You know that first real day of spring. The day the sun is shining, the birds and chirping, the daffodils are in bloom and for the first time in a long time, you can go outside in a t-shirt. That day here in Connecticut was Sunday. Temperatures were reaching 70 degrees inland and man did it get all of us New Englanders talking about summer plans. Talking to a gentleman about how busy all the state parks were on Sunday, he looked at me with a slight laugh and said "of course, its busy.... this is the day everyone has been waiting a long time for". After a long winter and a rainy start to spring, Oh was he right.
For me, the start of the warmer weather is the start of hiking season. At the moment, the trees are still a depressive shade of leafless brown and the landscape carries the same dull brown and yellows it has been holding onto all winter long. I am not-so-patiently awaiting the time of year when the trees are green again and wildflowers line the hillside. With that being said, I have some work to do if I want to get into "White Mountains Hiking Shape" for the summer. I need to get some days out on some elevation and I needed to get it fast.
I did a little research on google and was really surprised to find a hike with 1,000' of elevation gain right in the middle of Connecticut (right in the middle of a less than desirable Connecticut city/town in fact but a hike nonetheless). The hike was less than 4 miles round trip and gained 1,000' of elevation gain. You can get in a quick blood pumping hike to Castle Craig among the Hanging Hills of Connecticut.
The Hanging Hills of south central Connecticut , United States are a range of mountainous trap rock ridges overlooking the city of Meriden and the Quinnipiac River Valley 900 feet (274 m) below. Basically, the Hanging Hills are a set of finger like cliffs that protrude out over Hubbard Park. The peaks/fingerlings are West Peak, East Peak and South Mountain. Castle Craig sits atop East Peak 976 feet (297 m) above sea level. According to signage at the Castle, this is the highest point within 25 miles of the coast between Florida and Maine. This is however very outdated as nearby West Peak is higher, with several coastal Maine mountains also beating the 1,002' top of the tower. Get it together, Meriden.
The Castle is made of Trap Rock and is 32 feet (10 m) tall with a base of 58 feet (18 m) in circumference. On a clear day you can see Long Island Sound, and possibly even Long Island in the distance. Castle Craig was dedicated in October 29, 1900 and was given to the people of Meriden, Connecticut by Walter Hubbard. The castle is part of the 1,800-acre Hubbard Park named after Hubbard himself. Hubbard Park is on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Hanging Hills are also famous for some of its folklore (and a brewery in it namesake). The Black Dog of the Hanging Hills is an allegedly "supernatural hound that folklore holds to be haunting the region since the early 19th century". Apparently, this ghosts manifests as a small black dog, is often gregarious in nature, leaves no footprints and makes no sound. It just sort of appears out of nowhere. According to the legend, to see the Black Dog the first time results in joy while a second sighting is a warning. Seeing the Black Dog a third time is said to be a death omen. At least six deaths have been blamed on third meetings with the Black Dog. Better a dog than a human, right? The only black dog we saw was the one we brought, Olive, who was just as happy to be out enjoying the sunshine as we were.
Folklore, castles and haunting dogs aside, the park offers some nice hiking trails. This was the trail I intended to do (4.3 miles, 1,000+' of elevation), but somehow I ended up following a different trail description for "East Peak/Castle Craig" on the park brochure. While the brochure advertised 4.3 miles and 1,000', our hike clocked in at 500' and 3.5 miles. We may have missed a section or turned back to soon but either way, it was fun exploring a new part of Connecticut and forcing myself to leave the cozy nest of the shoreline.
The hike follows the white blazes across a wide dirt trail for a while, before crossing over a footbridge over the highway. You then pass a footbridge and a small area known as Beehive Spring. Turn right at the spring, and then follow the trail straight onto the RED trail. You then take the second left onto the second BLUE trail which takes a steep climb up. Instead of walking the road up at the intersection of the road and the trail, continue to follow the BLUE trail for some beautiful views of the town down below. The BLUE trail will continue to the top of East Peak and end at the parking lot for Castle Craig. From there, you can head to West Peak, circle the reservoir and loop back to where you came from. We ended up descending after East Peak, following the WHITE trail that descends sharply down to the carriage road, halfway house, and eventually the reservoir. Follow allong the south end of the reservoir, eventually walking the paved roads that lead back to our car at Hubbard Park. Find step by step trail directions under the Suggested Hikes section of the Park Map found HERE. Do note, that the park, and trails are busy on nice days, with every type of human (and dog) you can imagine on the trail. If you want solitude, hike this during the week. The weekends are promised to be crowded and parking limited (Never have I seen so many people carrying their small dogs on a hike).
As New England hiking has it, I always appreciate a trail that gets above the treeline and offers some sort of view. This trail meets the bill and offers views of Long Island Sound on a clear day, Sleeping Giant Mountain in the distance (a favorite local hike of Quinnipiac Students which I once was), Merimere Reservoir down below, and Mine Island. On the way down you also pass a "Halfway House" before ending at the park below and Mirror Lake. The park below is surprisingly large with a large Lake, playgrounds, swimming pools, tennis courts, and of course, hiking trails. Find a trail map HERE and more information on Hubbard Park and its amenities HERE.
I don't leave the shoreline to venture into the other parts of Connecticut as often as I should, but this weekend set the tone for new adventures, big and small. You don't always need to drive to the far east mountain ranges to get in a nice hike and a quick workout. While not the most challenging hike, the trail to Castle Craig will certainly get your blood pumping and is a great place to start training for summer hiking. Here is to hoping the sun keeps shining, the rain stays away, and hiking season is in full swing sooner than later.