A Guide to Hiking Trails
By Visko Hatfield
Imagine a place where you can get away from everyone, a secluded oasis of tranquility and peace, far from cellphones and car horns, a place where the only noises you hear are the chirping of crickets and the twittering of birds. Sound good? Then stop dreaming and put on your hiking boots. There’s no need to pack up and head to Idaho, though, for a secluded stroll in the woods, not while there are so many parks and preserves in our area that are sparsely visited and overlooked. We’re not referring to such classic retreats as the moss-packed trails of Mianus River Gorge, Devil’s Den and its magnificent Great Ledge vistas, or Ward Pound Ridge Reservation, with its many streams and acres of forest. They have become so popular that hiking there is more often a social event than communing with nature. What’s needed on those occasions when you feel compelled to leave the trappings of modern life behind — if only momentarily — are little-known gems like the handful listed here.
National Historic Site
At Weir Farm, Connecticut’s sole national park, you can tour a turn-of-the-century art studio and learn about this region’s role in the American Impressionist movement. What’s less well publicized is the hiking trail across the street from the farm, which circles an isolated pond where artist Julian Alden Weir liked to paint.
Although Weir died nearly eighty years ago, it was only in the late 1970s that a grassroots movement, spurred by encroaching suburban development, began to lobby for protection of his former property. That effort paid off in 1990, when the sixty-acre farm was designated a national historic site. Attractions range from a rocky bog and historic pond to a small trickle of a cascade and boulder-filled forest, all within a 1.8-mile loop that is ideal for even the most tenderfooted members of your tribe.
The hike begins by turning right at the parking lot, directly across the street from the visitor center. Follow Nod Hill Road north to the next corner, and, still on the right side of the pavement, pass through the gap in the stone wall opposite the red farmhouse. Now in a slanting meadow, stay with the mowed path as it tapers gently downhill to a cedar tree, where you’ll pick up the Pond Trail, marked by white blazes overlaid with a blue slash. As you proceed to the right into an area densely populated with oaks, maples, black birches and shagbark hickory trees, take note of the many mortarless stone walls running through the forest: This was all open farmland when Weir lived here.
At the bottom of the hill, keep to the left of the pond and stay with the path until you see a sign for the Waterfall Trail (orange blazes) by the northeast corner of the water. Spring left there, and in a matter of eighty yards you will come to the waterfall. In this part of the park, a jagged ridgeline flanks your route and large glacial erratics rise like cosmic debris.
Walk straight ahead at the next junction, on what is now dubbed the Rock Walk, which lives up to its name with a fair amount of moss-rimmed rubble underfoot. When you reach a series of three-foot-high white plastic poles, staggered throughout the woods, be alert for a right fork of the trail; it’s easy to miss. Heading that way, the path next rock-hops twice over a meandering stream (look for bullfrogs) and then veers back in the direction of the pond. Skip the trace to the right, a shortcut to the Waterfall Trail, and in a couple of minutes the pond will come into view. Swing left there, completing the circumference of this attractive body of water, and retrace your earlier steps to the parking lot.
How to get there: Take exit 39 off the Merritt Parkway and go north on Route 7, turning west on Route 102 just after the Branchville Station. After 0.3 mile make a left onto Old Branchville Road, then another left onto Nod Hill Road. Parking is on the left, across from the visitor center.
Nearby attractions: The Weir-Leary-White Preserve, a Nature Conservancy property adjacent to Weir Farm, features more than a mile of secluded hiking.
Sleeping Giant State Park
You’ve heard the expression about letting sleeping dogs lie? Well, when it comes to sleeping giants, the best thing to do is roam all over them. At least, that’s the case with Sleeping Giant State Park, where intrepid hikers can tread over the Giant’s head, chin, hands and legs, and his hips, too — even something known cryptically as Hezekiah’s knob. While engaged in this anatomical exploration, you’ll find no end of wildflowers and vistas that start with Quinnipiac University and extend clear out to Long Island Sound.
Sleeping Giant owes its ruggedly rocky, near-vertical ridgelines to volcanic eruptions more than 170 million years ago. Its hills and peaks of fractured basaltic columns, so attractive to hikers today, were no less appealing to entrepreneurs in 1911, who saw in the Giant a cornucopia of building stone. They began by quarrying the Giant’s head, but neighbors objected to the boom of near-continual blasting, and the gradual alteration of the Giant’s shape motivated conservationists to go to court to stop the mining.
Of the many trails in this park, we recommend starting on White and returning on Blue, both of which travel the full length of the Giant, repeatedly rising and descending from one landmark to the next, for a total distance of just over eight miles. Plan on wearing your sturdiest boots, as this fun roller coaster of a hike will have you stumbling over more rocks than turf, providing the ultimate in ankle stress tests.
Pick up a park map at the kiosk by the parking lot and walk to the nearby picnic area, where the White Trail (WT, white blazes) begins at the north end of the circle. From the dense shade of maple trees, the WT quickly ascends over loose scree, passing through a clutch of gnarly mountain laurels on the way to the first ridge, the Giant’s chest.
A slight descent ensues, followed by a near-vertical climb up to the Giant’s right hip. If you enjoyed this scramble, you’ll love the next challenge, a hand-over-hand grope up the imposing bluff known as the right knee. The views from this traprock ledge, sheltered by pitch pines, oaks and cedars, make for a great picnic spot, or simply an appropriate place to catch your breath. Keep your eyes open, though, for copperhead snakes, which have been known to nest in the crevasses of the boulders.
As you move along the WT, you’ll come across pockets of forsythia in springtime and wildflowers later in the year, including lavender hairbell, ox-eye daisy, cow vetch, pasture rose, St. John’s wort and buttercups, as well as a rich abundance of boletus, lactarius and russula mushrooms. You will also pass a confusing number of trail intersections, shortcuts that can be ignored unless you decide to bring the hike to an early end.
Only after dropping off Hezekiah’s knob, about 2.5 miles out from the picnic grounds, will you leave the WT, hanging a right on the Yellow Trail at the base of the sharply slanted granite slope where the WT hits a four-way intersection. In approximately twenty steps, jog right again onto the Blue Trail (BT), which takes you back over Hezekiah’s knob before scaling the left side of the Giant’s anatomy.
Some of the most inspiring ledges and viewpoints are found along this stretch of trail, including those from atop the stone tower, a notable landmark.
From the tower the BT eventually soars up a rocky ramp, veering left near its top onto yet another hand-over-hand natural staircase that leads to the Giant’s chin. The descent that succeeds this is a fun, heart-pounding drop, as near to vertical as is possible to navigate without climbing gear, down the side of the defunct quarry. One final climb remains, after which you should turn left onto the Violet Trail, by the side of a wide stream, which will return you to the trailhead.
How to get there: Take exit 61 off the Merritt Parkway, turning right at the end of the ramp. Pass under the highway and drive north on Whitney Avenue for three miles, bearing right on Mount Carmel Avenue. In 0.3 mile swing left into the park. The parking area is to the right of the entrance booth. Nearby attractions: The Sleeping Giant Park Association, which maintains the trails, sponsors a number of themed hikes, including a fall wildflower hike on September 24 departing from the parking area at 1:30 p.m. See sgpa.com for further details.
Trout brook valley
Trout Brook Valley may well be the most interesting, exciting, colorful preserve you have never heard about. With an intricate trail system that cuts through an old-growth hemlock forest, over high rocky bluffs and a series of extended ridges, down into stream-cut ravines and skunk cabbage–choked marshes, passing a wildflower-dappled apple orchard and blueberry patch along the way, Trout Brook offers something for everyone. Except, perhaps, people in search of trout.
As you gambol from one end of this densely forested preserve to another, you may see deer, ducks, wild turkeys and a variety of snakes, but very few houses. This latter attribute is due largely to the hard work of the Aspetuck Land Trust, which played a pivotal role in the acquisition of much of the 1,009-acre domain from Bridgeport Hydraulic in 1999.
As with any park of this size, you can tailor your hike to whatever length suits your time and energy. To get the most out of your tour, however, we suggest the following eight-mile loop. Strike out on the orange-blazed spur north of the parking circle, and when it ends, in a couple of minutes, swing left on the blue- and white-blazed trail. Remain with the blue markings as white breaks to the left. When you emerge from the cover of the hemlock forest onto a narrow swath of grass, you may find carpets of ox-eye daisies.
Head left when the path meets a gravel lane, and then, in roughly three minutes of walking, stride right at the wooden post with 31 on it and cross the overgrown dam (another spot rife with flowers). Remain on this red-blazed track for the ensuing 2.6 miles, all the way to the north end of the preserve.
Initially, this trail threads through an ancient rock slide, then climbs to an appealingly wild-looking, rocky ridge where hemlocks blend seamlessly with oaks, birches and a smattering of mountain laurel. Wood thrushes often comb the ground here for worms, and an occasional yellow-billed cuckoo has been known to pass through, too.
The eventual end of the undulating red trail occurs shortly after hopping through a soggy swamp (bug repellent is strongly recommended) at a junction with a white-blazed path. Head left, and within fifteen minutes, having darted through a thicket of laurel over ground that glitters with bits of mica, you will jog right onto another red-blazed trail that now heads south. Stick with this all the way to its end, in one mile, then bear left (white blazes) and, in one minute, left again (yellow), stepping across the old stone wall. This segment of trail ends in just over a mile, at which point tack to the left, this time on orange.
Now flanking a rocky stream, where ramps flourish in spring, the path meets a blue-blazed track in a quarter-mile and forks sharply left, uphill. If you are interested in picking apples in the fall (or blueberries in late July), bend left on the magenta-marked path, which loops by the orchard before returning farther on to this same route. Keep your eye on the blue symbols as you march along, ignoring the yellow and white blazes that briefly overlap and intersect this trail, and dart left on the orange spur that returns you to the parking circle.
How to get there: Take exit 44 off the Merritt Parkway and bear left off the ramp, turning left again on SR 58, heading north as you pass under the highway. In 5.1 miles (or 1.6 miles after you pass the junction with SR 136) turn left onto Freeborn Road. Proceed 0.7 mile and swing right on Elm Drive, which dead-ends at the parking circle.
Nearby attractions: Just up the road, in Redding, is Collis P. Huntington State Park, where trails artfully meander over the grounds of a former estate.
One hesitates to describe as “new” a preserve that has been around for five years. And yet, in the case of Westchester Wilderness Walk, it continues to be one of this area’s best-kept secrets. Even on weekends you’ll seldom encounter more than one or two hikers along its seven or so miles of trails. Thus, while it seems a bit of a stretch to describe as wilderness any piece of land within this densely populated patch of suburbia, the absence of people combined with creative trail building will make you feel as if you’re much farther out there than you really are.
Westchester Wilderness Walk, which is also known as the Zoffnass Family Preserve, was created largely through the efforts of Pound Ridge resident Paul Zoffnass, who donated land and convinced several of his neighbors, including cartoonist Gary Trudeau, to do the same. It showcases, within its 250 acres, an attractive mix of skunk cabbage–filled bogs and hardwood highlands, with granite bluffs and streams adding further color to the setting. From early spring through early autumn, the forest floor is speckled with wildflowers and, if the weather has been moist, an intoxicating aroma of mushrooms, including prized black trumpets, perfumes the air.
This hike consists of four interconnected circuits, starting with the South Loop at the trailhead. Follow the green-blazed path through the marsh to a low stone wall, where a wooden railing, newly mounted on the rocks, guides you to the left. Swing left again on reaching the end of that span and then veer right when the trail forks. As you hike alongside the silvery beech trees, black birches and hemlocks, past a gurgling brook and through an old cabin ruin, you will see an abundance of boulders scattered throughout the woods. Composed of schist and gneiss, these metamorphic outcroppings were deposited 12,000 to 15,000 years ago by the Wisconsin glacier when it passed through the area.
Keep right at the next fork (left is a shortcut to the other side of the circuit) and continue straight across the private drive. Remain with the main trail, which is now the Central Roundabout (CR), until you reach the turnoff to the right for the East Loop, a 1.5-mile stretch that passes through an open meadow, drops down over a high stone staircase and circles around a scenic swamp where bullfrogs serenade one another and colorful dragonflies flit among blue vervain, black-eyed Susans and lobelia.
On your return to the CR, bear right and proceed to the junction with the North Loop, about a quarter-mile distant. Branching off to the right, you’ll enjoy a tour through a high stand of pines and a fern-flecked swamp, passing a curious depression in the ground that was once a quartz quarry. When digging ceased in the middle of the nineteenth century, it gradually filled with trash. Swing right when you reencounter the CR. Remain with that, bearing right at each fork, as it brings you back to the South Loop. This final portion of the hike passes by what is labeled the “world’s largest poison ivy vine.” Dutchman’s-britches bloom in early spring to the right of the stream here. In a few minutes, the track bends to the left, bringing you back to the wooden railing where you pass over the rocks and return to your car.
How to get there: Take exit 34 off the Merritt Parkway and head north on Long Ridge Road. After approximately 5 miles, turn right onto Upper Shad Road and continue for 0.3 mile to the tiny parking lot on the left.
Nearby attractions: The newly opened Leon Levy Preserve, on the former Bell property in Lewisboro, consists of numerous secluded trails on 375 heavily wooded acres. To reach it, drive north on Route 123 into New York and park on the left side, by the sign, just before 123 ends at SR 35.
Some people, conditioned by their experiences in the Rocky Mountains and Sierra Nevadas, believe that for really strenuous climbs — ones with heart-stopping panoramas and a heaping helping of rock scrambling — hikers should point their Timberlands toward the West. We have just two words for them: Hudson Highlands. This hugely challenging calorie- burner with its twin ascents is likely to leave you winded, but happily so. Why? Because for better views of the Hudson River you’d have to hire an airplane. Here are grass-fringed granite plateaus and, near the end of this nine-mile excursion, the picturesque ruins of a dairy farm and an old estate.
On a bright day, you’ll want to wear a sun hat and tote extra water, because in spite of a plethora of oaks, maples, dogwoods and shagbark hickory trees, sun exposure during the first hour climbing to Mt. Taurus can be uncomfortably intense. The jaunt begins on the white-blazed trail at the north end of the small parking lot. Step past the gate and keep to the right, following the eroded track uphill. In about fifteen minutes, the path crests briefly by the crater of a mothballed quarry before resuming more steeply toward the summit. Pause here to catch your breath and check out the recovery-in-progress of the hollowed-out core, which is being overgrown with cottonwoods, cedars, oaks and sumac.
Back on track, still following the white blazes, note the great number of appealing resting spots en route to Mt. Taurus, bare granite shoulders and ridges where lizards bask under the hot sun and turkey vultures like to roost. The emerging views of Cold Spring and the Hudson River are just a taste of what’s to come. Note the intersection with the Undercliff Trail (UT), the yellow-blazed route to the left, before continuing on with white all the way to the top of Mt. Taurus, a half mile farther on. After enjoying the great views at the top, 1,400 feet above the trailhead, among a sprinkling of laurels and scrub oaks, retrace your steps to the UT and head west, toward the river.
As the UT bends to the right, additional far-reaching vistas unfold, including a glimpse of Storm King Mountain across the Hudson. That verdant plateau between you and the river is Breakneck Ridge, your next destination. To reach it, stay with the UT as it drifts downward, ultimately meeting a wide carriage road, blazed red, by a stream. Swing left there, then dogleg right over the bridge, still sticking with yellow markings.
The path snakes up and down through a talus slope and sprawling moraine field. On reaching a T junction, the yellow blazes end, replaced by white ones. This is the Breakneck Trail (BT), where you turn to the right. There are more climbs ahead, but the view from here of Storm King, and Schunemunk Mountain beyond it, is incredible. That spit of land by the near shore of the Hudson is Pollepel Island, which is dominated by the remains of a five-story Scottish baronial–style castle, built in the early twentieth century by an arms merchant to house his munitions.
From here the BT is a fun series of undulations from one ridge node to the next, with the final one yielding a superb 360-degree panorama. And then, all too soon, the descent begins. Swing right (in about 150 yards) onto the blue-blazed Notch Trail. Bear right again, after roughly twenty minutes and a loss of 500 feet of altitude, onto the wide carriage road. That’s Breakneck Pond on the left, followed by the impressive remains of the Cornish Dairy.
Stick with the main track even as the blue blazes dart to the left, up another carriage road (they lead back to Mt. Taurus), and proceed past the junction where you emerged earlier on the UT and crossed the bridge. Perhaps a hundred yards beyond an abandoned pump house, the path diverges. Keep left, and stay on the wide road as it encounters a number of grassy lanes. The ruins of an old greenhouse appear just after you pass the foundation of a cistern, and beyond that are the remnants of a fieldstone mansion, partially obscured amid a tangle of rhododendrons. When this paved path reaches the old estate gate by Route 9D, jump left on the overgrown trail and in five minutes you’ll be back at your car.
How to get there: Take the Merritt Parkway south to I-287 and proceed toward the Tappan Zee Bridge. Exit the interstate at US 9, and follow that north through Peekskill to the intersection with SR 403 (Garrison Road), about 4.7 miles beyond Peekskill. Turn left and drive 2.2 miles to the junction with SR 9D, where you head north (right). Continue for four miles to the town of Cold Spring, and remain on SR 9D for 0.7 mile beyond the intersection with SR 301, turning off at the small parking lot on the right.
Nearby attractions: Pollepel Island is technically a part of Hudson Highlands State Park. Bannerman Castle Trust operates boat tours to the island from May through October, departing from Beacon and Newburgh, New York. To see the castle ruins close up and explore the island, call 845-831-6346.