Sunday, August 16, 2015

Housatonic Meadows State Park: Pine Knob Loop Trail (Blog Hike #534)

Trail: Pine Knob Loop Trail
Hike Location: Housatonic Meadows State Park
Geographic Location: north of Cornwall Bridge, CT
Length: 2.4 miles
Difficulty: 9/10 (Difficult)
Last Hiked: August 2015
Overview: A loop hike using the Appalachian Trail with two viewpoints of the Housatonic River valley.

Directions to the trailhead: From the intersection of SR 4 and US 7 on the west side of Cornwall Bridge, take US 7 north 1 mile to the signed gravel Pine Knob Loop Trail parking lot on the left (west) side of the road.  Park here.

The hike: Tracing a 139-mile north to south course through western Massachusetts and western Connecticut, the Housatonic River is one of the main waterways in southern New England.  The river’s name is a corruption of the Mohican Indian word usiadienuk, which translates to “beyond the mountain place.”  Popular culture became familiar with the river in the 1910’s when American composer Charles Ives wrote “The Housatonic River at Stockbridge,” a piece inspired by the river views he obtained on his honeymoon in Stockbridge, MA.  The river is also famous for hosting the southernmost spawning run for Atlantic salmon.
            Many parks call the banks of the Housatonic River home, but one of the more famous is Connecticut’s Housatonic Meadows State Park featured here.  The park is best known for its fishing opportunities and its riverside 61-site campground.  In terms of trails, most of the park’s trails are short trails used by anglers to access the river.  As such, the park has only one good loop trail for hikers, the one described here.  This loop takes you up to the Appalachian Trail (AT) and past a couple of valley overlooks before embarking on a steep, rocky descent back down to the river valley.
Start of Pine Knob Loop Trail
            The dirt trail starts at the right (north) side of the parking lot and immediately heads into the woods.  The Pine Knob Loop Trail is well-marked with blue rectangular paint blazes for its entire distance.  After crossing Hatch Brook on large stepping stones, you reach the fork that forms the loop.  To make the climb a little easier, I chose to angle left and use the trail going right as my return route, thus hiking the loop clockwise.
            The trail climbs on a moderate to steep grade with Hatch Brook visible on your left.  After climbing past a scenic cascade in the brook, the trail briefly levels as you enter a quiet glen with plenty of hemlock trees.  Some rocks beckon you to sit and rest in the peaceful setting.
Intersecting the AT
            After some more climbing, you reach the AT 0.7 miles into the hike.  Turn right to begin your northbound journey on the AT.  For the next 0.75 miles the white AT blazes and the blue Pine Knob Loop Trail blazes run conjointly along the top of the ridge.
            At 0.9 miles, you reach the highest elevation on this hike and the first overlook.  This viewpoint looks east directly across the valley with the river valley in the foreground and Mohawk Mountain in the background.  Some pine trees frame the view perfectly.
View from first overlook
            Continuing north, the trail assumes a fairly level but slightly rocky ridgetop course.  Some nice oak trees live up here on top of the ridge.  After curving right, the trail descends slightly using a couple of switchbacks to avoid any steep areas.
            1.4 miles into the hike, the AT and the Pine Knob Loop Trail part ways at a signed intersection.  Turn right to leave the AT and continue the Pine Knob Loop Trail.  Now you need to baton down the hatches because the hardest part of the hike begins.  After dipping through a high saddle, the trail climbs on a steep and rocky grade to reach Pine Knob.  Just over the summit of Pine Knob sits the second viewpoint.  This overlook looks down the Housatonic River valley rather than across it.  Thus, you get a different angle on this scenic area compared to the first overlook.
View from second overlook
            The steep and rocky descent continues past the second overlook.  Follow the blue blazes to stay on the trail, and carefully pick your way down the rocks one step at a time making sure each step is on solid footing before taking the next one.  A light rain shower started falling as I made my way through the rocks, so I had to take it extra slow and be extra careful to avoid slipping, which I did successfully.  A small secondary vista opens up as you get near the bottom of the super rocky section.
Descending steep, rocky trail
            The steep descent continues, but the treadway becomes dirt rather than rock, thus making for better footing.  2 miles into the hike, you reach the bottom of the hill and a trail intersection.  As directed by a sign, you need to turn right to continue the Pine Knob Loop Trail.  The trail going left leads to the state park campground.
            The final 0.4 miles head south through the flat river valley, a welcome reprieve from the steep rocky areas you handled earlier.  US 7 becomes audible through the trees to the left while the hillside rises to the right.  A couple of wet areas need to be negotiated, but overall the going is quite easy.  Just shy of 2.4 miles, you close the loop.  After a left turn and a recross of Hatch Brook, you return to the parking area to complete the hike.

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