Updated: Jun 29, 2020
I arrived at the parking lot of the Goodwin State Forest conservation education center at about 8:20am. There were only two other cars there at that time. The parking area is adjacent to a pavilion overlooking Pine Acres Lake at its southern end. The air was already warm in the 60’s and the sun was shining through the handful of clouds remaining in the sky. As I was readying my pack and camera on the tailgate of my truck a large doe ran by, headed down the path I would be taking shortly. I thought that this was a good sign!
This parking area marks the beginning of the Natchaug trail. One of the shorter Connecticut blue trails, the Natchaug stretches a mere 17 ½ miles from Goodwin State Forest at its entrance close to Route 6, north into the Natchaug State Forest and terminating at the Nipmuck trail just north of Pixie falls. As a point-to-point hike this entire trail is very doable as a day hike. The easy to moderate terrain allows for a reasonable pace for most of the route. For anyone looking to do just that, add about a mile at the northern end of the trail to get to the closest parking area. For this hike my route would follow the Natchaug trail out about 7 miles to Beaver Dam Marsh. On the return trip I would take alternate trails through the eastern side of Goodwin State Forest for some variety.
It had rained quite a bit the day before this hike and immediately it was clear that I would likely be encountering quite a bit of mud and standing water. The trail leaves the parking lot and follows close to the side of the lake for about a quarter mile before connecting with the Airline Trail briefly and then veering northwest into the woods again. The trail is very typical for this area. In general I would describe it as comfortable and familiar for me. Large pines and hardwoods provide cover as the trail twists and turns through ferns and mountain laurel. This time of year the woods are green again. It’s amazing how much of a difference a week can make in terms of new spring growth. The leaves are filling in and the ground is not just brown anymore.
Stone walls are everywhere in Eastern Connecticut. The walls in this area seem to be covered with especially thick moss. These walls that today provide homes for snakes and other small forest creatures are what remains of farmland and homesteads of a century or so ago. Among the interesting rock structures on this hike are stone foundations. There is actually quite a bit of history associated with this trail (More on that: https://www.ctwoodlands.org/blue-blazed-hiking-trails/natchaug-trail ).
At about 2 miles in the trail passes next to Black Spruce Pond. The bank of this large pond is cleared of heavy growth and provides a great opportunity for bird and wildlife watching from an open, grassy area between the pond and the trail. After passing through this brief opening the trail dives deep into cover again and winds trough typical terrain, gaining about 400’ of elevation to the next point of interest. At the top of Orchard Hill there is a bench made of deck boards screwed to two metal folding chairs. This seating overlooks a valley through a small clearing, just about 20 yards off the trail.
From the Orchard Hill lookout, it is about a mile to an impressive and unexpected series of waterfalls. Leaving these falls the trail continues north under thick cover for about 2 more miles to Beaver Dam Marsh. This is where I reversed direction after a short lunch break. Beaver Dam Marsh is actually a rather large pond. There is a parking area just up from the water’s edge. I arrived here to find 3 cyclists just finishing their break. We discussed the trails and the area a bit. They were young seniors on electric-assist bikes taking a 35 mile trip this morning. As they were leaving a gentleman equipped with binoculars and a camera with a very large zoom lens arrived. He told me that he had already identified 54 species of birds in the area that morning and he was at the marsh to continue his birding pursuit. After talking photography with him for a few minutes I was on my way again.
My plan for the return trip was to take different trails back through Goodwin State Forest. I initially backtracked for just over a mile on the Natchaug before coming to a trail intersection that had a map posted. The majority of the trails through Goodwin shown on this map did not appear on either of the GPS apps I use to navigate. I would have to rely on trail markings and a general heading direction. The map showed a few alternative trails that all seemed to eventually end up close to the same place. The problem however is that often times in State forests there are several unmarked feeder trails made by bikers that can become confusing if the main trails aren’t well marked. I wasn’t worried about getting lost as much as potentially stretching out my hike much longer than I had planned on. Ultimately, I decided to take my chances in this area that was new to me.
The trail I started on was rerouted twice due to logging. I passed through what looked like last years harvest area and had to do a little guessing as to where the trail went. I spent some time on unmarked trails, keeping my general direction south until finally meeting up with a well-marked Blue/White trail. Based on the footprints through the thick mud covering much of this trail, several horses had passed here just ahead of me this morning. This trail returned to the comfortable, typical forest winding through plentiful moss-covered stone walls under a thick canopy. For the last mile I was on the eastern side of Pine Acres Lake, opposite where my hike began. There were several spotted turtles basking on logs just offshore, which all managed to dive back into the water before I could snap their picture.
As I arrived back at my truck the parking lot was now full. On this beautiful day it was great to see so many people enjoying fishing, boating and just relaxing around the lake (all appropriately distanced of course). My total hike was just under 14 miles on some very scenic trails. I’ll look forward to part two of the Natchaug trail in the near future.