Updated: Jan 16
Exactly one year ago I started posting photos and stories about my hikes as a creative way to share my time in the woods and maybe encourage others to get outside and enjoy nature a bit more as well. The process has become a sort of journal for me to record these trips as I set new goals and seek out greater hiking challenges. I had no idea then how much different hiking would be in 2020. Some of the changes were positive. With greatly limited travel and activity choices, people flocked to nature in droves this year! Popular trailheads and parks were packed and previously empty trails were now bustling with activity, at least for the first mile or so from a parking area. In my opinion this mass-awakening of new hikers was mostly great, except that it came with some predictable consequences of the rapid growth in interest in this activity. On social media long time hikers lamented the increased garbage, crowds and lack of trail etiquette they were encountering on their favorite trails (There are several great resources available that address these topics for newer and more seasoned hikers alike). Overall it seems the friction has been minimal and with some awareness and patience new hikers continue to be welcomed onto the trails.
Another consequence of the pandemic in 2020 was that hikers found themselves staying more local than usual out of necessity. This meant making the best of nearby trails and postponing bigger trips to other states or regions. In January 2020 I know I intended to continue making trips through some of the most popular areas in each of the New England states as I had done in 2019. Plans for more overnights in the White Mountains and other trips out of state had to be put on hold due to travel restrictions and accommodation closings. While I did still manage to get in a few great hikes outside of our state, like many others I doubled down on some local gems this year in eastern Connecticut. We may not have iconic hikes comparable to completing the Franconia Ridge loop or climbing Katahdin but that doesn’t mean you can’t find a great day hike nearby. If you’re looking for a 2-mile flat walk in the woods or an 8 hour trek with 2,000 feet of elevation gain you don’t need to spend 3 hours in the car. Here is a brief review of a few great options that offer something for all levels.
Case Mountain Recreation Area
If I had to choose a “home field” for hiking, this would be it for me. This area is close to both work and home and can accommodate a short 30-minute walk or a full day in the woods. The Case Mountain property is located primarily in the southeast corner of Manchester and offers opportunities for all levels. There are several clearly blazed hiking trails that are accessed from 4 different parking areas. These trails can be incorporated into loop hikes of various lengths and difficulty with just a little planning. There are actually three “peaks” on the Case property – Lookout Mountain (744ft), Case Mountain (708ft) and Birch Mountain (778ft). The white blazed carriage path provides an easy walk up to the Lookout Mountain summit less than a mile from the Spring Street parking lot, where you have a clear view of Hartford and several other local landmarks. The Shenipsit Trail (a CT Blue Trail) passes through the Case Mountain property north to south with a spur trail heading east to Gay City State Park. The property is heavily trafficked by hikers and mountain bikers alike and includes literally dozens of unmarked trails in all directions so it’s important to pay attention to trail blazes and have a map or GPS with you. If you’re looking for a more solitary hiking experience the outer loop trails tend to see little traffic and can easily be traveled for 5 to 10 miles without having to cross near the areas that are more popular with those just out for a stroll. https://explorect.org/case-mountain/
The 41.5 mile Nipmuck trail runs from Mansfield to the Massachusetts boarder at the northern end of Breakneck Pond in Bigelow Hollow State Park. This was the first CT Blue Trail I completed in its entirety in early 2020. The entire trail rambles through the Natchaug State Forest, the UCONN forest and the Yale Forest among other properties. Highlights for me included Pixie Falls in Ashford and a couple of miles along the Fenton River. This trail passes dozens of old stone walls and foundations in areas of dense forest that were cleared farmland at some point in Connecticut’s past. The past and present land uses on various areas of the trail should appeal to history buffs and conservationists alike. The trail is very accessible to section hiking and offers a few nice views of the surrounding area from the limited elevation gains it makes. https://explorect.org/nipmuck/
Bigelow Hollow State Park
The northern terminus of the Nipmuck Trail in Bigelow Hollow State Park offers some great hiking opportunities for beginners and seasoned hikers alike. Parking is available in several areas of the park and a long or short day hike can be paired with water access on one of three ponds in the park. The Nipmuck Trail taken from the southern access to the state park can be continued as an 8 mile loop around Breakneck Pond. For something a bit shorter, the Mashapaug Lake View trail is just about 5 miles and is accessible from the hiker parking area in the center of the park. Both of these trails have considerable rocks and roots to navigate, along with a couple of modest hill climbs. There is a flat dirt road bypass through the center of the Mashapaug loop trail that provides easier access to more remote picnic spots along the water and can shorten up the loop by at least a mile. https://explorect.org/nipmuck/
Gay City State Park
This park in Hebron was a village in the 1800’s and the remaining ruins from a mill and other buildings can still be found on some trails. The park trails are accessible year-round from a parking area on Rt 85 although the park itself is gated off in the winter. Numerous hiking trails encircle a pond with a small beach for swimming in the summer. My recommendation for a nice, moderate 5-mile hike is to stay on the red trail that loops around the outer edge of the property and is accessible from the main parking lot or by the Shenipsit Trail access on Birch Mountain Rd to the west.
The trails in the park can be combined into a relatively easy 6 – 10 miles if you’re looking to add distance. The Gay City Trails also connect to the Meshomasic State Forest trails and Blackledge Falls in Glastonbury. This park was my choice for several youth, family and group hikes this year and definitely offers something for all interests and abilities. https://explorect.org/gay-city/
Day Pond State Park/ Salmon River State Forest
The last hiking area I’ll mention in my go-to list of local favorites is Day Pond State park. I hiked this area for the first time in 2020 and hope to return in 2021, as I definitely didn’t cover all there is to see. This park in Colchester has varied access for parking depending on the time of year. For families, there are several picnic areas and ample room to roam around the pond. The park provides options for a couple of different loops or out and back hikes. The route I took with a small group brought us out to the Salmon River and eventually to the Comstock covered bridge. The terrain is easy to moderate and the scenery is excellent. This park includes all of the 5-mile Salmon River Blue Trail. https://explorect.org/day-pond/
I could easily list off a dozen more, as these are just a few examples of some of the great, local hiking opportunities available in eastern Connecticut that you may be less familiar with. I’m hopeful that this year will again include some great trips out of state into a few of the really incredible and challenging hiking areas in northern New England at very least. When what is needed is a shorter or more local hike however, Connecticut actually has quite a bit to offer. I hope you have the opportunity to explore several new hiking areas and maybe find a favorite local trail this year. Happy hiking!