact that I will walk across the spines of Connecticut hilltops, gaze out over gorgeous vistas, skirt shimmering lakes, dip into moist cool gorges, maybe spot some wild animals, all in the company of an old friend. I don’t need much: water bottle, lunch, fleece, guidebook pages, camera, notepad—and a sense of adventure.
I’ve left my life and all my concerns behind in Pennsylvania to come spend some time on a section of the New England Trail (NET), one of the nation’s newest national scenic trails. It’s been 26 years since any new long trails were added to the National and Historic trails system, but the residents of Connecticut and Massachusetts now have a jewel in their back yard, and I want to celebrate that by walking some of its length.
Although the NET stretches through Connecticut and Massachusetts for a distance of 220 miles, my friend, Don Chappell, and I will cover less than a tenth of that during our two-day stretch in Connecticut. But we’re in luck. Clare Cain, the trail stewardship director for the Connecticut Forest & Park Association (CPFA), the nonprofit conservation organization that oversees the trail, tells us it is some of the finest terrain the new trail has to offer.
Starting in West Hartford, we will hike 8.5 miles north and then shuttle into the town of Simsbury for the night, then hike another 8 miles the next day, farther north through Tariffville. Don entered my life when I was through-hiking the Appalachian Trail (AT) here in New England way back in 1979. It feels right to share this celebration hike with him, especially since he helped build and now maintains a section of the trail near his hometown of Wendell, Mass.
The NET is largely made up of three existing trails—the Mattabesett and Metacomet in Connecticut, and the Monadnock in Massachusetts—so much of the route has been in place for half a century or longer. The NET is easily accessible to nearly 2 million people who live within 10 miles of it, and is truly a “community trail,” running through 39 towns on its way from just north of Long Island Sound in Guilford (a final spur to the shore has not yet been completed) to the New Hampshire line. Along with the CFPA’s work along the Connecticut stretch, the trail is maintained by the Berkshire Chapter of the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) in Massachusetts. Currently, there are 18 volunteer trail managers in Connecticut who blaze and clear the trail, build bridges and control erosion.
The woods road Don and I begin our ramble along traverses Reservoir No. 6, one of the Metropolitan District Commission lakes that supplies Hartford with its water. Joggers wearing iPods speed by with a friendly wave, mountain bikers pedal past with a nod of their helmets, and everyone seems happy to be enjoying the day and the opportunity to use the trail. Enormous ancient oaks shade our path, as well as a mix of spruce, white pines, hemlocks and lindens, with their heart-shaped leaves. The reservoir waters sparkle as resident Canada geese take off with great honking displays.
This particular section of the NET is popular with multisport trail users, but soon we will climb to the ridge, enter Talcott Mountain State Park land and leave nearly everyone behind. It is amazing to think that, unlike the Appalachian Trail, which is in essence a linear national park owned by the federal government, the Connecticut section of the NET is a patchwork of private, state and municipal ownerships that CFPA maintains but does not own.
Traditionally, trails in New England were created with a handshake agreement. The private landowner is the boss, however, so if a landowner (there are more than 600 of them along the way) changes his or her mind, the integrity and continuity of the trail can be jeopardized. Clare Cain had told us that Connecticut has a problem with disappearing farmland and green space, creating a challenge for the newly formed national scenic trail.
About 40 miles of the trail in Connecticut are privately owned, which means that when the land changes hands, the new landowners can also change their minds on whether they want the trail to remain. Depending on what they decide, a wonderful walk in the woods can turn into a road walk. The CFPA uses a variety of agreement types to protect the trail system: conservation easements, rights of way, trail license agreements and donations of land. It also works closely with the private landowners, building community support and fostering education. Regular stewardship meetings attempt to connect landowners and the trail community, but from time to time a portion is lost to development or other factors.
After a few miles, we turn west and climb to the ridge, entering Talcott Mountain State Park. The Metacomet Trail was blazed back in 1931 and follows parts of old Native American footpaths. During King Phillip’s War, Chief Metacomet roamed Talcott Mountain overlooking the Farmington Valley. French revolutionary soldiers also camped on Talcott Mountain. Mark Twain hiked it alone and with friends.
The trail here is covered with a carpet of spongy, apricot-colored white pine needles that softens our foot bed. Beneath the pines’ understory sits a low layer of mountain laurel. Our lunch destination is iconic Heublein Tower, perched atop the spine of Talcott Mountain.
This historic tower and onetime summer house dates back to 1912, when Gilbert Heublein purchased a large tract of land for his wife and promised to build her a castle on the ridgeline. The 165-foot tower, which is sculpted right out of the bedrock and anchored to withstand 100 mph winds, offers a commanding 360-degree view of the ridge and the Farmington Valley. In 1983, it was added to the National Registry of Historic Places. Restored and operated by the Friends of Heublein Tower, it is free to the public (donations accepted); you can climb to the enclosed observation deck, which used to be the family’s ballroom.
From high above, Don and I trace our trail ahead and see how the ridge jogs and coincides with the topographic map in the CFPA’s Connecticut Walk Book. It is always a thrill to get a bird’s-eye view of how far you’ve come and the territory ahead.
This ridge that we follow is traprock, the remains of an ancient basalt flow that boiled out of a crack in the earth’s crust 20 million years ago. The upheaval was caused when North America broke away from the continent of Eurasia and drifted across the ocean to its present-day position. The eons eroded it, creating a marvelously complex system of forests and wetlands, encompassing what today has become both rural landscapes and suburbia. From this height, we can easily see how the eastern flank of the ridge rises abruptly and dramatically, yet the western slope is gradual and gentle.