Thursday, May 27, 2021

Thru-Hiking the Connecticut NET Part 2: Two Towers and a Bear

Backpacking through Connecticut's Bear Alley

This hike covered 56 miles of the Metacomet Ridge, from the Hanging Hills of Meriden to the Massachusetts border. Features included four days of hiking, three water drops, two towers, and one bear at my tent. 

Trail covered in this hike

So much had changed in the two weeks that had passed since doing Part 1. By the last week of May, the trees had fully leafed out, and some of the seasonal brooks were dry or barely flowing . The trap rock ridges dry up fast if there are a few weeks without rain, and there is just nothing to drink for miles and miles. So a few days before hitting the trail, I hid a gallon of water at three locations along the trail, just in case. Glad I did! In retrospect, I could have managed without it, but the sources I would have been collecting water from were not ideal, and I would have been lugging that water water farther up the trail. Plus, it's a really nice not to have to filter your water for a while. 

But I'm thirsty (Merimere Reservoir)

Two weeks earlier, all the seasonal water sources were still flowing, but so much had dried up.  A Merimere Reservoir inlet streambed the trail crosses was bone dry except for some water bubbling up out of the trap rock a few feet downhill from the trail. This turned out to be the best water of the hike. Spring water!

Crystal clear water bubbling out of the trap rock next to Merimere

At any rate, thru hikers should be prepared for lack of water, depending on the season, and will probably need to carry extra water along the trap rock ridges. Guthook was a big help, although there are some water sources not shown on the app. One way to gauge the need for additional water before a hike if you're not sure is to Google "USGS hydrograph" and then select a small stream near the place you'll be hiking. The reason you want a smaller stream is that those are the ones that will dry up first, and best reflect the condition on the trap rock ridges. The hydrograph of Stony Brook near West Suffield shows how much the stream dried up between my first and second hikes. (Right after I got back, we got 3-4 inches of rain in Connecticut, so the hydrograph shoots back up quickly.)  

USGS hydrograph showing water depth of a river in West Suffield

Another issue is footwear. As I've said before, if you're on the fence between heavier boots and lighter footwear, choose the heavier option for this trail. Trap rock breaks into sharp corners, so this is one trail where you might want a bit more protection for your feet and ankles. I also found a pair of trekking poles to be invaluable because some of that rock is loose and kicks out on you when least expected.  

Be prepared for lots of loose angular trap rock 
While we're on the subject of gear, I pretreated my tent, pack, boots, hat, and clothing with permethrin to guard against ticks. Didn't see a single tick the entire trip except for one dog tick clinging to my sock, which I had not treated. 

Merimere Reservoir heading up East Peak

This hike started where I left off on Summit Wood Drive in Berlin, which starts out as a brief road walk. This isn't a bad place to split the CT NET in two if so desired. Route 71 would be closer to half way, but the parking might be more difficult. Summit Wood Drive is a cul-de-sac with some powerlines you can park in front of without intruding on any homeowners. 

I started out poorly by missing where the trail turns off the road, but eventually figured it out with the help of the Guthook. The next section is the one I had the hardest time with in 2012 because a new dirt road had been cleared and graded and all the blazes were gone. But it was all good in 2021, and before long I had arrived at the Hanging Hills of Meriden, which includes Castle Craig (East Peak). It's a lovely climb with lots of views. 

Castle Craig: The first tower

Castle Craig is a milestone along the NET. I could see New Haven, Long Island, and Sleeping Giant off in the distance. The paved road up to the castle was open, so it was fairly busy, even on a Monday. The trail then tediously goes all the way down the ridge on a lot of loose traprock, and then all the way back up again to West Peak on more rock, even though there is a super easy paved road connecting the two peaks up above. It's a little heartbreaking. On the one hand, it's ridiculous, and on the other hand, it's nice to get off the pavement. At any rate, that little stretch between East Peak and West Peak definitely adds to the difficulty. 

West Peak - same location as on the Connecticut Walk Book cover

After a nice long lunch at a West Peak overlook (all to myself), it was time to head on down the mountain, and as usual, and the north side was gradual and less dramatic than the south side of the ridge, due to the way the rock layers dip. A pair of young backpackers passed me here, also heading northbound. They had parked just a few miles ahead at Timberlin Park and were eager to finish up their hike from Long Island Sound. They said they had no plans for the rest of the NET. They seemed to be having a blast. 

The trail then follows Edgewood Road for a couple miles, yet another road walk section I skipped back in 2012. I walked past a road construction crew and one of the guys asked, "Is this a trail or something?"  After the road walk, the trail goes past a golf course and heads into Timberlin Park to climb up Short Mountain, yet another trap rock ridge. This one has a very sharp drop off descending to the north. I remember being tentative about this descent back in 2012, and I was probably more so in 2021 with the backpack. There was a nicely flowing stream at the base, so I gathered as much water as I could carry.

And so with a pack full of water, I started up Ragged Mountain. This is a popular place with Rock Climbers, and nearing the top, the NET scrambles up through a narrow rock joint in a cliff. I had done this one before without too much trouble (challenging in a fun way), but the pack loaded with extra water was almost too much. It wanted to pull me over backwards, which would be really bad. I took the pack off and gradually heaved it up the cliff above me an inch at a time, trying to clear a spot for my feet. This is where two backpackers could help each other out. But eventually I cleared the top and gave a sigh of relief. 

Heading up Ragged Mountain

There are great views up on Ragged Mountain, which is why it's so popular. I had been to this park several times before there was an NET. Heading north along the ridge, I'd  forgotten how strenuous it was (I'd remembered it being pretty easy and flat, which is wrong until you get to the northern end of the park).  And something else...there were so many more rogue social trails. The trails that are not marked or sanctioned, and it was hard to follow the blue blazes because of it. This had also been true on East Peak, where took some wrong turns, and I suspect this was largely due to the pandemic crowds in 2020, who had a major impact on some of our trails. I must have take a wrong turn at least a dozen times, and found myself repeatedly stopping at trail junctions trying to figure out which way to go. During the previous trips I had no trouble following the trail, but I certainly had trouble on the second trip. 

Ragged Mountain - looking back at the Hanging Hills

The Ragged Mountain section is about five miles long and there are some great views in all directions, even the Hartford skyline. The further north you go, the fewer people you're likely to see. Turned out there was water flowing in a small stream on the north end, and I never needed all the water on my back in the first place. You just never know.

Ragged Mountain north side
The steep descent off of Ragged Mountain is hazardous on loose soil and rock where the trail finds a way around the otherwise continuous cliffs of Ragged Mountain. It was dicey in 2012 and even more so in 2021 with a full pack. Guthook marks this north descent with a warning, although they don't mark the south ascent with a warning (where I actually had a harder time with a pack). Along the entire NET from Long Island South to New Hampshire, I think the most difficult three spots at this time are the two ends of Ragged Mountain and the north side of nearby Short Mountain. Some previously infamous steep sections of the NET have been rerouted since 2012, including the trail at Chauncey and a section at Totoket. 

This is true. (Ragged Mtn)

The trail finally finds a way down the cliffs (Southington)

The trail then crosses lands around Crescent Lake Park. Much of this I had no memory of from previous hikes. But it was nice. No one was around. The area above Crescent Lake also showed the effects of the pandemic hikers the year before. Back home where I help maintain trails, I found our hiking trails doubled in width during 2020. If a trail tread was 2 ft wide in 2019, it was 4 ft wide in 2021. 

Rt 372: A Sunoco gas station up the road had some survival food

After skirting another quarry, the NET crosses a big notch in the Metacomet Ridge through which several major highways pass, including I-84. There's a bit of a road walk, but I was looking forward to the deli section of the Super Stop & Shop the maps told me was there. The maps were wrong. The Stop & Shop had been closed and all that was left was a S&S gas station. And even the convenience store for the gas station was closed down. Ouch! 

Looking back at I-84 and another trap rock quarry

I was depending on that Super Stop & Shop for food and water. I had only one day of food left in my pack. I back-tracked to a drive-thru Dunkin Donuts and bought four bottled beverages and two sausage & cheese breakfast sandwiches. Better than nothing.  Gave the S&S gas station all my accumulated trash, and continued west down Rt 72 along the NET. Just as the trail turned off the road, I spotted a big Sunoco sign up the highway. Yes! A quick detour and I had enough calories for the rest of the trip. Not very good calories, but good enough. But really, there are so many options when thru hiking this part of Connecticut. Uber Eats, for example, which I've never used. Or call up an Uber for a ride to a grocery store or hotel. There is always cell phone coverage and delivery options. 

Prickly Pear cactus ... native to Connecticut!

Having solved the food/water problem, I nearly stepped on a big Black Rat Snake sunning on the rock I was climbing up. I love these snakes. But it's nice to notice them before your face is three feet away.

Black Rat Snake I nearly stepped on in Plainville

On the way to Pinnacle Rock (Plainville)

There are apparently always rock climbers on Pinnacle Rock. By the way, there are two Pinnacle Rocks on the NET not far from each other. The other one is further north at Penwood State Park. 

Rock climbers on Pinnacle Rock in Farmington

After that was Rattlesnake Mountain, another popular spot for day hikers who can get some spectacular views from the top of the cliffs with a moderate one mile hike. I remembers seeing some neat old graffiti carved into the rock on my first trip, but couldn't find it this time. A down side of thru hiking is you just want to keep going, not keep stopping to look at every little thing or search what might be different and interesting. Back in 2012 I spent a good long time looking (and found) nearby Hospital Rock, which has carvings from a small pox inoculation quarantine. I would never do that thru hiking.  On the other hand, you'll see more in a few days than a day hiker would, with full immersion. 

Heading up Rattlesnake Mountain

The north side of Rattlesnake Mountain is how the day hikers get there, and just last fall CFPA had been sharing photos of an ambitious trail stabilization project through a muddy area.  They dug out a long ditch, lined it with rocks, and used the excess soil to build up a causeway lined with timbers.  Nice job! This part of the NET seems to be very heavily used. It must have been a real mess when it was muddy. 

This recent CFPA trail project turned out great. 

My first water drop was at the Hillstead Museum property off of Route 4 in Farmington. Before getting there, I kept expecting the roadwalk on Poplar Hill Drive I'd remembered from 2012, but that walk had been eliminated, and I was suddenly at Hillstead. Nice. 

A few days earlier I had discovered a nice stream still flowing across one of Hillstead's trails, not far from the NET. It wasn't shown on Guthook as a water source, although the Hillstead trails were shown. This was the southernmost trail, not marked and easy to miss, but worth the side trip for water.  I didn't need the water for drinking since I'd hidden a gallon of water nearby, but it was a nice spot for taking a break to wash off a bit before heading across busy Route 4.

Easy going through MDC lands

There's a long easy stretch through affluent Farmington subdivisions and then MDC water company lands. The first couple days of hiking were nice, but the third day was forecast to be a sultry 90° followed by severe thunderstorms in the afternoon. I woke up at 4:15 am and started my day walking as fast as I could before the heat became oppressive. 

MDC Reservoir #6

The MDC part is OK but not great. It's not typical of the ridge hiking along the rest of the trail, and there was a lot of mountain bike activity degrading parts of the trail. But it went by quickly and by 10:00 am I was approaching Heublein Tower at the top of Talcott Mountain in Simsbury. It was closed. 

Are you kidding me????

What a disappointment. It makes me want to mispronounce Heublein (the family name pronunciation reportedly started as "Hoybline,"evolved into "Highbline" by family members, and was later corrupted to "Hughbline" by company interests).  I've been up to the top a few times before, but I walked a long way looking forward to the views. Oh well. More critically, the drinking fountain that Guthook indicated was there had not been opened for the season. I wasn't too worried since I still had some water. If you're thru hiking the NET anytime soon and using Guthook, just be aware that it's a brand new map offering and there are kinks to work out. 

Nice shady spot for a hot day in Talcott State Park

But even if the tower is closed, the views are fantastic and the grounds are beautiful. 

Heublein Tower (Tower #2)

At Talcott, my pace slowed to a crawl. It was HOT.  Talcott eventually gave way to Penwood State Park. I'd remembered only the easy paved road there and forgot that the NET skips the paved option and takes the hard way up some traprock before descending back to the paved loop and Lake Louise. Much prettier. 

Lake Louise, Penwood S.P.,
some of which was poured onto my head

Guthook lists Lake Louise as 'marshy' but it's really just an open pond with some beaver activity, causing the water to back up into some brushy areas. The water was discolored with tanins but was probably drinkable with a filter. It was more than fine for throwing on my head. A viewing platform provides easy access to the open water. 

90° at Penwood State Park, looking back at Heublein Tower

I then staggered up the second Pinnacle Rock of the trip under a blazing sun. Nice breeze, though. I really enjoyed looking back at Heublein Tower off in the distance. Around this time I started getting texts from my husband about the approaching storms. Probably good until 5:00 pm. Lots of lightening. Make that 4:30. Some major hail. There is nothing worse than setting a tent up in pouring rain. I did it once and plan to never do it again. I picked the pace back up, racing to my next water stash. 

Grateful for this water I hid entering Wilcox Park

I passed a couple older women who commented on my backpack said they were section hiking the entire Connecticut NET southbound. A little at a time. That's wonderful. I hope they complete their challenge and get to see all of it. Then I came to my water stash off of Wintonbury Rd. This one was critical. So glad to have the water! 

Wilcox Park. Much of the NET looks like this.

Later on the storm finally arrived and cooled everything down. No hail or major wind, just some lightening and a lot of rain. All was good. The next morning I intent on wiping wet hemlock needles off my tent when I stood up and discovered a big black bear on the other side of the tent, not twenty feet away. Oh my.  I believe that black bears are mostly big fat cowards just looking for a plate of cookies. But still. He seemed very large. Maybe he wasn't, but he seemed that way. I told him to leave. He did not. 

Early morning visitor

I read somewhere that you can carry a plastic grocery bag in your pocket and snap that back and forth to startle them away. I tested it on my dog and he shot across the room in terror. So I pulled out the plastic garbage bag that was lining my backpack. It had some stuff in it but whatever. Took a step toward the bear and snapped that garbage bag. You should have seen him jump backwards. They can really move pretty fast. He ducked behind a nearby tree and peered back at me. I shook the bag a few more times and yelled at him and he continued on down the hill away from the tent. I packed up faster after that. The tent had been empty when he arrived, and all my food was still hanging in a bear bag.  At any rate, this part of Connecticut is full of fearless bears (Avon, Simsbury, Barkhamstead...). There are a lot of them and there is no bear hunting in Connecticut. Be prepared. 

Farmington River

I hiked this trail northbound because I wanted to save the best for last. From the Farmington River to the top of West Suffield Mountain is a real treat. Hatchet Hill, with no views, was probably the worst of it, but still well worth the hike. 

Looking across Tarrifville Gorge

My favorite is the long ridge called Peak Mountain in the south and West Suffield Mountain to the north, but is really just one long ridge. Both ends get some day hikers heading up to the overlooks, but the part in between is classic NET ridge hiking and it doesn't get a lot of traffic. So I slowed down and savored this section. It was worth it. 

Peak Mountain

West Suffield Mtn

The last traprock ridge in Connecticut is Suffield Mountain.  It's very easy without all the scenic overlooks except along some powerlines. But it has the state line marker, which was the goal. There. Now I can say I covered every foot of trail from Long Island Sound to the Canadian border (I previously skipped some road walks on the Connecticut section). 

State Line!

Rising Corner Road is just beyond the state line, and the trail was better developed than in 2012 and 2016 (in 2012 it did not extend to the road, and in 2016 it was hard to follow). There are places to park now, and more signage. 

A note on technology: My husband and I both used Google Maps and shared our location with each other (I had imported a gpx track from a previous NET hiker into a custom Google Map and shared that with my husband so he could see me and the trail). This made it really convenient for him to track my progress along the trail, and for me to see where he was at while waiting for a ride. Highly recommend it. And Guthook was well worth the $15 it cost to download the NET map. Loved it. 

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