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Connecticut's Top 10 Hiking Trails

Perhaps because it got an early start in the practice of land preservation, Connecticut today is criss-crossed by hundreds of miles of hiking trails. These trails run through high land and low, across difficult and easy terrain, and they offer unique insight into the geology, flora and fauna of the state. They also serve as blissful, highly satisfying getaways from the noise and crowds of daily life.

Connecticut’s blue-blazed trails, maintained by volunteers and administered by the Connecticut Forest and Park Association (CFPA), encompass some 825 miles of walkways running through 88 towns. The trails are elegantly described in the CFPA’s Connecticut Walk Book (there are East and West editions), a nearly essential guide if you plan to get out into the woods. But there are other trail systems in the state as well, in state parks, town parks and various natural preserves.

To get you started, here are 10 hikes with notable features, gathered from sources such as The Hartford Courant, Connecticut Magazine, everytrail.com, alltrails.com, trailsoffreedom.com, trails.com and others:

  1. If you don’t mind a bit of scrambling, the Mattabesett Trail in central Connecticut offers marvelous views from atop the state’s famous traprock ridges. One of the great vistas comes after a climb up from Meriden’s Giufridda Park to Chauncey Peak and Lamentation Mountain. There’s a bit of a scramble to get up to elevation, but once there you’re walking along a ridge from which you can see Hartford to the north, almost to New Haven to the south, and seemingly unlimited views to the west. The descent brings you to a level walk along the lake before closing the loop. This up-and-down hike covers about 2 miles.
     
  2. The southern trail head for the Mattatuck Trail is located in Wolcott’s Peterson Park, just off busy Route 69. Within minutes on the trail, however, the sounds of the outside world begin to fade, replaced by the babbling of the Mad River. Soon you will find yourself in a sort of natural amphitheater, or movie set, with towering hemlocks, filtered sunlight, tumbling and splashing water, and an understory of moss-covered boulders, ferns and mountain laurel. You may want to stay awhile, but if you stick with the trail for another 5 miles, crossing a couple of roads and even passing through a residential neighborhood, you’ll come eventually to Buttermilk Falls in Plymouth, one of Connecticut’s great secrets in the woods. For this 5.7-mile hike, you’ll have to park one car at the beginning and another at the end.
     
  3. Rural Roxbury in Litchfield County has a number of natural preserves that are great for hiking, but among the most interesting is the Mine Hill Preserve that runs past old iron mines, granite quarries and the ruins of a 19th-century iron-making complex. From the parking area, take a left onto the blue loop trail toward the Donkey Trail. You’ll pass a reservoir, two mine tunnels and a series of grated air shafts, which now serve as entryways to several bat populations. The 4-mile trail continues past massive granite cliffs, eventually descending back to the Shepaug River valley, past an abandoned quarry and finally to the furnace complex, where excellent signage will tell you about all you’ve just seen.
     
  4. Most of Connecticut’s state parks along Long Island Sound are big and full of features meant to serve the largest number of visitors possible. Not so with Farm River State Park in East Haven. This is a smallish (62 acres) park that seems unpromising at first but that at length serves as a nice immersion into salt marshes and seaside sights and sounds. As for hiking, the trail lengths don’t amount to much, but you’ll like the places they take you. As the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection states: “Despire its size, the park’s diversity is remarkable. Snowy egrets feed in the marshland and share the tidal wetlands and tocky shore with a wide variety of ducks, gulls and the occasional blue heron.”
     
  5. The Lucius Pond Ordway Devil’s Den Preserve in Weston and Redding encompasses nearly 1,750 acres and is the largest preserve in Fairfield County. Grab a trail booklet at the entrance and take off on a hike that seems best suited to you from among the preserve’s 20 miles of pathways. And if you see something that looks like a hoof mark in one of the stones along the way, well that’s how this preserve got its name!
     
  6. In Litchfield, the 4,000-acre White Memorial Conservation Center has long held the flag high for nature and environmental awareness. There is camping here, as well as boating, picnicking, excellent birding and 35 miles of hiking trails, including interpretive nature trails, a boardwalk trail that circles above a wetland habitat and a good chunk of the Mattatuck Trail.
     
  7. The 4.8-mile Housatonic River Walk in South Kent is a unique section of the Appalachian Trail in that it is one of few long flat parts of the entire trail, which wends its way 2,160 miles from Georgia to Maine. The easy, relaxing walk on an old farming road provides ample opportunity to enjoy the natural beauty and varied wildlife along the river. It also will allow you to brag that, yes, you have hiked along the epic AT.
     
  8. Caves are a surprisingly regular feature along Connecticut’s trails, although they are apt to be recesses in jumbles of boulders or old mines rather than the elaborate cave systems you might find elsewhere. For example, a hike along the Tunxis Trail in Barkhamsted (4.4 miles out and back) will take you to the Indian Council Caves. You make your way into the woods from busy Route 219 and embark on “a magical romp,” according to Peter Marteka of The Hartford Courant. He goes on: “After reaching an old woods road, a small staircase brings visitors into a deep evergreen forest, a peaceful oasis within the hardwood forest. Here the wind only sways the tops of the trees high above as pine needles float down like snowflakes. It’s one of those delightful places where you are totally enveloped into the natural world.” And the very cool caves still await!
     
  9. The wilds of Northeast Connecticut are on ample display in Union’s Bigelow Hollow State Park, which in turn is located within Nipmuck State Forest. Here, trails head off in every direction, but hardy hikers will be interested in the portion of the Nipmuck Trail that runs from the park entrance, out and around Breakneck Pond, and then back again. The round trip is somewhere between 6 and 7 miles, featuring many water views, awesome rock formations and all the sights and sounds of spring in Connecticut.
     
  10. One of Connecticut’s most beautiful land trust properties is deep within Litchfield County at Steep Rock Preserve in Washington. There are many trails within this 974-acre natural wonder – for example, the Steep Rock Loop (4 miles) takes in many of the preserve’s features and Green Circle Trail (3 miles) follows the curves of the Shepaug River.
     
  11. Bonus Section. Still looking more ideas? The Connecticut State Park system is full of wonderful possibilities. Try these on for size: Sleeping Giant State Park in Hamden, Talcott Mountain State Park in Simsbury, Bluff Point State Park in Groton and Kent Falls State Park in Kent.