Around the Meshomasic State Forest
What images come to mind when you think of taking a hike? Do you envision a great trek through remote mountain passes? Maybe a stroll through a long, flat field? How about long stone walls, flowing water and abundant wildlife? Depending on your exposure to hiking your image of a hike could include several different landscapes and environments. For a small state I’m regularly surprised at the variation I found in hiking trails here in Connecticut. What I find especially interesting is just how many trails pass through so many different settings in a relatively short course of a few miles sometime. Take the New England Trail for example. On just the Connecticut sections of this trail hikers pass by and pass through dense woods, farms, open fields and quiet lakes. The trail crosses numerous roads and even follows on a few for several miles. Through cities, over mountains, next to quarries and past shopping malls, hikers experience every element of Connecticut life! This may be an extreme example, but it isn’t an isolated one. Certainly, Connecticut has its share of trails that stay within the confines of the forests, only touching pavement and concrete in the parking areas. I for one generally prefer these quiet, more rural trails that curl through the trees far away from buildings and roads. Sometime however, the man made elements found along the trails tell an interesting story and add to the trip.
This past weekend I hiked through a section of the Meshomasic State Forest. While not quite to the extreme demonstrated by the NET passing by West Hartford and New Britain, the trails through this area offer hikers exposure to varied natural and man made phenomena, tucked unassumingly behind affluent neighborhoods and sprawling orchards in central Connecticut. The trails give hikers several reasons to keep their eyes peeled at all times, for fear of missing something noteworthy for sure!
According to the Connecticut State Parks website, the Meshomasic State Forest began as a 70 acre purchase in 1903 by the State of Connecticut for $105. Notably, It was the first State forest in New England and the second in the country. Today this forest sprawls for approximately 9,000 acres between the towns of Portland, East Hampton, Glastonbury, Marlborough and Hebron (https://www.stateparks.com/meshomasic_state_forest_in_connecticut.html). A few weeks ago I hiked through this forest on the Shenipsit trail (which was one of the influences that brought me back to explore further). On this trip I chose a loop of trails that allowed me to explore several of the forest’s unique features and history. The drive to the trail head on Clark Hill Rd through south Glastonbury is unique in itself. Multi-million dollar homes intersect orchards and farms. The small town feel of old mill buildings and meeting halls gives way quickly to massive, ultramodern mansions. Just as quickly however, the road becomes dirt and you find yourself surrounded by trees.
In the late 50’s into the early 60’s, this area was home to one of Connecticut’s 12 Nike sites. If you’re not familiar with these cold war relics I’ll encourage you to read up on their history a bit. Without spoiling all of the details, each Nike site consisted of a missile battery and a control station. These two sites were typically separated by a mile or so. While some of the sites were repurposed after they were closed as military assets, some like the Meshomasic site are recognizable only if you know what you’re looking for. My hike would take me eventually by what remained of both areas, as well as through some other interesting natural places within the forest.
I was immediately concerned as I headed into the woods at the point where the GPS indicated that the trail began. It was overgrown and lacked clear markings. I reconsidered my path a few times before the trail opened up with much clearer markers and a more open path. As it turns out, the trail head had actually been moved down the road a bit and where I entered had intentionally been left to grow in. I wasn’t helping!
As we get into spring I hope to see more wildlife on my hikes, as through the colder months animal spottings have been less than common. Not a thousand yards into the woods I was pleasantly surprised to literally stumble into several woodcocks. These small bluish-gray birds with long beaks were nestled in the brush along the side of the trail. As I almost stepped on one he flew away. It was initially difficult to see that several more were nearby, hiding in plain sight! One by one they flew off. This was a welcome start to my hike!
The trail passed along side an orchard divided from the state forest property by an old stone wall before diving back deep into the woods. At about 1.5 miles in I arrived at the first Nike site. This partial clearing among the trees was the location of the control site. Pavement and concrete remained in areas, greatly deteriorated but still marking where the building once stood. In the middle of the space is the remains of what was a water tank, now cut open and on end. Old concrete stairs lead into bushes. Random blocks and pieces of metal are all that is left.
From this point of interest I continued back into the forest. My chosen trail crossed a small hill and down over a dirt road and through more miles of forest before arriving at a wide stream with several small falls. There were several large rocks around this stream that provided adequate seating for a quick lunch. Nearby there was a fire pit that, if I had to guess, provided entertainment for the local youth some evenings.
The midday sun was warm and pleasant as I headed back out on the trail. In springtime on warm days it is common to find snakes soaking up whatever warmth they can on rocks and in open areas along trails. This fact is particularly important to keep in mind when you’re hiking in an area known for its snake population. Yes, among other claims to fame, the Meshomasic forest is home to the largest population of timber rattlesnakes in Connecticut. This endangered species is not aggressive by nature and (as I read after my hike) this forest has not had a fatal bite in decades. Even as timber rattlesnake bites are rare, paying attention to where you’re walking and placing your hands around rocks can ensure they stay that way.
The rolling landscape covered with moderately dense forest growth and typical New England rock formations made for a relaxing stroll to complete this relatively brief journey on the trail. The second Nike site location, the missile battery area, came at the end of the hike, just down the dirt road from where I was parked. An old metal bar gate closed off the driveway up to what remains of the launch area. The foundation and a bit of a parking area, still with a visible handicap parking stencil, is all that is left of the building at the top of a short hill. The launch area has been covered over and the underground battery filled in. The history of what and why and how this site was all remain.
In all I covered a mere 7 miles of this expansive forest. Seated among sleepy towns, this area once hosted a national defense site that was largely unknown at the time. Today the trail system offers the chance to mix history with nature. This was a worthwhile hike, even if I didn’t see a rattlesnake. Maybe next time.