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
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.

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.

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