Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Good Things, Small Packages - Southford Falls State Park

         Southford Falls State Park, Oxford, CT

         State Park site                         Trail Map

There are over a hundred state parks in little Connecticut, and beyond Sleeping Giant, I’ve only been to a few – those with miles of trails on their own or where one of the blue-blazed trails passes through.  At 120 acres, Southford Falls is one of the smaller parks.

But I am a sucker for waterfalls, and when a photo group planned a shoot at Southford Falls, I had to check it out.  The falls are a beautiful photo spot, but don’t stop there.  The state park is a great place to spend some time and wander around. 

The falls run on Eight Mile Brook as it flows from Lake Quassapaug to the Housatonic River.  If you're mapping it out, be careful to avoid wrong turns from the naming convention used out here - this waterway is not to be confused with Seven Mile Brook or Six Mile Brook that both flow into the Eight Mile, or with Five Mile Brook and Four Mile Brook that flow into the Housatonic south of the Eight Mile.  Clear?  OK, let’s move on.

Eight Mile Brook as it rushes down from the falls under the Covered Bridge

The steep drop of the river, coupled with the narrow channel through the rock ledge, made this a good spot for water power in the 1800’s.  Fabric mills, saw mills and grist mills were built along the banks. In 1855, a papermill was built on the falls.  A second mill was built a little farther south, and a raceway from the falls brought steady supply of water there.  Over time, the paper mill was expanded, and a dam was built for power generation – creating what is now Papermill Pond on the north side of the park.  The Diamond Match Company bought the mill, and operated it producing cardboard until it burned around 19251

The Diamond Match Company papermill, with
the falls at the right side of the page.
from History of the Town of Oxford, Connecticut, Litchfield and Hoyt, 1960 

Looking around now, with the park and river and bridle trail, you might describe the area as peaceful, bucolic, serene, pastoral…  But in the early 1900’s the river was heavily polluted, and the noise from the mills must have been deafening.  After the mill burned, the property was sold and eventually given to the state.  Finally, in the 1930’s, workers with the Civilian Conservation Corps removed remains of the mill buildings and cleared the way for the state park as it sits now.

I include that history lesson because (one) I just like history and know our state parks didn’t just appear out of thin air one day, and (two) you can explore around the falls and find remnants of foundations and the raceway, so now you know what the heck they are.  You can get even more detail at the Oxford Historical Society or the town's Municipal History page.

The nearly two-mile long loop trail goes past the falls, across a covered bridge, along the river through a pine forest and over a short boardwalk on the river bank.  And that’s just the first third of a mile. 

Picturesque covered bridge.  It's good they put that sign up,
otherwise we wouldn't know what that red thing was!

Tree latched onto a boulder.  Check the rock formations as you 
pass through the ledge channel.
Rockhounds - look for Collinsville Formation in the outcrop uphill from here 

Boardwalk along the river bank

The trail continues around through the hardwood forest over ledge and marsh, with a spur that heads up to an observation tower. The trees have grown up as tall as the tower, so the view is only open toward the west.  But it's fun to climb and have a look anyway.

Reflecting pool above the falls

If two miles isn’t enough of a hike for you, go around again and see what you missed the first time. Past the wetlands, the trail leads along the bank of Papermill Pond, a stocked and protected trout park.  Next to the pond, there is a large picnic area and pavilion, and a big open grassy area.

With the waterfall and easy trail, trout pond and picnic area, Southford Falls is a great spot to spend half a day.  The Oxford and Southbury area is nice to drive around, too.  Who knows what you’ll stumble on – if I hadn’t driven by this sign, I’d never have known what to do with the deer this hunting season…

1 Norman Litchfield and Sabina Connolly Hoyt PhD, History of the Town of Oxford, Connecticut, Oxford, CT 1960.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Point Me The Way Home


Cairns are simply man-made piles of stone.  Out on a hike, we’ve all seen them used for trail or summit markers.  This one on Brace Mountain not only marks the summit, but acts as a base for the parasailer’s wind sock.

Connecticut High Point on Mt Frissell

Around here, most trails are marked by painted spots on trees.  But on rocky passes, or in places like utility corridors where there are no trees, those piles of stone mark the trail - especially where the path isn’t obvious.  Ducks (cairns with a pointed rock – a beak – on top) may point you in the trail’s direction. 

Blue Trail cairn on the Mattabesett Trail

The rock piles are often about a foot or two high, and whenever I pass I may add a couple of stones to keep the pile neat and pointing the right way. 

But things have gotten out of hand!   Some of the trails are just littered with little piles of rock – 5, 8, 10 stones high.  Hopefully off to the side of the trail, but sometimes smack dab in the middle (at least until someone kicks them down). 

Sleeping Giant White Trail in Hamden

Zoar Trail in Sandy Hook
Whenever I pass, all these questions jump to mind - Are these gnome markers?  Are they the beginning of a public art exhibition – like modern art decorating shopping centers or sculpture walks through city parks?  Are they the work of worn out walkers, looking for any excuse to take a break – “just give me a minute, statue’s almost done…”

Whittemore Trail in Beacon Falls

I've never come across a cairn in progress, I've never spotted someone (or something) actually building one of these.  They are just there.  In fact, I've found these little decorative heaps hiking out and back trails – nothing there on the first pass, but an hour later – poof, a little pile dropped carefully from the heavens. 

Never, that is, until now.  The riddle was finally answered when I caught this forest pixie adding to a little garden of trail sculptures, rock piles and cairns

She's tall for a gnome.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Quinnipiac Trail - West Woods detour

Fall in New England, it's a really nice time to hike - cool days, colorful leaves...   and the Quinnipiac Trail through Hamden is a great trail - woods, hills, views, rivers etc etc.  But for the last couple of years, there have been trail interruptions for road and bridge construction and a little logging.  The projects are near done, and pretty soon I think the trail will be remapped and remarked.  Until then, it's a little tricky through this section, and the CFPA recommends an alternate route around the mess.

The original and detour routes make a loop hike I've done a lot - this time I took pictures.

The trail leaves Sleeping Giant State Park along the Mill River, and runs right smack into bridge construction on Mt Carmel Ave, and the road realignment project at the corner of Whitney Ave, Mt Carmel Ave and West Woods Rd.  Once the construction is completed, the blue trail will go over the new bridge and back into the woods along old walls and foundations of an 1800's axel shop.  Until then, just follow Mt Carmel up the road and cross onto West Woods Rd.

Here's where the original trail and the detour come together.  The Quinnipiac follows West Woods Road west (straight ahead in this photo), and then turns onto Kimberly Street.  The detour turns left here and heads south along the Farmington Canal Trail - a barge canal then railroad that's been turned into a hike and bike path.

I still like the hike through the woods, so I'll start there.  Description of the detour path is a little farther down the page...

This section of West Woods Rd was moved recently and the project is just about done.  There are no blazes painted yet on the new poles, but the trail continues along the road, and then turns left, south, onto Kimberly Street.  Halfway up the hill on Kimberly, you'll find the first blazes.  This road continues up to Quinnipiac University's York Hill campus, but the trail turns right into the woods at the gate in the center of this photo.

Hike along an old woods road, and then turn onto the smaller blue blazed path.

The trail continues up and along the ridge behind Quinnipiac's campus, and follows it through what was once a collection of summer cottages.  In fact, the trail goes right through the living room of  one of them - past a stone oven and chimney.  There are a few foundation blocks scattered around the woods.

This walk through the woods continues for about 3/4 mile, and then the trail breaks out into the open.

You can see York Mountain to the west, and nothing but scrub brush in front of you.  This lot was clear cut a few years ago, and the trail through the woods obliterated.  But a path has been cut and blazed, and then left alone - so it's overgrown with shrubs and thorn bushes.  Just pick one of the semi-cleared paths and head south between the tree line to the east, and the ridge to the west.  The path opens up into a grassy lane, then hits the woods again.  Follow the blazes down the hill and turn left at the bottom, out onto Rocky Top Road.

The Quinnipiac Trail continues west on Rocky Top, across Shepard and up onto York Mountain.

If you don't want to be bothered with bushwacking through the shrubbery, that detour along the road is your ticket through.

Once you get out of Sleeping Giant park, and cross Whitney Ave, the paved Farmington Canal trail cuts across West Woods Road heading north and south.  Turn south and walk behind the little plaza of shops.  Stop for pizza or a sandwich if you're looking for a snack break!

Continue along the trail, watching for bikers and roller bladers - be ready to take cover when you hear the screech of brakes behind you with someone yelling "on your left" - the bike path gets pretty busy, especially on weekends.  As it's an old rail line, there are still a few brick station buildings that have been turned into offices or stores.

Keep going on the trail until it comes out along Sherman Avenue across from the entrance to the Quinnipiac campus.  You have to get off the trail here, and walk along Sherman, and then take a right onto Rocky Top Road.  Rocky Top is a narrow, windy road - so watch for cars coming around the bend.  I guarantee - you'll see them before they see you!  Hike along Rocky Top for a half mile until you go over the hill and come around the bend meeting up with the blue blazed Quinnipiac Trail.

Rocky Top trail head

Together, the trail and detour route make a 3 1/4 mile loop hike.  All the construction should be finished in the next couple of months.  But there may be additional rerouting of the blue trail near Rocky Top.  In the meantime, I'll do what I can to keep the brush tamped down.

Approximate Trail Route

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Walk by the Water

With a couple of hours to kill, I took what is one of my favorite hikes through Sleeping Giant Park.  Out on the quiet northern side of the mountain, parking at the Circle trailhead on Tuttle Ave, this little loop starts with a walk through horse country, a short uphill hike, and then a nice little wander by streams and waterfalls.  And since we're still drying out from string of storms that came through this summer, there's plenty of water running.

I hiked along the horse path west from the parking area, past the pastures along Tuttle Ave.  Sections are pretty soggy where the water runs off the hills but doesn't quite drain out to the road.  Turn uphill at the Red Triangle trail.  This one leads up along a stream gorge - nice scenery but little water.  There is one steep and narrow section of the trail where it crosses the top of the gorge, but a fallen tree makes a good handrail to lean on.  Turn back east at the Violet trail, or for a little more of a workout continue on and then turn east on the Blue trail.  Either way, head back north when you get to the Red Circle trail, and my favorite section of streams and waterfalls.

The Circle trail follows another stream back down the mountain, with a series of bends, twists and cascades along the way.  Usually pretty dry by late summer, the stream was still babbling away with enough water to feed the falls.  Continue on the trail past the Gorge Cascade, and down to the trailhead and parking lot.  If you're trucking along, the hike may take about 45 minutes.  If you stop and take a break by the water, maybe a little longer.

And if you waste time trying to get the little critters to pose, you can be there all afternoon!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Mattabesett Trail - Reservoir Section

Part 2 - the Mattabesett
Hike date June 13, 2011 

I left you right here in Part 1, just off the Reservoir Loop Trail and on the Mattabesett Trail heading north toward River Road.  I'll still detail the hike as it's done in the Connecticut Forest and Park Association's Walk Book, but I have to get up to the north trailhead first!

Following the blue blazes is supposed to be easy - just follow the trail and see a blue patch every once in a while to confirm you're in the right place.  And it was just like that for a few miles, until I got close to a trail section near power lines.  The trail was clear, though there are woods roads and bike/quad trails all through here.  The trail obviously bent to the left, and I hiked up and over a ledge crossing, down along a woods road until I realized it's been a long time since I saw a trail blaze!  Look forward - no blaze.  Look backward - no blaze.  Backtrack, follow another clearing, turn around again...  if I had a GPS tracking me, the path would look like a very random set of loop-de-loops.  No problem, the map showed I should be tracking near the power lines, and I could see the break in treetops where the clearing was, so off I went until I found a few faded blazes and ran smack into a huge blowdown - a big ol' birch tree completely blocking the narrow trail.

I was ready to try and climb through/around the tree, until a four foot black snake slithered across the trail in front of me - and I very quickly decided to bushwhack my way out of there and head to the power line clearing.  And after my breathing slowed, and my pulse dropped back to normal, I remembered the black rat snake to be pretty harmless (unless you're a chipmunk, rat, frog...).  But that sucker was big... and fast... and, well, slithery!!

There's the blaze, but do you see a trail?
The trail crosses the power lines, so I just wandered up and around looking for a clearing or blaze.  If you've ever hiked utility corridors and power lines, or better yet tried to maintain a trail there, you know how fast the bushes and vines take over a clearing.  Back and forth a little until I found this painted rock and followed the trail down to the end.  Don't get me wrong, it's still a great trail here - nothing a chain saw, brush cutter and a little blue paint wouldn't fix!

And now, the Mattabesett Trail and a 5 mile section running south from the River Road trailhead.  Since this is an eighty year old trail, one of the original CFPA blue trails and now (with the Metacomet and Menunkatuck Trailspart of the New England Trail, I expected the trailhead to be well marked - maybe a kiosk or signpost or souvenir stand.  Nope, you really have to know what you're looking for to find this.  Using the Walk Book directions and this power plant as a landmark, you'll find a parking area across the street.  The only markings were two little CFPA and NET placards nailed to a tree.

The trail follows the road for a few hundred feet, and then heads into the woods.  This section has been reblazed recently, so it's easy to stay on the blue trail as it crosses woods roads and bike trails through the forest.  The trail crosses several streams as it heads up the hill to that power line clearing.  I walked north a little to get this photo looking down on the Connecticut River.

Follow the trail across the power line clearing, into the woods and southeast parallel to the clearing.  It was easier to get around that downed tree from this direction, and I moved sections of it to clear at least half the trail.  Continue down across another stream, and into the section where I lost the blazes coming the other way.

The trail curves around to bring you through these two large boulders, grey schist and gneiss with chunks of whitish rock (quartz?).  Geology on the east leg of the Mattabesett is completely different than the west.  On this side, you find these chunky metamorphic rocks and boulders.  The west side is characterized by the fine grain basalt - traprock - ridges and cliffs.    Find a geologist if you want to learn more - I just notice that the rocks are different!

Watch for blazes along this part of the trail.  It follows woods roads, crosses them, and then wanders through the woods and there are so many paths, clearings and trails it's easy to miss a turn.  Nearing the two mile mark, the trail turns off one of those woods roads near a marsh and pond -  frogs croaking, little water bugs dancing across the pond surface.  A log bridge takes you over the inlet stream, and the trail continues on into the woods and groves of mountain laurel.

As I came to another stream crossing, this one over a ladder-type bridge, I met the only other hiker I saw on the trail today - an older gentleman with a big floppy hat, long sleeves rolled up to the elbows, and long pants rolled up to the knees.  He had a walking stick in one hand, sandals in the other, and was squishing barefoot through the muddy trail and across the stream.  And it looked like he was loving it.  He didn't seem in any mood for conversation though, just grinned, nodded and kept on walking.

Continuing past the first Reservoir Road crossing and the north junction with the Blue/Yellow Reservoir Loop, the trail leads a half mile along another woods road at the base of ledges.  As you start to hike up hill, the trail comes to a wall of boulders and takes a left up the ledge.  This is the Rock Pile cave according to the trail guide - a hollow in the boulders deep enough to be called a cave.  A rock wall was built up along the cave opening. I already had my close encounter of the slithering kind for today, so I stayed out of the cave and just hiked up the ledge.

Boulders and ledge at "Rock Pile Cave"

Peering into the cave - plenty of room

The trail climbs up and around the ledge.
A short walk through the trees and laurel leads out to open rock face and a great view of the reservoir below (this time #1).  With the scrub oak and stunted pines trees make a good wind break, I took a break here to enjoy a snack with a view.

Asylum Reservoir #1

The rest was a good idea because the next part of the trail was a workout.  There were still streams of water running down the boulders from the recent rain.  Scrambling across and down the face of the boulders, I nearly slipped and skidded down into the brush.  The trail leads along the ridge and then steeply down to cross another stream.  I didn't bring poles today, so was hanging on to bush and tree limbs as I tried to get better footing down the ledge.  In dryer weather, this would have been too bad.  But wet rock makes the descent really interesting!

After crossing Reservoir Road again and passing another intersection with the loop trail, the rest of the trail leads up and down smaller hills and ledges around the west side of the reservoir.  This side has better views to the water than the Loop Trail side, but that side doesn't have the up and down of the rocks and ledges - choose your poison.  Nearing the south end of the reservoir, I scared that heron off it's nest again - though still didn't get a picture.  But here's one last shot as I went by - off into the woods to that Bear Hill Road parking lot, and my car.

I almost had enough for the day, but remembered there was a new trail nearby that ran along the Connecticut River.  Now if I can just find that one...


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