Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Backpacking the Paugussett Trail

Buddington Road trailhead
It's easy to forget that the Paugussett "Blue Dot" Trail is long enough to backpack. In fact, it's a great way to ease into backpacking or test out new equipment. There is a variety of terrain, a legal campground, scenic vistas, and cell phone service. And forget about the heavy 50-lb packs people used to carry. These days, an ultralight pack can easily weigh less than 25 pounds. So sit back and enjoy the trip:

"Four Corners"
We started at the Buddington Road trailhead in Shelton and headed north through Shelton Lakes. When backpacking regional trails, it helps to think of the trail like a strand of pearls, because some parts of this type of trail include road walks or portions that would not be a destination hike on their own, but which give you a connection to prime hiking areas (the "pearls").  The first pearl on this strand is Shelton Lakes, which includes three reservoirs and the popular trail network off of Nells Rock Road.

Eklund Garden (Mile 1.3)
At Shelton Lakes, the blue blazes pass right through Eklund Garden, a botanical garden filled with indigenous wildflowers set amongst the ruins of a former log cabin. You have to pull open a deer fence gate to get inside. The garden was a bit past it's prime during our September hike, but still enjoyable.

Hope Lake (Mile 1.5)
The trail then follows the shoreline of Hope Lake, crosses Route 108, and joins the wide gravel Rec Path. Everyone loves the Silent Waters overlook.

Silent Waters (Mile 2.1)
The Paugussett turns sharply off of the Rec Path, and the turn is easy to miss if you're not paying attention to the blazes. You'll need to be able to follow the trail blazes carefully and be prepared in case a blaze is missing or a part of the trail is blocked, because that can happen on any long distance trail. Have a map, and perhaps a gps unit or a smart phone. For beginners, this is a good trail to practice your blaze-finding skills because you can't get truly lost in this area.

Quartz arrowhead found on the trail
We found a quartz arrowhead on the trail heading out to the powerlines. It's not the first found in this area. The next stretch follows the powerlines north between Independence Drive and Constitution Blvd.

Mike Flament, Trails Committee
We passed a work party being held by the Shelton Trails Committee. This part of the trail can get overgrown really fast in the summer, but our perfect timing meant we found a well-groomed trail.

Bob Wood and Mark Vollaro, Trails Committee
All the rain this summer made it hard to keep up with all the plant growth, but these guys were doing a great job. They clear out a pretty wide swath, mostly with a mower pulled by a gator, so even when it's overgrown you can still follow the trail. At Constitution Blvd, the trail goes back into the woods, crosses a meadow, then emerges at Meadow Street. A quick road walk down Mayflower Lane is required, then a nice quiet stretch (pearl?) descending the hill to Route 110 through an area we call "The Overlooks."

Terry Gallagher, Trails Committee
The next pearl in this strand is Indian Well State Park. When you get to Indian Hole Brook, there's a big sign telling people not to climb on the rocks. Take a detour onto the wide gravel trail that goes along the brook about 0.1 mile and your reward will be the falls and "well" (the deep pool at the bottom of the falls). We were lucky that no one else was around on this cool day. During summer afternoons it can get pretty busy. You're not supposed to, but people jump off the rocks to the pool below. Recently someone nearly died and had to be rescued.

Indian Well Falls (Mile 4.8)
Back to the blue blazes, you cross the brook (either on stepping stones or via Indian Well Road if the water is high) and gradually ascend the river bank, about a 350-foot elevation gain. At the top is a short spur trail (350 ft) that takes you to an overlook of the Housatonic River. At the far end of the river is the Derby-Shelton dam and beyond that are the cars on Route 8 (if you have eagle eyes).

Indian Well overlook (Mile 5.3)
The next several miles of trail follow the river bank, near the top. It's three full miles between Indian Well Road and the next road crossing. This section of trail is closer in character to hiking trails in Northwest Connecticut. Although the first part can get noisy with the crowds at the beach or live bands playing on the other side of the river if you're there on a Saturday afternoon during the summer. But normally you hear nothing but the hum of traffic on Rt 34 across the river. There are some ups and downs and stream crossings. You'll eventually get to a sign marking Birchbank Mountain Open Space, the next pearl on the strand. It will soon get very rocky.   A hiking stick is recommended.

Birchbank Mountain - "The Boulders", a short scramble (Mile 6.6)
You'll need to do a bit a "scrambling" (using your hands) to get over "The Boulders".  Again, good practice for the type of thing you run into if you're hiking up north. Shortly after that are some ledges and huge boulders where you would find several "caves" if you stopped to explore.

"The Caves" (Mile 6.7)
There is more rock underfoot for a ways and you'll need to slow down and pay attention to your feet (and don't do this in wet weather), and then you reach the Birchbank Mountain overlook. First, stop to sign in at the trail register and have fun reading the other entries.

Birchbank overlook trail register (Mile 7.1)
From this point it's mostly downhill to the Webb Mountain campground.

Birchbank overlook - Housatonic River
Heading down the hill you may notice a broad mound trailside on the left as the trail turns onto an old roadbed. This is the remnant of an old charcoal mound from back in the 1800s when the copper mills of the Naugatuck Valley needed charcoal. You'll find bits of charcoal in the mound.

Charcoal mound from the 1800s (Mile 7.2)
When the trail crosses Upper White Hill Brook, look left to see the old chimney from the Monroe Rod and Gun Club, which burned down many years ago.

The chimney at Birchbank (Mile 7.4)
It's a nice walk through Birchbank out to Round Hill Road. After a brief walk on pavement (look for blazes on telephone poles and curbs), and a climb up some winding steps, you'll reach a section of trail call the Poet Path. Enjoy the artwork.

Poet Path slate (Mile 8.3)
Then there's another short roadwalk on Thoreau Drive before you descend into a deep ravine with Round Hill Brook at the bottom. This is the town line. Congrats! Warning: This stream can be very difficult or impossible to cross during times of high water. We hope to find some Scouts willing to build a bridge. No trouble getting across this day, however.

Monroe town line at Round Hill Brook, entering Webb Mtn (Mile 9.0)
Welcome to Webb Mountain Park, the next pearl on the strand. To reach the main part of the campground from the Paugussett, you'll need to take a detour onto an unmarked trail that follows a brook going upstream, with the path becoming orange-blazed. Cross a bridge and continue straight on the red trail and the camp will be right there. This is simpler than it sounds and it's not far at all. But be sure to have a Webb Mountain Park trail map with you to find the camp.

Nice campsite at Webb Mountain
Camping is by permit only, which can be obtained by visiting the Parks and Rec Department at Monroe Town Hall. And be aware they close down early on Fridays, so don't wait too long to get that permit if you want to camp on the weekend. The cost is only $10. Sites #2 through #5 are closest to where the trail crosses into the park. Site #1 is off on its own but is much further up the Paugussett Trail, and you won't get the quick Goat Rock views from Site #1. You need to choose your site when you register.  I'd go with Site #5 if it's available. And note that they DO come in at night to check for your permit! So have that within reach. Facilities at the campground include a port-o-let, picnic tables, fire rings. And there was free fire wood as well.  There is a nearby stream if you have water-filtering capabilities or need to wash up.

Goat Rock, near the campsite
After setting up camp, a short walk up the Red Trail to Goat Rock is a must. This is the best overlook of the entire hike. The view is actually on the violet trail, a spur to the right off of the red trail. The junction is marked by a huge boulder.

No other campers showed up.
This area can get pretty busy with non-camping people walking their dogs or checking out the views. It was a Saturday afternoon and people were walking through the camping area being loud and obnoxious and parking at the campsites even though they weren't camping. It would be nice if the camping area were restricted to campers only. But as luck would have it, a light rain started up and before long everyone left. Nice! So peaceful.

Fancypants tent has lights

The next morning was incredibly peaceful at Webb Mountain. Not a soul around. After throwing the gear in the pack, it was back to the blue blazes, which followed scenic Round Hill Brook for a spell before winding mostly uphill through the park.

Day 2: The trail follows Round Hill Brook
The trail passed near campsite #1, which was in use, then crossed the park road and ascended to the base of an impressive rock ledge. Thus begins the most difficult part of the trail: a scramble up this rock face. This is one of those sections that young, thin people bound up with joy while those who are less fit will not be able to get up no matter how hard they try. But most people can get up it eventually.

Trail goes up just to the right of this big ledge (Mile ~9.8)
Several times the backpack had to be hoisted to the rocks above before attempting a scramble.

Going up the ledge, needed to remove the pack.
Once at the top, though, it levels out in an area of chestnut oak and blueberry, a real contrast to the lower part of the park.

Top of the world
You pass through some beautiful areas. Sadly, it looks like some heavy equipment is perhaps getting ready for a new subdivision to be built next to the trail.

A lot of recently activity with heavy equipment - subdividing? :(
There used to be a great overlook of Zoar Lake in here. Not sure if the trail was rerouted or the overlook is overgrown. You can still get a glimpse of Lake Zoar just before reaching the powerlines by bushwhacking a short ways to the top of the powerline cut.

Lake Zoar in the distance
The next section isn't super great, but remember, it's a strand of pearls. You follow a utility road, then go down by railroad tracks on a section heavily impacted by ATVs. Then you come out on pavement, and take a left past a gate onto an old road. At this point, as you head up hill, the sounds of Rt 34 recede and you've found another one of the pearls. This is the ravine through which the Boys Halfway River runs. The ravine is a gorgeous and very quiet walk.

Following the Boys Halfway River on an old roadbed (Mile ~11.25)
The brook eventually rises to the level of the trail, and off to the right is what's left of an old silver mine. Looks like modern day rock hounds have been scouring through the tailings. 

Old silver mine
The last stretch before Barn Hill Road looks like a former pasture, now full of invasive barberry and burning bush that are continually growing into the trail. Monroe doesn't have a Trails Committee to work on the trails like Shelton does, so it's just Bob, the CFPA Trail Manager for the Monroe section of the Paugussett. Keeping that stretch open has got to be a lot of work for one person.

Christmas Fern (Mile ~12)
After crossing Barn Hill Road, there's an old mill dam on the right and a dry channel on the left that used to be the head race. Water from the dammed area would run down the head race into a mill, probably the nearby hoop skirt factory.

Old mill dam (right) and tail race (left)
Just before the end of the trail is a series of massive log piles. That was from Hurricane Sandy. I remember seeing the photos of CFPA volunteers clearing the trail. Sandy blew down almost all the pine trees standing there at the time.

Storm Sandy dropped most of the pine trees in this area
Not many people walk that stretch because there is no parking at the end of the trail on East Village (there is a spot on Barnhill Road, however). It was pretty overgrown, but that happens.

End of the trail on East Village Road (Mile 12.9)
Reaching East Village Road (Mile 12.9) around 10:00 am, it was a quick walk to the intersection of East Village Road and Barn Hill Road, which is a good spot to be picked up (four-way stop signs). This is one of those quaint New England historic areas with a lot of character.

Maps: CT Blue-Blazed Trails are mapped and described in the Connecticut Walk Book, published by CFPA. However, there have been a lot of significant changes to the Shelton side of the Paugussett that are not shown in the 20th edition of the Walk Book, so you're better off using maps on the Shelton Conservation website. There are maps for the Shelton Paugussett Trail, Shelton Lakes, and Birchbank. For the Monroe section, the Walk Book is the one to use. There is also a map of Webb Mountain Park available online or from the Town of Monroe when you get your camping permit.

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