A holiday hike: New discoveries

by Rob McWilliams

In hiking, as in life, it can be difficult to forego the tried and tested for something unknown. What if the something new does not suit us? Better to stick with the familiar, or what everyone tells us is great. For many years, I took the same hike every Black Friday, a 10-mile point-to-pointer through Easton and Weston. I broke that tradition last year, but instead hiked a loop at familiar Macedonia Brook State Park, although in a landscape transformed by early snow. Neither hike was an option this year. Nor indeed were most of my favorite places. I needed a gentle route I could easily bail from if my knee played up, or – more optimistically – scale up if everything went smoothly.

On Thanksgiving Day, sitting in the warmth of my wood stove in a house filled with women and with a belly full of turkey (yes, there is much to be thankful for), I browsed the Connecticut Forest & Park Association’s walk book. These are the blue-blazed trails, our state’s most extensive family of paths. Looking at listings that might meet my needs – Mattatuck, Lillinonah, our own John Muir Trail up in Torrington – I worried that they might prove less beautiful and tranquil than a simple trip to my local woods. In the end, overcoming timidity, I settled on the Housatonic Range Trail in New Milford. It did not look overly rugged and, for bailing purposes, was conveniently bisected by Route 37.

Early on Friday, I parked on a residential street, crossed Route 37, and headed into the woods toward Candlewood Mountain.  I was expecting a really easy hike. The “mountain”, which marks the southern end of the Housatonic Range Trail, lay just 1.5 miles away, its peak only 991 feet high (and surely my drive north had already taken care of a good number of those feet). But as I walked, the trail became, in places, steep, ledgey, bouldery. It was a morning of valley fog too, and where it had crept up the slopes, it left the rocks and the new-fallen leaves slick underfoot. Caution was required, especially for the weak of knee. But the mist brought rewards as well – an exquisite mellow light in some corners of the forest; an aerial view of the gray-white blanket smothering the Housatonic Valley all the way to other hills in the east.

My doubts about trying the Housatonic Range Trail had centered on its proximity to Route 7, and to some extent those doubts were now validated. The fog mostly hid from view the works of man below, but their noise still rose. The most insistent intruders were backing-up beeps and huffing jackhammers, perhaps from the quarry across the Housatonic. They were irritants more than spoilers, and seemed to fade away by the time I reached the summit, where the sound of a breeze took over. The flat, wooded mountaintop offered no real views, but I lingered happily in the mild sunshine, pleased also that my knee was not complaining.

On my way to the summit, I had passed the side trail for Kelly’s Slide. I knew from my post-turkey reading that the slide was “an enormous slab of bedrock that slants to an abrupt drop-off”. I had ruled out going to see it. But, coming down from the summit and feeling more sure of my joints, I thought “Let’s follow the trail a way to see if there’s a view”. Well, I followed the whole 0.4-mile loop, and saw little but slick boulders, the yawning gaps between them,  and mist-glazed roots grown across the path. By the time I got back to my car, 3.4 miles on the Housatonic Range and Kelly’s Slide trails had cost me the same number of hours. Yep, a really easy, gentle hike.

There are a further 4.9 miles of the Housatonic Range Trail north of Route 37. I had thought of driving next to the northern end of the trail near Gaylordsville to hike south a distance. My knee was doing OK, and the afternoon temperature was set to top out in the low 60s (so different from the deep snow near here exactly a year ago!). But then I remembered Macricostas Preserve, a place I had wanted to hike during a summer outing but had run out of time. I had wanted to hike it because it promised a view of Lake Waramaug. It was in the next town over, and now I drove there instead. My hike to Waramaug’s Rock was in many respects the opposite of Candlewood Mountain. It was rural, not suburban; busy, not deserted; the trail, mostly, required no caution; and the country – never more so than at Waramaug’s Rock itself – offered broad views. But in one respect, the hikes had been the same; they both reminded me that you never really lose by trying out something new. (Photos of both hikes can be found at McWilliams Takes a Hike on Facebook.)

Rob McWilliams is a local resident. Taking a Hike appears monthly. Contact Rob at “McWilliams Takes a Hike” blog and Facebook. He’d love to hear from you.


PARKING On Concord Way, off Rte 37, New Milford Near 124 Christian Street, New Preston
DISTANCE 3.4 miles. About 3 miles.
DURA-TION 3.5 hours (for me, on that occasion). 2 hours.
MAP AND ROUTE Connecticut Walk Book West. Housatonic Range Trail to Candlewood Mountain and back, plus Kelly’s Slide loop. Available from Steep Rock Association website. Meeker Trail to Waramaug’s Rock and back via the most direct route.