Updated: Mar 27, 2020
For a small state Connecticut has an abundance of hiking trails. Small, local trail systems can be found in most towns. Some are maintained by the municipality and others by volunteer groups or civic organizations. Additionally, Connecticut has dozens of longer trails that wind through vast tracts of forest and intersect urban areas, rivers and numerous recreation and historical sites among other places. While the Appalachian trail that passes through our northwest corner may be the most recognized it is but one of several major trails in the state. If you’ve spent any time hiking in Connecticut you’ve likely at least heard about the “Blue-Blazed” trails.
The Blue-Blazed Hiking Trail System is a network covering 825 miles of trail, all maintained by the Connecticut Forest and Park Association. This non-profit group advocates for conservation interests and provides educational programming in addition to maintaining the blue-blazed trail system. You can learn more about them and the trails they maintain at www.ctwoodlands.org. Of interest, you’ll find an interactive map of all blue-blazed trails in the state, including the Nipmuck trail that I spent some time on today.
The Nipmuck trail stretches from the Massachusetts boarder in Union to Mansfield, approximately 35 miles in total. After covering 14 miles of this trail today my opinion is that it’s an underrated hidden gem for hikers in Connecticut’s quiet corner. I picked up the trail on Rte. 74 in Ashford and followed it to Mansfield Hollow State Park. What started as a chilly, overcast morning evolved into a partly sunny and warm mid-day. I spent just over 5 hours on this trip including regular pauses for pictures and a quick lunch on a memorial bench atop 50 Foot Cliff.
Stepping onto this trail from Rte. 74 I was greeted by the sound of running water from the Knowlton Brook. The signage for the trail head is very clear and there is a footbridge almost immediately beyond the road. As a matter of fact, the entire trail was perfectly blazed and very easy to follow. The trail follows Knowlton Brook very closely for about ¼ mile before turning deeper into the forest. The first elevation gain was mild and brought me into an area with more stone walls than I’ve ever seen in one place! I was amazed by not only the number of intersecting walls, but by their size as well. I walked through rows of these walls for at least a mile. Intermixed were stone foundations and an occasional other stone structure. The rocks in this area are all covered in a thick moss which added some welcome color to an area otherwise devoid of it this time of year. It’s interesting to consider that at some point in past this area was farm or pasture and not the thick collection of oak, spruce and maple trees it is today. These massive trees sprung up over time, protecting the stone walls and foundations of a foregone era and locking them into the landscape for hikers like me to enjoy.
Continuing on, the trail passed over ground cover and rolling hills that are more typical for this area. The next point of interest came just over Rte. 44. The trail followed a paved side road for a distance, passing what remains of an old grist mill. Again, the stone foundation tells a story to anyone who’s interested in listening. Instead of turning out product next to the river as it once did, today the site offers a short history lesson on a board and a couple of picnic tables to rest at. Beyond this landmark it was back into the woods.
The next section of trail paired up with the Fenton River for almost 6 miles. The Fenton River is a significant water source for UCONN. It starts in Ashford and dumps into the Mansfield reservoir. The trail along the river runs along its bank for the most part with occasional jogs away to avoid some natural feature or obstacle. This time of year the river is running well however it looks like it’s never more than a couple of feet deep (the sections I saw at least). The river is crystal clear and there are plenty of areas that produce rushing water, such as over a downed tree or a short natural drop for instance. The sound of the water paired with some sunshine and crisp air made for a very enjoyable section to travel.
At about mile 10 it was time for a short lunch break. Instead of a quick water break that I’ll usually take standing up, I like to sit for a few minutes when lunch is included on a hike! I’ll typically look for a nice rock with a view and spread out a bit. From the point I began looking for a lunch spot I had traveled about 15 minutes more than I had hoped to without finding what looked to be a good place to stop. Just as I was considering a stop on the side of the trail and opening my pack among the leaves I found exactly what I was looking for. I was at the top of what is called the 50 Foot Cliff. I’ll tell you that I’m pretty sure the cliff I was standing at was much higher than 50 feet! In a small clearing just back from the edge of this drop off was a beautiful granite memorial bench. On the front was the name of a young man who died a few years ago and on the back was a loving tribute to him from his family. Next to the bench was a small fire ring. This position looked out over the valley below and provided a perfect opportunity to rest and eat. I imagine the boy named on the bench has family who are probably regular visitors to this spot. The inscription on it read that he was an Eagle Scout. I wonder if this was a favorite hiking spot for him, or if the location held some other significance.
The last couple of miles cut back into the forest on the floor of the valley. On my final approach into Mansfield Hollow I began to see more people. Throughout the day I had passed a couple of hikers, a handful of trail runners and a few families who didn’t need to venture far to get to where I passed them on the trail. In my last mile however it was clear that I was coming into a very popular recreation area. It’s great to see so many people taking to the outdoors!
After this hike I’m now looking forward to finishing the rest of the Nipmuck trail. I’m hopeful that the remaining 20 or so miles will provide similarly interesting features and terrain. If you’re interested in joining me, let me know!