Gorge-ous hike by the Mianus River

For nearly all the 17 years I have lived around here, the Mianus River meant one thing; it was the place I looked out the train window on the ride into New York. Let’s face it, there isn’t much to look at alongside the Metro-North tracks unless you are a student of other people’s backyard junk. But between Riverside and Cos Cob, the monotony is briefly broken when the train passes over the Mianus River estuary, a mile above where the river meets the Sound. The views are by no means grand, but the land temporarily has shape and feature, and this was enough to turn my head from the newspaper.

Whatever thoughts the river provoked over the years, I am certain that none concerned hiking its banks. Why would I head toward the denser burbs to get outdoors? And anyway, I had little idea about the course of the river before it emerges beneath I-95 just inland of the railroad bridge. This ignorance of the Mianus might have endured but for my injured knee. But, in September, laid up and forced into exploring with maps alone, I followed the line of the river. I saw how it rises from ponds and swamps in North Castle, N.Y., flows north, then wheels around to head for Stamford CT. Just after this bend, it enters a gorge. I liked the look of this gorge, and resolved to visit it when my knee would let me.

At the end of October, my knee did not exactly say “Come on, man, let’s go hiking!” It was more, “Well, if you must, I’ll try not to spoil it for you.” I did not take its cooperation for granted. I bought “biomechanically correct” insoles for my boots; I wore a knee brace; I packed trekking poles; I popped an ibuprofen. The incentive was a perfect fall morning – cloudless; 50s; the foliage overwhelming the day with its palette of bold colors. I arrived at the Mianus River anxious, not so much about my knee, but in case the day changed before I could get out in it.

The gorge is about two miles long and 150 feet deep. Like much of our landscape, it dates from the glaciers. Here, as the ice retreated, surging meltwater cut its way to the ocean. Thousands of years later, the gorge’s steep sides saved it from the colonists’ axes and ploughs. Today it is protected by the 833-acre Mianus River Gorge Preserve. Parking lot and trailheads are at the top end of the gorge, approached via a peaceful dirt lane if, like me, you drive in from the Bedford side (the alternative is to come up from Stamford). Of the Preserve’s three trails, only “Old Growth Forest” runs the full length of the gorge. I started down it.

The first stretch of trail stayed mostly by the river. It was immediately photogenic – the modest stream decorated with fallen trunks, and overhung with gold and copper, light green and dark red. At the end of this section, the Mianus headed alone into the deepest part of its gorge, and the trail climbed above. The woods up here were lovely – sunlit and shadowed, dazzling in their color. Stone walls marked where fields once ran right to the lip of the gorge. Below, on the steep slope down to the audible, but invisible, Mianus lay what the trail map called “an ancient hemlock-hardwood forest dating back to pre-colonial America.” It was one of the reasons I came, to see a forest that Chief Myanos himself might have known in the 1600s. There were big old trees down there, but in truth my untaught eye would not have distinguished them from the younger forest around me.

The trail descended. I took the short detour to a point billed as “Reservoir Overlook” but saw no water. Farther on, countless cawing crows mobbed a chosen tree. I came to a small trailside cascade where a tributary tumbled toward the Mianus, and soon I reached the river myself. Strictly speaking, I reached the Bargh Reservoir, but the water was so low that a ribbon of river was flowing in the middle of a parched gray trough. But it was a pleasant place to rest before turning around, the river shining, the slopes of the flattening gorge in color, a few flecks of white cloud in a sky otherwise perfectly blue.

There are more hikes beside the Mianus as it meanders its way to I-95, railroad, and Sound. I have it on good authority that the tracts of state land in the northwest corner of Stamford are easy to get lost in, and trail maps do not exist. But south of these parcels is Mianus River Park, fully mapped and blazed. My knee permitted a hike there a week after my visit to the gorge. The weather had become unseasonably warm and humid. Maybe it was this, or perhaps my knee or the overabundant canine company, but I left Mianus River Park grumpier than I had entered, and this despite some mellow stretches of river and wood. I’ll try it again another day.

If you go …
PARKING Opposite 167 Mianus River Rd, Bedford, NY. Merriebrook Lane, Stamford.
DISTANCE 5 miles. Probably about 4 miles.
DURATION Just over 2 hours. 2 hours.
MAP AND ROUTE Available at the Preserve kiosk and website. I followed the Old Growth Forest Trail, out and back, but finishing on the River Trail. Available at park website. The park has a dense network of trails. I followed the river as closely as possible to the north end of the park, and returned, mostly, on the Yellow Loop.
NOTES No dogs. Preserve closes for winter November 30th. Leashed dogs permitted, though unleashed dogs were everywhere.