Monday, August 31, 2015

Walden Pond State Reservation: Pond Path (Blog Hike #542)

Trail: Pond Path
Hike Location: Walden Pond State Reservation
Geographic Location: east side of Concord, MA (42.44079, -71.33458)
Length: 1.9 miles
Difficulty: 2/10 (Easy)
Last Hiked: August 2015
Overview: A circumnavigation of the world’s most famous kettle pond.
Hike Route Map:
Photo Highlight:

Directions to the trailhead: In suburban Boston, take SR 2 to SR 126.  This intersection is located 4.5 miles west of I-95 or 10.5 miles east of I-495.  Go south on SR 126.  The state reservation entrance is on the left 0.4 miles south of SR 2.  Turn left to enter the reservation, and park in any of the large blacktop parking lots.

The hike: The date was July 4, 1845 when the author, philosopher, historian, and Concord, MA native Henry David Thoreau went “into the woods.”  For the next two years he planned to practice subsistence living in a small self-built cabin.  Thoreau had built the cabin on a plot of land owned by Ralph Waldo Emerson located adjacent to Walden Pond.  Thoreau’s goal was to confront “only the essential facts of life” and therefore learn what nature had to teach.  The result of this endeavor was the writing Walden, a memoir published in 1854 that would become Thoreau’s most famous work.
            Geologically speaking, Walden Pond is a glacial kettle pond, or a body of water that formed at the end of the last ice age by runoff from retreating glaciers.  New England has many kettle ponds, and Walden Pond does not particularly stand out in terms of size or scenic value.  Thus, the Thoreau connection gives Walden Pond its claim to fame.
            What you think of Walden Pond when you leave depends a lot on what you are expecting when you arrive.  If you come expecting the wilderness experience Thoreau had over 150 years ago, then you will leave disappointed.  Walden Pond today lies in suburban Boston, so the sounds of voices, cars, trains, and airplanes are ever-present.  On the other hand, if you arrive expecting a nice pondside woodland walk in a suburban setting, then you will leave quite content.
            Several trails access more remote corners of the reservation, but the Pond Path described here remains the reservation’s most popular and famous trail.  A bookstore operated on-site by the Thoreau Society gives you an opportunity to purchase literary works and other items, and a new expanded Visitor Center was under construction when I came here in August 2015.  Also, be aware that due to this reservation’s location and popularity, the large parking lot tends to fill on warm weather days.  The reservation closes to new entrants when the lot fills, so try to arrive early in the morning to avoid this inconvenience.
Thoreau cabin replica
            Start at the replica of Thoreau’s cabin, which is located near the parking area and beside SR 126.  This cabin is only a replica, and it does not sit on the original cabin’s site, which you will visit later in the hike.  As you would expect given Thoreau’s mission, the one-room cabin with two windows and a brick chimney is purely functional.  Imagine living in accommodations such as these during a New England winter.
State reservation entrance
            From the cabin, walk southwest and carefully cross busy SR 126 on the crosswalk provided.  Follow the paved path as it curves left and descends to arrive at Walden Pond’s main beach.  As you would expect in suburban Boston, this beach gets very crowded on warm summer days.  The main beach is also the start of the Pond Path, which encircles the pond.  As directed by a sign, I chose to turn right and hike counterclockwise around the pond.
            The Pond Path heads west with Walden Pond 20 feet downhill to the left and the hillside rising to the right.  Wire fences lining either side of the trail made me feel like a cow in a corral, but they are designed to protect the surrounding habitat by keeping people on the designated trail.  Ignore some side trails that exit right and lead further from the pond.
Walking between wire fences
            At 0.5 miles, the trail curves right as you approach Thoreau’s Cove.  Thoreau’s Cove is the largest of five separate coves that jut out from otherwise oblong-shaped Walden Pond.  The pond’s size is deceptive: though only 61 acres in area and 1.7 miles in circumference, parts of the pond are over 100 feet deep.
Wyman Meadow
            After crossing a pond inlet on a wooden footbridge, you pass Wyman Meadow, a wet meadow covered in tall green-stemmed plants.  On the other side of the meadow, the side trail to Thoreau’s cabin site exits right.  Take a brief detour from the Pond Path by turning right to visit the historic cabin site.
            At the top of a brief uphill climb, you reach the site where Thoreau’s actual cabin stood.  Of the original cabin, only some stones from the foundation remain.  The stones are surrounded by modern granite pillars and metal chains, which give the area a monument-type feel.  The historic cabin site is a popular place despite the fact that it sits in a clearing in the woods, and it provides another opportunity to ponder on Thoreau’s experiences.
Thoreau's cabin site
            Past the historic site, you could go back to the Pond Path and turn right.  Alternatively, if you are tired of walking between wire fences, there is another trail that leads west higher up the hillside and further from the pond.  I chose to go back to the Pond Path, and I was rewarded by seeing a family of mallard ducks enjoying the gravel pondside area.  On either route the crowds will thin after you pass the historic site.
Walden Pond
            At 0.8 miles, the trail climbs slightly to head around Ice Fort Cove and arrive beside the MBTA Fitchburg commuter rail line.  The rail line lies less than 100 feet from the pond, so all westbound trails come together here.  The Pond Path angles left to tread the narrow strip of land between the rail line on the right and the pond downhill to the left.
            After passing around Long Cove, you reach the south side of the lake, where the trail forks.  The trail going straight leads to Heywood’s Meadow, another wet meadow similar to Wyman Meadow, and Emerson’s Cliff, the highest land in the reservation.  This hike turns left to remain on the Pond Path.  Now heading eastbound, the pond stays in view to the left for the remainder of the hike.
Rounding Little Cove
            The trail undulates gently as it passes first around Little Cove and then around Deep Cove.  Deep Cove contains the pond’s canoe/kayak launch, and the boat launch parking lot lies just to the right.  Soon you approach the main beach, which marks the closing of the Pond Path loop.  Angle right on the main paved entrance trail and re-cross SR 126 to return to the parking lot and complete the hike.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Rhododendron State Park (Blog Hike #541)

Trails: Wildflower and Rhododendron Loop Trails
Hike Location: Rhododendron State Park
Geographic Location: southeast of Keene, NH (42.78155, -72.18985)
Length: 0.7 miles
Difficulty: 1/10 (Easy)
Last Hiked: August 2015
Overview: A flat loop through a dense rhododendron grove.
Hike Route Map:
Photo Highlight:

Directions to the trailhead: From Keene, take SR 12 south 10.9 miles to SR 119 and turn sharply right on SR 119.  Drive SR 119 0.9 miles to Rhododendron Road and turn right on Rhododendron Rd.  Drive Rhododendron Rd. 2 miles to the signed park entrance on the right.  Turn right on the gravel park entrance road, pass a signed historic cottage on the left, and park at the cul de sac at the end of the road.

The hike: The historical core of Rhododendron State Park lies in the small wooden cottage you passed on your drive in.  Known as Old Patch Place, the cottage was built by either Captain Samuel Patch or his son between 1790 and 1818.  The cottage changed ownership several times before 1865, when it became the headquarters of a mail-order business that sold potted rhododendrons among other items.  This business first brought the majestic rhododendrons that live here to the public’s attention.
            In 1901, the land was scheduled to be lumbered until Miss Mary Lee Ware of Boston purchased the land to save the rhododendrons.  In 1903, Miss Ware donated the land to the Appalachian Mountain Club, which in turn transferred it to the New Hampshire Division of Parks and Recreation in 1946.  The Old Patch Place was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980, and the rhododendron grove was added to the list of National Natural Landmarks in 1982.
            The park remains lightly developed, and the 16 acre rhododendron grove remains the focal point.  The park’s main trail is the short 0.6 mile handicapped accessible Rhododendron Loop Trail that tours the rhododendron grove, but the adjoining 0.3 mile Wildflower Trail, maintained by the Fitzwilliam Garden Club, also provides a nice walk.  A more difficult 1 mile one-way trail leads to the summit of Little Monadnock, a nearby mountain also within the park’s boundaries, and connects with the long-distance Metacomet-Monadnock Trail.  This hike combines parts of the two shorter trails to give a nice, fairly flat tour of the rhododendron grove.
Start of Rhododendron Loop Trail
            Both ends of the Rhododendron Loop Trail leave the parking area.  This description starts at the western end with the picnic area and toilets on the right.  It seemed odd to me to have a picnic table right beside a pit toilet, but such is this park’s layout. 
The wide Rhododendron Loop Trail heads west around a large boulder into a dark hemlock forest.  Very quickly you reach the first area of rhododendron.  When I hiked here in early August, all of the rhododendron had already bloomed, leaving just the leaves and stems.  Come in early to mid-July for the height of the rhododendron bloom.  Also, in the summer the park maintains a bloom update on its webpage.  I had missed the last blooms by a couple of weeks.
Bloomed-out rhododendron
In less than 0.1 miles you reach a junction.  If you only wanted to hike the Rhododendron Loop Trail, you would turn right here.  To see some additional wildflowers on the Wildflower Trail, turn left to briefly leave the rhododendron grove. An information board says that the Wildflower Trail was constructed in memory of Betty Myrick, 1915-1989.
Hiking the Wildflower Trail
The trail heads west before curving right to head north along the base of Little Monadnock Mountain.  A creek gurgles just downhill to the left.  I did not see many wildflowers on this trail, but I did see a lot of mountain laurel, which looks much like rhododendron except for its smaller leaves and different flower.
Just past 0.3 miles, you pass through a break in an old stone wall to rejoin the Rhododendron Loop Trail, which goes straight and right.  Continue straight to hike the full loop.  After curving slightly right, you cross a recently replaced wooden footbridge and enter the core of the rhododendron grove.  You will be surrounded by white flowers if you come here at the peak of the bloom.
Entering the rhododendron core
At 0.5 miles, the rougher Little Monadnock Trail exits left for its namesake hill.  This description stays right to remain on the fairly flat Rhododendron Loop Trail.  Now heading south, you quickly reach another trail junction, where a left turn is needed for the shortest route back to the parking area.  Another 0.1 miles through more hemlocks and rhododendron return you to the parking lot to complete the hike.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Pisgah State Park: Kilburn Loop (Blog Hike #540)

Trail: Kilburn Loop
Hike Location: Pisgah State Park
Geographic Location: southwest of Keene, NH (42.84150, -72.48340)
Length: 6.3 miles
Difficulty: 4/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: August 2015
Overview: A rolling lollipop loop around scenic Kilburn Pond.
Hike Route Map:
Photo Highlight:

Directions to the trailhead: From Keene, take SR 9 west 8.9 miles to SR 63 and turn left on SR 63.  Pisgah State Park’s Kilburn Road trailhead is located on the left (east) side of SR 63 4.4 miles south of SR 9 (or, equivalently, 3.9 miles north of SR 119).  There is a brown road sign marking the trailhead.  Park in the gravel parking lot at the Kilburn Road trailhead.

The hike: Weighing in at over 13,300 acres, Pisgah State Park is the largest state park in New Hampshire.  The park features very little development, so its many miles of trails are a paradise for hikers, mountain bikers, and (on some trails) ATV and snowmobile riders.  The park’s seven ponds are also a major attraction for anglers.
            Pisgah State Park has 6 different trailheads, each of which provides access to the park’s vast trail system and the central natural area from a different angle.  Thus, many different hiking routes are possible.  This hike starts at the Kilburn Road trailhead, the park’s western-most trailhead, and forms a very loose loop around Kilburn Pond.  Thus, the route described here is widely known as the Kilburn Loop.
The Kilburn Loop is one of the few extended loops at Pisgah State Park to enjoy hiker-only status.  The loop does not pass any magnificent waterfalls or vistas, so its main appeal is just quiet woods and quiet ponds.  However, other trails branching off of the loop allow you to extend your hike and visit other parts of the park if you wish.
Kilburn Road trailhead
            From an information kiosk at the rear of the parking area, the Kilburn Loop starts by heading around an orange vehicle gate and undulating slightly on a general eastward course.  The “stick” of this lollipop loop uses the old Kilburn Road as a treadway, so you find yourself walking on wide two-track dirt trail through cool, dark hemlock forest.  After topping a small rise, the trail curves right and begins a moderate descent toward Kilburn Pond.
            At 0.6 miles, the old road ends, and the trail splits to form its loop.  To hike the more undulating east arm of the loop first, I chose to continue straight here and use the trail going right as my return route, thus hiking the loop clockwise.  The hike crosses from Hinsdale County into Winchester County in this area.  Continuing an eastward track, an unmarked side trail soon exits right to provide your first clear view of Kilburn Pond.  On the morning I came here, I detected little activity around the pond’s calm, tranquil waters.
North end of Kilburn Pond
            Back on the main trail, 0.8 miles into the hike another trail exits left at a soft angle.  The trail map calls this trail the Town Forest Trail, but a sign nailed to a tree states that this trail is not maintained.  In either case, you should angle right to cross the main water source for Kilburn Pond on a wooden bridge.  This bridge was so new when I crossed it that I could smell the resin from the lumber.
            The trail becomes rootier as it climbs gradually away from Kilburn Pond.  The Kilburn Loop is marked with blue wooden diamonds nailed to trees, and the blazes come in handy when the treadway on the ground is not obvious.  At 1.2 miles, you reach another intersection where the yellow-blazed Pisgah Ridge Trail exits left.  If you wanted to extend your hike, turning left on the Pisgah Ridge Trail would lead to some nice vistas from atop Mount Pisgah, the park’s main summit.  This hike will continue straight to remain on the Kilburn Loop.
Climbing on rooty trail
            Now heading southbound, the trail embarks on a ridgetop course as some rock outcrops appear on either side of the trail.  A large number of roots in the trail impede your progress, but the grade remains gradual to moderate.  Therefore, the overall going is quite easy.  Kilburn Pond lies downhill to your right, but it is sufficiently far away to be out of sight.
            Just past 2 miles into the hike, the trail descends more moderately for a brief time to enter the watershed of a second smaller pond that lies below Kilburn Pond.  This second smaller pond soon comes into view on the right.  At 3.2 miles, you begin a more aggressive descent toward Kilburn Brook, the outlet of both ponds encircled by this hike.
Crossing Kilburn Brook
            At 3.5 miles, you reach the hike’s lowest elevation as the trail curves sharply right to cross Kilburn Brook on a wooden footbridge.  Now heading northbound, a brief moderate climb brings you to the bank of the lower pond.  My approach to this area sent a family of deer scampering into the woods.
            The western return arm of the loop is straighter and therefore shorter than the eastern outbound arm.  After passing the lower pond, a brief climb brings you to the southern end of Kilburn Pond.  An unmarked spur trail exits right and heads for the dam that forms Kilburn Pond, perhaps your first indication that the pond is man-made.  The pine trees and rocks around Kilburn Pond make for a scenic setting.
Kilburn Pond near dam
            The trail continues north along the west shore of Kilburn Pond.  Some planks placed on logs carry you over some wet areas, and some side trails exiting right lead to more nice pond views.  At 5.7 miles, you close the loop.  Angle left and hike Kilburn Road 0.6 miles back to the parking lot to complete the hike.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Green Mountain National Forest: Little Pond Trail (Blog Hike #539)

Trail: Little Pond Trail
Hike Location: Green Mountain National Forest
Geographic Location: east of Bennington, VT (42.89479, -73.05930)
Length: 4.8 miles
Difficulty: 3/10 (Easy/Moderate)
Last Hiked: August 2015
Overview: An out-and-back, mostly on jeep road, to secluded Little Pond.
Hike Route Map:
Photo Highlight:

Directions to the trailhead: The Little Pond trailhead is located on the north side of SR 9 9.2 miles east of Bennington, VT.  National forest signs for “Little Pond” mark the parking area.  Park in the gravel parking area, taking care not to block the gravel forest road that leaves SR 9 at this site.

The hike: Often overlooked in favor of its larger counterparts (such as Stratton Pond some 8 miles to the northeast), 23-acre Little Pond lies in the southern part of Vermont’s Green Mountain National Forest.  The pond is located on the edge of the national forest’s Glastenbury Wilderness.  The area’s wilderness status protects the pond from development and overuse, and it also ensures that access to the scenic and tranquil pond is only by foot travel.
            Another reason Little Pond sees few visitors is because most of the 2.4 mile hike required to get there uses a two-track jeep road.  Thus, while the pond makes for a scenic destination, the hike to get there is rather uninspiring.  Truth be told, I originally planned to hike to Stratton Pond until I decided I wanted an easier day of hiking after the rough time I had in the White Mountains the previous day.  When I got done, I was happy with my decision to hike to Little Pond.
Forest Road leaves SR 9
            The hike starts at the east side of the parking area where the road that serves as the trail enters the woods.  The road had recently been re-graveled on my visit, and it also doubles as the driveway for some private residences.  Some maps call this road Forest Road 275, but nothing on the ground identifies it as such.
            Several private driveways exit either direction, but they are all labeled as private.  Thus, one way to stay on the right path is to choose the only route that is not designated as private.  As you approach the last of the private residences, you need to angle left to start a rougher two-track dirt road.  At 0.4 miles, you top a small hill and reach a power line easement that doubles as a snowmobile trail in the winter.  Nice views of Haystack Mountain and Mount Snow open up to the east across the power line clearing.
View east across power line clearing
            The trail continues its gradual ascent as it pushes further north and alternates between sunny field and shady forest.  A couple of old stone walls beside the trail remind you that all of this land has been farmed and logged in the past.  A few mudholes large enough to contain frogs need to be negotiated, but overall the jeep road makes the going quite easy.  Also, almost all of this hike lies between 2400 and 2800 feet in elevation, while Bennington sits at less than 800 feet above sea level.  Thus, the temperature will generally be a few degrees cooler on this trail than down in Bennington.
Hiking the jeep road
            Just over 2 miles into the hike, you pass some yellow reflective signs that remind you that this jeep road doubles as a snowmobile trail in the winter.  At 2.1 miles, the jeep road curves sharply right.  Though no signs indicate such, the trail going left here past three large rocks is the final segment to Little Pond.  Thus, you need to angle left and walk between the rocks, which are strategically placed to block vehicles and snowmobiles.
Starting the final segment
            The final 0.3 miles to Little Pond follows a single-track dirt trail that enters the Glastenbury Wilderness.  In accordance with its wilderness status, the trail is unblazed and unsigned.  A brief moderate descent brings you to an established campsite on the west bank of Little Pond.  The pond was an amazingly peaceful and quiet place on my visit.  I did not get lucky enough to see any moose, but I saw a few common songbirds including sparrows, cardinals, and robins.  In spite of the somewhat ugly trail required to get here, Little Pond is a fantastic destination.
West corner of Little Pond

Little Pond
            After some rest, snacks, and pond admiration, there is only one way out: the way you came in.  Thus, you now need to turn around and retrace your steps 2.4 miles mostly on jeep road to return to your car and complete the hike.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

White Mountain National Forest: Appalachian Trail to Lowe's Bald Spot (Blog Hike #538)

Trail: Appalachian Trail/Old Jackson Road
Hike Location: White Mountain National Forest, Pinkham Notch
Geographic Location: south of Gorham, NH (44.25751, -71.25334)
Length: 4 miles
Difficulty: 9/10 (Difficult)
Last Hiked: August 2015
Overview: A persistently rocky, occasionally steep climb to a fantastic viewpoint.
Hike Route Map:
Photo Highlight:

Directions to the trailhead: From Gorham, drive south on SR 16 for 10.5 miles to the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center, which is well-marked by signs.  Turn right and park in the visitor center parking lot.  If the lot is full, which happens often on warm summer days, you will have to park at the Wildcat Ski Area 0.75 miles north on SR 16.  The trail starts behind the Visitor Center.

The hike: When I arrived at the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center on a sunny early afternoon for which thunderstorms were forecast, I asked the young lady manning the hiker information desk if it was a good time to set out for Lowe’s Bald Spot.  She replied, “oh yeah!” as if I had asked a stupid question.  2 hours later, I found myself hiking in a moderate rain with thunder booming over my shoulders.  By the time I finished the hike (without incident: God protected me yet again), the sun was back out.  White Mountain weather can flummox even the most knowledgeable locals.
            For my general comments on hiking in Pinkham Notch, see my short and fairly easy hike to Crystal Cascades, which departs from this same trailhead.  I did the Crystal Cascades hike back in 2004 on my first trip to the White Mountains, so I decided to be slightly more ambitious on my 2015 return trip.  I chose the hike described here partly due to the view at the end and partly because it uses the world famous Appalachian Trail (AT).  As you will see, I bit off a little more than I could chew, but not because of the terrain or length, both of which are fairly manageable.
Trailhead in Pinkham Notch
            The hike starts on the west side of the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center at the same trailhead used by the Crystal Cascades hike.  Very quickly the Tuckerman Ravine Trail heads left toward Crystal Cascades.  Angle right to stay on the AT and the Old Jackson Road.  The white AT blazes and the blue blazes for Old Jackson Road run conjointly for the next 1.5 miles.
Intersecting Old Jackson Road
            The trail undulates gently as it heads north over rocky terrain.  The low-elevation forest here at Mount Washington’s base is dominated by birch and maple trees.  At 0.3 miles, you intersect the Blanchard Trail, a ski trail that links the Tuckerman Ravine Trail with the state highway.  Continue straight on the AT.
            0.4 miles into the hike, the path you are walking intersects the roadbed used by the historic Old Jackson Road.  As directed by a sign, you need to turn left here to continue on the AT.  The climb now begins in earnest as the wide dirt/rock trail seems to head straight up the mountain.  Numerous well-constructed waterbars keep the trail from becoming too eroded, but the rockiness of the terrain still makes the going rough.  The trail crosses the main headwaters of the Peabody River on a thick, sturdy wooden bridge, but other feeder streams are crossed via rock hop.
Climbing on the AT
            At 1 mile, the trail levels out as a small wet area comes into view on the right.  The signed George’s Gorge Trail soon exits, also to the right.  Though more primitive and rugged than the AT, the George’s Gorge Trail could be combined with some ski trails to form an alternate route back down to Pinkham Notch.  For now, continue straight to keep heading for Lowe’s Bald Spot.
            1.3 miles into the hike, you cross a wet area on wooden planks placed on logs, a construction called puncheon.  After another rocky creek crossing, you reach a signed intersection where the AT and Old Jackson Road part ways.  The blue-blazed Old Jackson Road continues straight to quickly reach the Mount Washington Auto Road.  The auto road is steep, narrow, and winding, so hiking along the road is not recommended.  Thus, our hike turns left to continue up the AT.
Approaching Mt. Washington Auto Road
            Next comes the hardest part of the hike.  The AT climbs some steep, primitive rock steps to quickly pass two junctions, the first with the Raymond Path and the second with the Nelson Crag Trail.  Both of these trails exit left.  More steep rocky areas bring you to a parking lot on the Mount Washington Auto Road at 1.8 miles.  Continue straight on the AT as it crosses the road and enters the Great Gulf Wilderness.  Due to the wilderness designation, blazes will become less frequent for the last portion of the outward hike.
Storm clouds on Mt. Washington
            In another 0.2 miles the unsigned trail to Lowe’s Bald Spot exits right, after which a short climb brings you to the viewpoint.  To be honest, I never made it all of the way to Lowe’s Bald Spot.  I made it to the last 0.3 miles when I looked over my shoulder and saw the storm clouds in the picture above coming over Mount Washington.  Realizing I was in an exposed area at risk of lightning strike, I chose to turn around and head for lower, more sheltered ground rather than risk everything to get a view.  I made it back down the rockiest areas before the rain and thunder started in earnest.  In hindsight, I am glad I yielded to the most basic rule in hiking: always be willing to change your plans when trail conditions warrant doing so.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Fort Dummer State Park: Sunrise and Sunset Trails (Blog Hike #537)

Trails: Sunrise and Sunset Trails
Hike Location: Fort Dummer State Park
Geographic Location: south side of Brattleboro, VT (42.82247, -72.56469)
Length: 2 miles
Difficulty: 3/10 (Easy/Moderate)
Last Hiked: August 2015
Overview: Two short loops featuring two overlooks.
Hike Route Map:
Photo Highlight:

Directions to the trailhead: In southern Vermont, take I-91 to US 5 (exit 1).  Exit and go north on US 5.  Drive US 5 north 0.2 miles to Fairground Road; there is a traffic light at this intersection.  Turn right on Fairground Road.  Drive Fairground Rd. east 0.5 miles to Main Street and turn right on Main StMain St. becomes Old Guilford Road, which deadends in 1.1 miles at the park entrance.  Pay the small entrance fee, then drive uphill to the T-intersection at the center of the campground.  The day-use parking area is on the left of this intersection; it is signed simply as “parking.”  There is only room for 2 cars here, but additional parking is located at a picnic shelter you passed on your way up the hill.

The hike: Not to be mistaken for the comparative of dumb, Fort Dummer State Park occupies 217 acres of wooded land on a bluff overlooking the Connecticut River.  The park’s name comes from the historic Fort Dummer, which in 1724 became the first permanent English and European settlement in present-day Vermont.  The fort was initially established to protect settlers from Indian attacks, but it later protected the Massachusetts Colony to the south against French attacks from the north.
            The actual fort was situated on the banks of the Connecticut River, a site that was submerged by the construction of the Vernon Dam in 1908.  The park’s origins lie with the construction of I-91, which cut off this land from the rest of the Town of Guilford in the 1950’s.  In the early 1960’s, the land was transferred to Vermont’s Department of Forests and Parks, and the park was established in 1962.
            The park’s main attraction today is its 50-site campground, which is open Memorial Day to Labor Day.  The park has three hiking trails, and the two that lead to nice overlooks form the double loop described here.  As the names indicate, the Sunrise Trail leads to an east-facing overlook, while the Sunset Trail leads to a west-facing overlook.  The Broad Brook Trail (not described in this blog) leads steeply downhill to a swimming hole.
Sunrise Trail trailhead
            The Sunrise and Sunset Trails form independent loops, so you can hike them in either order or just one of them if you desire.  I chose to start with the Sunrise Trail because its trailhead lies just across the road from the day-use parking area.  The single-track dirt Sunrise Trail enters the woods at a point marked by a small wooden sign.  In only a couple hundred feet, the trail forks to form its loop.  For no real reason, I chose to turn left and hike the loop clockwise.
Trail splits to form loop
            Heading north, you pass through a low-lying area full of hemlock trees.  Wooden bridges get you over the worst of the wetness, which would cover a significant area during Vermont’s late spring mud season.  Copious blue rectangular paint blazes keep you on the official trail and off of some wild trails.
            The trail curves right twice as it climbs on a gradual grade toward a small knob.  At 0.5 miles, you reach the top of the knob and the east-facing overlook for which this trail is named.  The view from here is fantastic.  The Connecticut River and the lake created by Vernon Dam sit in the foreground while New Hampshire’s Bear Mountain stands in the background.  A bench here encourages you to sit and take in the view.
Sunrise overlook
            Past the overlook, the trail descends moderately to reach its lowest elevation.  Maple trees are more numerous in this part of the forest.  Curving right, a brief climb closes the loop, after which a left turn and a short walk return you to the parking area and complete the Sunrise Trail.
            Whereas the Sunrise Trail started right beside the parking area, the start of the Sunset Trail takes more effort to find.  Head south on the gravel road into the southern part of the campground, the part containing sites 27-51.  Where the road splits to form the southern campground loop, turn right to start hiking the loop road counterclockwise.  Just after passing campsite #37, look to the right for the signed gravel spur road to the playfield.  Turn right and walk across the playfield.  The signed trailhead for the Sunset Trail is at the rear of the playfield.
Start of Sunset Trail
            Another single-track blue-blazed dirt trail, the Sunset Trail tops a small rise before descending to its west-facing overlook.  At one time this overlook provided a nice view of the rolling Vermont hills and farms to the park’s west, but now the view is largely blocked by a pair of large pine trees.  This viewpoint is the only overlook on the Sunset Trail, so make of it what you can.
Sunset "overlook"
            The trail curves right at the overlook and begins a gradual descent.  Traffic noise from nearby I-91 enters your ear as you approach the bottom of the hill.  At 1.6 miles, you reach the bottom of the hill and an intersection with a gravel road.  As directed by a sign, you need to turn sharply right to continue the Sunset Trail.  Following the gravel road in the other direction would take you to the main park road near the park entrance.
Boyden farm structure
            A couple hundred feet later, you reach the brown homestead that is the remnants of the Boyden farm.  The building is actually in decent shape considering it dates to the 1880’s.  Past the farm, the gravel road continues by climbing on a gradual to moderate grade to return you to the campground playfield, thus ending the Sunset Trail.  Turn left to get back to the main campground loop, then hike the rest of the south campground loop road to return to the day-use parking area and complete the hike.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Ninigret National Wildlife Refuge (Blog Hike #536)

Trails: Foster Cove, Cross Refuge, Grassy Point, and Charlietown Runway Trails
Hike Location: Ninigret National Wildlife Refuge
Geographic Location: southwest of Charlestown, RI (41.36814, -71.67210)
Length: 3.4 miles
Difficulty: 2/10 (Easy)
Last Hiked: August 2015
Overview: A flat, sunny loop hike through a World War II airbase turned wildlife refuge.
Hike Route Map:
Photo Highlight:

Directions to the trailhead: From the intersection of US 1 and SR 112 in Charlestown, take US 1 south 2.3 miles to the refuge’s west entrance, which is on the left.  However, if you are traveling south on US 1, left turns are prohibited, so you must pass the entrance and do a U-turn at the next designated area to reach the entrance.  Park in the large blacktop parking lot.

The hike: Known as “Charlietown” to the young pilots who trained here during World War II, Ninigret National Wildlife Refuge partly occupies the former site of the Charlestown Naval Auxiliary Landing Fields.  The U.S. Navy purchased the former farmland in 1942 to build a training base for overseas night air operations during the war.  Pilots spent 4 months here training in hellcats before heading out for duty in the South Pacific.  Training exercises included tactics, gunnery, aircraft carrier landing, navigation, and instrument flying.
            The base’s most famous trainee was George H.W. Bush, the future 41st President of the United States, who trained here before being deployed to the USS San Jacinto in 1944.  The runways on which he would have landed hellcats can still be seen on this hike.  After the war, the base was used as a practice site for trainees at nearby Quonset Air Field.  In the early 1970’s, the base was closed, and the land was transferred to the National Fish and Wildlife Service for operation as the refuge you see today.  The refuge’s name comes from Ninigret Pond, a large saltwater body that forms the refuge’s southern boundary.
            The refuge is organized into two units: the Kettle Pond Unit located north of Charlestown and the Salt Pond Unit featured on this hike.  The Salt Pond Unit offers several short hiking trails.  Combining some of the short trails in a clever way forms the 3.4 mile refuge grand tour described here.
Start of Foster Cove Trail
            Three trails leave from the west entrance parking area.  This hike starts at the west entrance for the Foster Cove Loop Trail, which departs the west corner of the parking lot at an information board that contains a refuge trail map.  The dirt/gravel trail initially heads west, but it soon makes a near 180-degree sweeping left curve to begin heading southeast.  Just past 0.2 miles, you reach a small opening that gives a nice view of Foster Cove, an extension of Ninigret Pond that borders the refuge on the west.
Foster Cove
            The Foster Cove Loop Trail traces the boundary of its namesake cove as it passes through densely vegetated coastal shrubland.  Many different shrubs including honeysuckle and bittersweet live in this area.  Also, the large amount of water means that mosquitoes will appear in large numbers during the warmer months, so make sure you wear plenty of bug spray in season.
            At 0.5 miles, the Foster Cove Loop Trail intersects the Cross Refuge Trail.  If you wanted a short 0.9 mile hike, you could turn left here and complete the Foster Cove Loop Trail.  To get to the east side of the refuge and the best Ninigret Pond views, this hike continues straight on the Cross Refuge Trail.  True to its name, the Cross Refuge Trail connects the western and eastern sections of the refuge’s Salt Pond Unit.
            The trail soon crosses one of the airbase’s old runways, which is now a mixture of asphalt and gravel.  If you wanted to extend this hike, you could turn right on the asphalt and walk down the runway 0.4 miles to a Ninigret Pond fishing access, but we will get better views of the pond later in the hike.  The trail leaves the runway before curving left and then right to continue its general southeast course.  More shrubs and more ponds mean more bugs, so come prepared.
Crossing an old runway
            At 1.3 miles, the trail curves left where a gated road goes right.  Soon you cross another old runway as the trail heads northeast on what appears to be an old road.  Up to this point the trail has alternated between sun and shade, but full sun now prevails, a condition that will continue for most of the rest of the hike.
Hiking a hot, sunny trail
            1.6 miles into the hike, you reach the connector trail that connects the Cross Refuge Trail and the Grassy Point Trail.  Turn right to head for the Grassy Point Trail.  A small stand of coastal oak trees provides some welcome shade on a hot sunny day.  When you reach the wide gravel Grassy Point Trail at a T-intersection, turn right to head for Grassy Point.
            The trail curves left as it heads out Grassy Point, a peninsula that sticks well out into Ninigret Pond.  Interpretive signs tell of this land’s agricultural history before it became a naval base.  When this area was first settled in the 1600’s, the flat, fertile, rock-free glacial outwash that now surrounds you was some of the best farmland in the area.  Large plantations grew everything from corn to vegetables to potatoes, and profitable grazing and fishing industries also thrived here.
            2 miles into the hike, you reach Grassy Point.  Views into Ninigret Pond extend in three directions, and a provided pair of binoculars allows you to identify wildlife at a distance.  A bench provides a nice spot to rest and enjoy the scenery just past the midpoint of the hike.
View from Grassy Point
The trail ends at Grassy Point, so your next move is to turn around and retrace your steps back up the peninsula.  Where the connector trail exits left, continue straight to stay on the Grassy Point Trail.  At 2.4 miles, you need to angle left to begin heading back toward the trailhead.  If you wanted to extend your hike, the trail going right leads a short distance to another view of Ninigret Pond that is similar to the one you obtained earlier.
Very quickly you step onto asphalt that is the end of old airbase runway 30, the longest runway at the airbase.  Large white painted numbers “30” designed to be seen from the air can still be made out on the ground.  2.5 miles into the hike, you reach the paved east parking lot.  To begin the final segment back to our (west) parking lot, walk directly across this parking lot and pick up the paved Charlietown Runway Trail.  A sign warns of ticks, but they should not pose a problem if you stay on the trail.
Runway 30
As its name suggests, the Charlietown Runway Trail traces the entire 0.8 mile length of old runway 30.  As such, the paved trail is completely flat and almost dead straight.  The facilities of adjacent Ninigret Park can be seen to the right as you hike along the refuge boundary.  Reaching the west parking lot located at the other end of the Charlietown Runway Trail signals the end of the hike.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Bluff Point State Park and Coastal Reserve (Blog Hike #535)

Trail: (unnamed)
Hike Location: Bluff Point State Park and Coastal Reserve
Geographic Location: south side of Groton, CT (41.33575, -72.03342)
Length: 3.7 miles
Difficulty: 3/10 (Easy/Moderate)
Last Hiked: August 2015
Overview: A lollipop loop on wide gravel trail passing an historic house foundation and Long Island Sound views.
Hike Route Map:
Photo Highlight:

Directions to the trailhead: In southeastern Connecticut, take I-95 to SR 117 (exit 88).  Exit and go south on SR 117.  Take SR 117 south 1.1 miles to its end at US 1 and turn right on US 1.  Drive US 1 0.2 miles to Depot Street; there is a traffic light at this intersection.  Turn left on Depot Street.  Where Depot Street forks, take the right fork under the Amtrak railway, after which the road turns to gravel.  Park in the large gravel parking area at the end of the gravel road.

The hike: Consisting of only 800 acres, Bluff Point State Park and Coastal Reserve occupies a very important parcel of land: Connecticut’s last significant piece of undeveloped shoreline.  Although proposed as parkland as early as 1914, land acquisition did not begin until 1963 when the state purchased the western portion of the park from Henry A. Gardiner III.  The park was established as a coastal reserve by a special act of the Connecticut legislature in 1975.
            Foot traffic accesses the park via a single two-track dirt/gravel trail that forms a lollipop loop with a short stick.  That trail is the one described here.  Be warned that although the park has two large gravel parking lots, both lots can fill on warm-weather weekends.  Despite the park’s lack of amenities (other than fishing, sunbathing, and trails), you should try to plan a weekday or winter visit to minimize the crowds.
Information board at trailhead
            Start at the rear of the parking lot where a large information sign contains a rough trail map and some park information.  The wide gravel trail that goes left past the port-o-lets leads to another park, so you should choose the wide gravel trail that goes straight behind the sign.  Ignore some single-track dirt trails that exit left; they lead to the park’s confusing and poorly marked mountain bike trail system.
            At 0.2 miles, the wide gravel trail forks to form its loop.  A majority of people using this park choose the right fork because it offers the shortest route to the beach.  To reduce the crowds temporarily, this hike will turn left and use the right trail as the return route, thus hiking the loop clockwise.
            The trail climbs moderately at first and then gradually to leave the riverside area downhill to the right.  Some birch trees make an appearance in the young upland forest, and a couple of benches offer opportunities to rest if desired.  Soon the trail becomes lined with old stone walls, remnants of this land’s pre-park agricultural days.
Stone walls beside trail
            Just shy of 1 mile, you reach a stone foundation, all that remains of Governor John Winthrop Jr.’s homestead.  John Winthrop Jr. served as governor of the Connecticut Colony from 1657-1676.  His father John Winthrop Sr. had founded the adjacent Massachusetts Bay Colony, and Winthrop Jr. played a key role in unifying the settlements in the Connecticut River valley into a single colony.  His son, Fitz-John Winthrop, would also serve as governor of the Connecticut Colony from 1698-1707.  Winthrop Jr.’s homestead was built in 1648.  The structure stood 2.5 stories tall and had 33 windows, a very impressive building for 1600’s colonial America.  Interpretive signs tell more about the Winthrops and their house.
Winthrop house foundation
            The trail angles right to pass around the old house site and continue its southbound course.  Just after passing the house site, a side trail that exits right for the western portion of this loop provides the opportunity to short-cut this hike if desired.  Continuing south, thus far the trail has been mostly shaded, but more sunny and shrubby areas start to appear as you descend toward the sea.  At 1.6 miles, you reach the short signed spur trail to Sunset Rock, which exits right.  In times past Sunset Rock offered a nice west-facing vista, but these days trees completely obscure any view.
Sunset Rock
            The trail curves left and then right as you approach the southern-most point of land.  Some views of Long Island Sound begin to emerge over the shrubs, and some side trails exit left to give better views of the sound.  On a clear day New York’s Fishers Island can be seen in the distance to the south.
Hiking along Long Island Sound
Long Island Sound
2.2 miles into the hike, the spur trail to the beach exits left.  The east-west beach is more than 0.5 miles long, and it lies right at the mouth of the Poquonnock River.  The sand and gravel on the beach are what remain of glacier deposits left here many thousands of years ago.  If you wish to take a detour, you can walk down the beach for more excellent Long Island Sound views.  The beach is the highlight of this popular park, so you will likely not be alone here.  Also, another port-o-let sits just across from the beach spur trail should the need arise.
State park beach
Now heading north, the wet areas stay in near-constant view to the left.  At first shallow and marshy Bluff Point Lake provides the aquatic scenery, but later the Poquonnock River does the honor.  I saw a couple of herons in the water on my hike, but the most common birds I saw were airplanes from the Groton New London Airport located directly across the river.
At 2.8 miles, the short-cut trail from the historic house site enters from the right.  The hillside to your right gets rockier as the Poquonnock River comes right up to the trail on your left.  3.5 miles into the hike, you close the loop.  A soft left turn and 0.2 miles of level walking return you to the parking lot to complete the hike.