William Gillette and George McLean were two men who knew what they had. Gillette, an actor who built Gillette Castle high above the Connecticut River in East Haddam, expressed the desire in his will that it would never come into the possession of “a blithering sap-head who has no conception of where he is or with what surrounded.”
McLean, a former Connecticut governor and U.S. senator, included the same sentiments in his will, but was a little more delicate making sure his Granby game refuge would always be “a place where some of the things God made may be seen by those who love them as I love them and may find in them the peace of mind and body that I have found.”
Thousands of visitors have had that opportunity each year since 1932, viewing heavenly natural sights and finding peace along the 20 miles of trails in the 4,400-acre McLean Game Refuge, which spans parts of Granby, Simsbury and Canton.
McLean began acquiring land for the refuge in 1903 and added to it when he inherited $3 million from an aunt in 1905. Three U.S. presidents spent time at the refuge as invited guests of McLean. “The wildlife and watershed value of the Game Refuge may have been obvious to Senator McLean,” a study by the Yale School of Forestry noted in 1981, “although it was probably pure chance that he assembled such a remarkably diverse landscape.”
Exploring the refuge can be a daunting task, so it is important to review the trail map and plan out your adventure before you begin. Keep a printed map with you or on your smartphone so it is easier to navigate the trails.
If you want to climb to the top of Eastern Barndoor Hill, plan a route. If you’re seeking a less vigorous hike, plot your path along the banks of Trout Pond and cascades on Bissell Brook downstream to Spring Pond. Unless you are an intrepid hiker, you will need more than one day to explore the entire refuge.
The refuge can be broken up into eastern and western sections for easier exploration. The eastern section is easily navigated and includes ponds, gorges and Eastern Barndoor Hill. The western portion is a little more wild and off the beaten path with mostly out-and-back trails.
After parking along Canton Road and getting out of my car, my senses immediately fill with the scent of pine and sight of towering evergreen trees. A combination of old woods roads and trails along a glacial esker takes visitors down to Spring Pond. The scenic pond is lined with huge white pines and has a log cabin at the northern end.
Visitors can take the north trail from the pond to the bottom of Eastern Barndoor Hill. A rugged and difficult path takes visitors to the top of the 580-foot-high traprock knob with beautiful views to the north and west. Western Barndoor Hill can be seen directly to the southwest from the top of its eastern sibling.
Visitors can also conquer Western Barndoor Hill, a Granby Land Trust preserve, by walking south along Barndoor Hills Road at the base of Eastern Barndoor Hill and looking for the trailhead on Kettle Pond Lane. A 1-mile, out-and-back trail takes visitors to the top of the 660-foot-high Western Barndoor Hill with an even better view to the north deep into the hills and mountains of Massachusetts — and a view out to its twin neighbor Eastern Barndoor Hill. There are also views across the refuge and its sea of white pines and trees with few sights of civilization, giving visitors a sense of the sheer scope and size of the preserve.
The northern portion of the refuge is good for beginning hikes and families with children. The trails are relatively flat and include a scenic pond where Sen. McLean’s cabin still stands. Although it isn’t open to the public, visitors can peer into the dusty windows of the two-room cabin with its stove and wooden table. It’s easy to imagine him sitting on the front porch on a peaceful autumn evening.
From the cabin, visitors can hike to the top of Stony Hill or follow an old woods road along the banks of the scenic Bissell Brook. Trails go to a picnic pavilion and the refuge headquarters.
A parking area along Firetown Road provides access to the western portion of the refuge. A pair of out-and-back trails travel to the northern and southern sections of this portion of the refuge. The Westledge Trail is a rugged path traveling about 2 miles past the ruins of a farming village once known as Pilfershire. The Eddy Trail is also a rugged 4-mile out-and-back trail with views from the top of Weed Hill (794 feet) and Pine Cone (1,095 feet).
Frederic C. Walcott, who replaced McLean in the Senate, noted that McLean taught those who visited the refuge the “physical and spiritual values of forest, field and stream, the healing values of the great out of doors.” To this day, a visit to the refuge is a chance to be educated and healed no matter what the season.
McLean Game Refuge, Granby, Simsbury and Canton
The bottom line: The trails within the 4,400-acre McLean Game Refuge pass through deep forest, along the banks of scenic fishing ponds, rocky chasms with waterfalls and tremendous views from Eastern Barndoor Hill.
Difficulty level: Easy to moderately difficult with a climb to the top of Eastern and Western Barndoor hills.
Total mileage: 20 miles of trails. No bikes are allowed.
Directions: There are several parking areas, with the main one along Route 10/Route 202/Salmon Brook Street. There are also parking areas along Barndoor Hills Road and Canton Road. Visit mcleancare.org/game-refuge/recreation for a detailed map of the refuge.
Pet-friendly? Leashed dogs are allowed and must be cleaned up after. Horses are allowed on yellow-blazed trails.
Tiger Belly Noodle Bar, 9 Mill Pond Drive, Granby: A ramen, pho and sushi bar offering housemade Asian comfort food.
Maple Farm, 198R Salmon Brook St., Granby: A 50-acre farm in the center of Granby includes a brewery and farm store. The farm raises cows, pigs and chickens. The brewery is open March-December.
Peak Mountain/West Suffield Mountain section of the Connecticut Forest & Park Association’s Metacomet Trail: The East Granby trail has stunning views from the top of a traprock spine across Old New-Gate Prison and Copper Mine to the distant hills of Connecticut and Massachusetts. A parking area at the junction of Route 20 and Newgate Road marks the entrance to this section of the Metacomet.