Over the years, I’ve described some overlooks as having a church-steeple view — those places where you look out across a sea of green with only a lonely spire poking through as your human company. This overlook, along a 1,000-foot-long ledge at Coney Rock Preserve in Mansfield, fits that description perfectly and provides a nice bookend to a hike that begins at a 120-year-old iron bridge across the Fenton River.
The journey starts along the southern portion of the 40-mile-long Connecticut Forest & Park Association’s Blue-blazed Nipmuck Trail that runs from Mansfield Hollow State Park to Bigelow Hollow State Park in Union. Along this 10-mile portion of the trail, hikers will cross a pair of iron truss bridges that look somewhat out of place in the wilderness. The path continues to the aptly named Fifty-Foot Cliff and on to Coney Rock, both with tremendous views across a mostly undeveloped portion of eastern Connecticut.
The Nipmuck is Algonquin for “freshwater pond place” and there is no shortage of rivers, streams, ponds, lakes, bogs and kettle holes along its path. From the trailhead on the north side of Route 89, visitors travel along the path through the forest to a flood-control area along Schoolhouse Brook down to the river and the first span, simply known now as Iron Bridge South. A second span — Iron Bridge North — is located about a mile upstream.
Both bridges were relocated in 1999 from streets around Mansfield by the town’s department of public works. The south bridge once crossed Mount Hope River, while the north bridge passed over the Willimantic River. The town secured a grant from the state Department of Environmental Protection and moved them both to the Nipmuck Trail. The bridges were built by the Berlin Construction Co. in 1901 and are some of the earliest examples of truss spans in the state. Other bridges built by the company and incorporated in hiking areas around Connecticut include the “Red Bridge” along Meriden’s Quinnipiac River Gorge Trail and iron bridge at Lovers Leap State Park in New Milford.
After taking in the beautiful views up and down the river from the south span, visitors can take the Fenton River trail on the western banks of the waterway or continue along the Nipmuck, which travels along the eastern side through deep pine forests and past a beautiful marsh. Hikers looking to do only the bridge loop can return to the trailhead along either path.
About 1½ miles from the second bridge is the Fifty-Foot Cliff with its forested views and the distant University of Connecticut Spring Hill Farm barns along with Naubesatuck Lake and the Fenton River Valley. The cliff is actually 100 feet tall. According to the town’s brochure, the name “Fifty-Foot” was chosen more for poetic alliteration than for topographic accuracy. No matter how high the cliff is, the views are spectacular.
Continuing along the trail, hikers will be wowed by the sight of an old wolf tree along a stone wall. The tree once sat along a farmer’s field, providing shade for animals. It now stands amid a forest that has regrown in the former fields and around the tree. A little farther along the path is Old Carter Hill Road, a former farm and carriage path lined with stone walls, ferns and huge trees.
The path eventually winds into the ruins of the Chaffeeville Silk Mill with its huge stone dam and mill foundations. The Nipmuck eventually connects with the road and Coney Rock Preserve. A steep path leads to the top of Coney Rock and more spectacular views including sights like the Fenton River, Naubesatuck Lake and Mansfield Hollow State Park. On clear days, it’s said that one can see into Rhode Island.
The origin of the name “Coney” is murky. It could have been someone’s last name or been named after the rabbits, also known as coneys, that populated the area. According to an old legend, when the area was used as farmland, visitors could stand on the top of the cliff and shout a greeting across the valley to the Fifty-Foot Cliff and it would echo back to the speaker, and vice versa.
The preserve is a neat place to explore with trails through woodlands filled with stone walls, ferns and birch trees and a jumble of huge boulders known as “Proposal Rock.” This name is easier to derive — the previous property owner’s parents were engaged there.
Nipmuck Trail and Coney Rock Preserve
The bottom line: A hike of varying lengths along the Connecticut Forest & Park Association’s Nipmuck Trail across a pair of 120-year-old Berlin iron bridges to a pair of overlooks with spectacular natural-world views across eastern Connecticut.
Difficulty level: Easy to moderately difficult. The bridge loop is relatively flat with several inclines. Footing can be difficult, especially along the river. The path to Fifty-Foot Cliff and Coney Rock is difficult with several steep ascents.
Total mileage: The out-and-back hike to the bridges and two overlooks is about nine miles. The loop to see the bridges is about three miles. There are about five miles of trails within the Coney Rock Preserve.
Directions: The main parking area for the out-and-back hike is at Southeast Park along Route 89, or Warrenville Road, several miles east of its junction with Route 195. To visit Coney Rock Preserve, travel on Route 195 to Mansfield Center. Turn onto Chaffeeville Road and look for a parking area after the intersection with Mulberry Road. Go to mansfieldct.gov/1698/Parks-Preserves for maps of Coney Rock and the Fifty-Foot Cliff.
Pet-friendly?: Leashed dogs are allowed and must be cleaned up after.
Things to do Nearby
The Main Moose: New to the roadside restaurant scene, the Main Moose serves a variety of hot dogs, hamburgers and sandwiches along with ice cream. There’s plenty of outdoor seating for people and their furry friends. There are daily specials, and menu items include overstuffed lobster rolls (hot or cold); bull dogs (a quarter-pound hot dog); a “holy jalapeño” burger with pepper jack cheese, fried jalapeño and topped with a hot aioli; and a steak bomb piled high with prime-rib shavings. Wood carvings, kids’ games and tractor rides are offered on the weekends. 94 Route 66 E., Columbia, 860-337-0113, themainmoose.com
The Adventure Park at Storrs: This aerial adventure park includes rope courses and zip lines that wind, twist and turn through the forest. The course includes both low- and high-rope courses along with intertwined zip lines that owners say “will really get your heart racing and adrenaline pumping.” The courses feature small platforms in the trees at various levels. Using safety harnesses, adventurers maneuver from platform to platform. 2007 Storrs Road, Storrs, 860-946-0606, myadventurepark.com/location/storrs-ct
Frog Bridge: Paying homage to Willimantic’s early history and industrial past, the frog sculptures on spools of thread are quite a sight to see in the heart of the city. The bronze sculptures by Leo Jensen lining the bridge note the city’s textile past and a June night in 1754. According to legend, residents were awakened one night to a chorus of evil sounds coming from the wilderness. Believing it was warring Native American tribes or other trouble, they discovered that the sounds came from bullfrogs battling each other for the last bit of water during a severe drought. Route 66 and South Street, Willimantic