Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Our Favorite Walks Part 6: Teresa Gallagher

Indian Well to Birchbank: Heart of the Paugussett

by Teresa Gallagher (Natural Resource Manager)
This post is part of a continuing series describing the Trails Committee members favorite jaunts along Shelton's thirty miles of trails. There are many types of trails located across the city, from the handicapped-accessible Rec Path to the rugged Paugussett Trail. 

The blue-blazed Paugussett Trail at Burritts Rocks
When I'm in the mood for a local hike and have a few hours to spare, I head over to Indian Well State Park and walk from the beach area up to the overlook at Birchbank Mountain and back again. It's a 3-mile round trip (print map), but feels longer due to some very rocky sections known as Burritts Rocks.  All that rock at the top of the steep riverbank gives the trail the feeling of the Appalachian Trail in northwest Connecticut. Like the Paugussett Trail, the Appalachian runs along the top of rugged hills overlooking the Housatonic River.  I'm also able to check on the condition of the trail as the CFPA Trail Manager for the Paugussett between Indian Well and the Monroe border. 

This part of the Paugussett has had a lot of recent improvements, so if you hiked it five or ten years ago and didn't care for it, try it again. In the past five years, the Birchbank overlook has been cleared out so you can see the river, and there have been a number of reroutes to bypass the most treacherous and tedious spots and to pull the trail back away from houses as much as possible. The trail is still challenging, but less tedious and more wild and rewarding.

It's not a hike I do if it's wet outside. And if I have my dog along, I often turnaround at the beginning of the worst rocks because I don't need a leashed dog lunging after a chipmunk while I'm trying to keep my balance going from rock to rock.

CFPA volunteer Bill worked tirelessly on the big steps in 2017
I park in the off-season lot across from the main entrance to the beach on Indian Well Road. A white-blazed access trail heads immediately up some massive oak steps. Each step took a CFPA volunteer 2.5 hours to build, and there are over fifty steps. It's a work of art. 

In April, Dutchman's Breeches and Trillium bloom above the steps as you continue ascending the hill.  Take a right when it levels out and follow the  blue blazes of the Paugussett Trail northbound.

The first half mile along the Paugussett is pretty easy. Then you cross scenic 'Blowdown Brook' and the trail immediately starts angling up the hill, up and up. We call this Hickory Hill because the houses at the top are on Hickory Lane. As it climbs, the trail is skirting around the beginning of Burritts Rocks, heading for the top of the boulder field because it's impossible to go through it. You'll start to see more ledge and boulders as you climb, but the real rock is still out of sight down the hill. When you get to the top, the trail is squeezed between the precipitous rockfall on the right and some houses on the left. Reroutes have pulled the trail down the hill a bit further from the houses, so instead of feeling like you're in someone's backyard, you momentarily glimpse the houses through the trees when the trees are bare. 

New section near "Border Brook"

The next stream is 'Border Brook'. Not a real name, that's just what we call it. It's the brook near the border between Indian Well and Birchbank Mountain.  There should be a Shelton open space marker on a tree at the brook. This is a recent reroute and I just love this spot. The reroute was the most technically challenging section of trail I've ever done. I didn't think I would ever find a feasible route through that terrain, but there it was. 

"The Boulders"
The trail heads up the hill some more and level out briefly before getting to the heart of Burritts Rocks. First up is "the Boulders."  You'll need to use your hands to get over them. Follow the blazes carefully through the boulders for best results. 

Area known as "the Caves"

Next up is "the Caves." A jumble of ledge and giant boulders have resulted in nooks and crannies that resemble little caves. Not all are visible from the trail, so it can be fun to stop and explore.

It's all rock underfoot as you descend from the Caves. Go slow and watch your step. The trail soon takes a left onto a new section and cuts across the boulder field. The old route used to go straight down the steep hill on loose stones that were both tedious and treacherous. The new route is still extremely rocky, but the tread is solid and much more gradual.

The closer you get to the overlook, the less rocky it becomes until the old path climbs up some old stone steps. At the top is the overlook of Lake Housatonic 400 feet below. If the leaves are off the trees, you can look left to see Laurel Lime Ledges across the river in Seymour. Then check out the nearby trail register.  People leave notes in the logbook, and I like to stop and read them.
Housatonic Overlook

Trail register near the overlook
The way back to the parking lot seems a lot easier and quicker than the hike to the overlook. The trickiest footing is uphill instead of downhill (the worst footing is always better to do uphill), and there is a lot of gradual downhill that goes fast (you're descending about 350 feet). Some people prefer to make a loop by continuing on to Birchbank Trail and then taking the railroad tracks back to the parking area. It's illegal but there are no trains and people do it. I've done it once or twice but with all the recent trail improvements I like to just go back the way I came. 

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