Arriving at Sleeping Giant State Park in Hamden on an afternoon in late June, we notice a lot of yellow caution tape keeping walkers from certain areas near the parking lot. It is hard to escape the feeling that the place looks like a crime scene. And that conclusion isn’t too far off, but the culprit was Mother Nature.
On May 15, 2018, a tornado tore through the park, damaging thousands of trees and leaving the traprock mountain ridge, that from a distance resembles a slumbering giant, looking like it had bald patches. For just over a year, staff with the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, contractors, and volunteers with the Sleeping Giant Park Association worked to clear the park and make its paths safe for visitors, at a cost of $735,000 — 75 percent of which will be reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
In June, the 1,400-acre park with more than 30 miles of hiking trails reopened and quickly resumed its place as one of the state’s most-frequented hiking destinations.
“I am pleased that this restoration work has been completed and we are again able to open this popular state park to our residents and visitors,” Gov. Ned Lamont said in a release in June. “I look forward in the coming weeks to getting out onto the trails at Sleeping Giant and seeing the restoration work first hand.”
But there was grumbling online and from some locals that the park “would never be the same.” I wanted to see if that was true. I am happy to report after a recent visit with a friend that while the ravages of the tornado can still be seen, the park remains a wonderful nature destination.
The entrance to the park was among the most devastated sections, and it’s here that yellow caution tape keeps visitors from treading on newly planted soil. But as you leave the area, the signs of the storm become less noticeable, and before long not noticeable at all.
During our trip we take the park’s most popular trail, the Tower Trail, a 1½-mile series of switchbacks and hills that brings you to the crest of Mount Carmel (aka the giant’s left hip) where a stone tower provides panoramic views. The walk is steep but takes you through the heart of what makes the park so special.
At one point in a narrow canyon area, the temperature drops by several degrees. What was a brutally hot day during our walk is suddenly cool. The park is known for these microclimates. There are high and dry areas of the ridge as well as these cool areas with little sunlight. As a result, many plants that are rare elsewhere in Connecticut grow here.
Sleeping Giant was designated as a state park in 1924 but has long been recognized as a unique feature of the local landscape. Members of the Quinnipiac tribe believed it is the body of the giant stone spirit Hobbomock, a villain in many tales who diverted the Connecticut River in a rage. To prevent Hobbomock from further mayhem, a spell cast by a good spirit caused him to sleep forever.
As we reach the top of Mount Carmel we are winded but have one more climb: the stone tower. This open-air tower was built in the 1930s by the Works Progress Administration. From its top we can see New Haven and parts of Hartford County as well as the general Connecticut countryside stretching in all directions. There are longer trails that cut up and down across the whole ridge or body of the giant, but for today this moderate hike is more than enough to remind us that the Sleeping Giant is back.
Sleeping Giant is open daily from 8 a.m. to sunset. Admission is free for Connecticut vehicles as it is to all of Connecticut’s state parks and forest recreation areas thanks to the “Passport to the Parks” program. Out-of-state vehicles are charged $15 or $6 after 4 p.m.