Remember when you went to an amusement park and discovered your favorite roller coaster? You would wait in line for what seemed like hours, hop on board for a few minutes of climbs and plunges along with twists and turns all mixed in with some screams. Then you would get in line again and do it all over.
That pretty much describes the natural-world roller coaster known as the “Mile of Ledges” along the Blue-blazed Tunxis Trail in Burlington. In total, the 38.5-mile Connecticut Forest & Park Association trail runs through Southington, Wolcott, Bristol, Burlington, New Hartford, Canton, Barkhamsted and Hartland, but this mile, with about 750 vertical feet, is easily the toughest Tunxis stretch and one of the most difficult 5,280-foot-plus-long nature paths in the state.
The trailhead for the path — marked with blue and yellow blazes — is the Burlington Land Trust’s Martha Brower Wildlife Sanctuary. The 43-acre space around the scenic Country Pond was the trust’s first preserve. Hikers can follow a loop trail marked with red blazes around the pond that is filled with ducks, geese and beaver lodges. I would describe it as a rugged trail, but what lies ahead is a whole other level.
The main blue and yellow trail from the parking area begins placidly enough with a trip along the western banks of the pond with side paths to the edge where frogs jump in and fish can be seen in the shallows. After leaving the pond, hikers pass through the deep forests owned by the Bristol Water Co. The trails are relatively easy on the approach to Marsh Brook which tumbles out of the forest over boulders and ledges, giving visitors a taste of what is ahead.
The first jumble of ledges and huge boulders will give hikers a feel for the trail as the Mile of Ledges begins. The relatively easy part of the trail travels high above the ledges with seasonal views to Old Marsh Pond. Next up? Bear’s Den where the trail starts to get progressively difficult.
There are three ways to pass through the den — above, through a chasm or around. If you take the above route, hikers will have to navigate a narrow ledge at the top. The chasm route will take hikers down a steep ledge and into the bowels before ascending back up to the trail. And like all good amusement park rides, there is a “last chance” exit as hikers can avoid the ledge entirely by taking a trail that wraps around the den.
I won’t spoil the rest of the mile, but the trail goes straight up in places, there are tight squeezes and strenuous climbs and descents. Thankfully the stratified ledges act as ladders and steps so the trail is always surmountable.
The blue and yellow trail meets up with the main branch of the Tunxis and visitors take a right to find the Tory Den. A group of large boulders surrounded by huge rock ledges, the den has a large entrance at the front and a small exit hole at the back. It’s a bit of a challenge to get through, but fun to imagine what it must have been like as a hideout for Stephen Graves, a Harwinton farmer who sided with the Tories — colonists loyal to the British crown.
“In order to avoid military service with the Patriots, Graves bought his way out,” according to Dan Casey of the Environmental Learning Centers of Connecticut. “When the Patriots tried to draft him a second time, he refused to pay again. He hid in nearby Tory Den to avoid capture, beatings and possible hanging.”
According to Casey, the den could hold seven men, two standing and five crouching. Moses Dunbar, another Tory, also sought refuge in the den and eventually joined the British Army and was captured and hanged as a traitor, Casey says. “He was the only Connecticut citizen to be so judged and punished.”
The den was also home at times for the Old Leatherman, a man covered entirely with stitched-together leather patches, who walked a circuitous, 360-mile route from central Connecticut to western New York in a span of 34 days beginning in 1858. He stopped only to eat and sleep, and when he finished one circuit, he would turn around and begin again. He completed the circuit 11 times each year for almost three decades. Civilization has many places where George Washington once slept, and the natural world has its many caves and overhangs where the Leatherman once sheltered.
The path eventually hooks up with Greer Road and a return to the sanctuary. Retired school teacher Alan Perrie, who has designed a variety of hikes for people of all abilities, points out in the trust trail description that “if you enjoyed the experience on this hike, try it again, but in the opposite direction because it has descents, which are harder than ascents. It will improve your hiking skills and provide a great workout in a short amount of time.”
And there is no line to wait in to ride the Mile of Ledges again and again.
Things to do Nearby
Harvest Bakery: The bakery has been in Bristol for eight decades, serving cakes, pastries, breads and cookies since Anne and Louis Barth opened the doors in 1941. Refusing to add preservatives, Harvest Bakery is also one of the few bakeries in the state that hearth-bakes its bread and rolls using the same recipes used by the original owners. Hearth-baking means each loaf of bread or hard roll is placed on a wooden peel and shuffled on the oven hearth to bake. 84 Farmington Ave., Bristol, 860-589-8800, harvestbakeryinc.com
Chute Gates Steakhouse & Saloon: There aren’t too many saloons in Connecticut, but if you’re looking for some Western atmosphere, this is your place. Entrées include “Saddle Up” surf and turf, country chicken, “Wrangler’s” ribeye and “Tulsa” top sirloin along with St. Louis barbecue ribs. In the mood for something a bit lighter? There’s Southwest fried pickles, Galveston garlic bread, Texas pretzel and “locked & loaded” nachos or fries. The Western- and rodeo-themed restaurant has NASCAR Sundays and Friday night karaoke. 372 Main St. (Route 6), Terryville, 860-585-0704, chutegates.com
New England Carousel Museum: Speaking of amusement parks, the New England Carousel Museum has a mission “dedicated to the acquisition, restoration, and preservation of operating carousels and carousel memorabilia.” At the museum, visitors can “travel back in time when the carousel was the pinnacle of amusement park joy.” Exhibits showcase more than 100 years of carousel art and history. A sample carving bay, hands-on activities for children and a Venetian indoor carousel help tell the story of the carousel to the young and young-at-heart. The museum is open Wednesday–Sunday, offering two tours each day. 95 Riverside Ave., Bristol, 860-585-5411, thecarouselmuseum.org