I t’s amazing how quickly you can go from grinding your teeth and breathing exhaust fumes on Whalley Avenue to hiking rugged trails through hemlock forest, spotting raptors at scenic vistas along the way.
East Rock and West Rock can give you that. They make up two prominent points of the Metacomet Ridge, a 100-mile-long fault-block rock formation made of volcanic basalt and sedimentary rock that stretches from the Long Island Sound near Branford, terminating in Greenfield, Massachusetts.
1.2 miles in length and 366 feet at its highest point, East Rock is dwarfed by its westerly counterpart, which is nearly 8 miles long and 700 feet at its highest. But size isn’t everything. East Rock’s proximity to downtown New Haven means it’s given more opportunities to play a part in the city’s tentpole cultural events, like the Night Rainbow installation by Site Projects in April and the city’s official Fourth of July fireworks last month.
Given all the things that go on up there, it’s a good thing East Rock has several routes to the top. Motoring up the winding Farnham Drive is easy enough, but the choicest route is hoofing it up the Giant Steps Trail. Its trailhead, marked by a metal gate off of English Drive and across the street from Rice Field, immediately shoots upward. The path is short but it’s also wide and steep, and thankfully well-maintained.
Near the end, it becomes clear how the trail got its name: giant stone steps have been carved right into the bedrock, with steel railings to help during the steepest sections. It’s a quick, gorgeous hike and involves some light climbing over rust-colored rocks, but it’s usually less crowded than the popular yellow trail on the other side of the mountain or the unmarked trail near Whitney Avenue that winds around the Mill River.
If a pleasant walk isn’t enough motivation for you, the chance to cash in your hike for some hard-earned relaxation, perhaps by sprawling out on the summit’s lawn among picnickers and Frisbee tossers, might put things over the top. Or maybe popping some change into a metal viewfinder at the edge of the park and looking out over a magnified New Haven would do it. While you’re at it, grab an ice cream sandwich from a Good Humor truck and marvel at the 125-year-old, 112-foot Soldiers and Sailors monument.
Don’t forget that wider view, though. Even sitting on a bench, much of downtown New Haven is visible, as are the Long Island Sound and, on clear days, Long Island itself. Sleeping Giant rests peacefully to the north. You can easily pick out IKEA.
West Rock, with its height advantage, offers even more expansive views, and is also quite accessible: some lucky Westville residents can step out their doors and top the rock in less than twenty minutes.
The southernmost peak is known as the South Overlook (where the view pictured above can be found), complete with picnic tables, a paved lot for parking and stunning views of New Haven. If you prefer to drive, a paved access road can be found at the park’s entrance in Hamden near Lake Wintergreen. You can also enter there to hike to West Rock’s very tallest point, York Mountain, at the northern end of the park, or if you just want a lazy afternoon by the lake.
Of the nearly 23 miles’ worth of paths inside West Rock State Park, the shining gem is the 7-mile Regicides Trail, which traces, roughly, the route Edward Whalley and his son-in-law William Goffe traveled while attempting to escape bounty hunters. Along with 59 other men, they had signed the death warrant for the British king Charles I, who was executed in 1649. After Britain’s monarchy was restored in 1660, a vengeful Charles II forced Whalley and Goffe to flee to New Haven; when things got too hot in town, they made their way up West Rock to Judge’s Cave, also named for them, where they hid until they fled some more, this time to Woodbridge.
Judge’s Cave (really, a cluster of rocks forming a cave-like hideout) still stands today about a half-mile from the South Overlook, where the Regicides Trail begins. Blazed light blue, the trail stretches along West Rock’s western ridge, which offers spectacular views.
During my own exodus from New York to New Haven years ago, West Rock’s South Overlook, in a way, turned out to be my real destination. Work was hard to come by then, and the car kept breaking down. I wondered if my wife and I had made the right decision to leave jobs and friends behind.
One afternoon a few months in, I wandered toward the cliffs of West Rock, eventually finding a trailhead that took me to the top. Up there, I felt calm—at home—for the first time in a new city.
I still like to venture up the rock, walking along the ridge to watch turkey vultures and red-tailed hawks catch currents in the sky and survey the bustling activity below. After all, the occasional city escape is even better with a cityscape to admire.
East Rock & West Rock
East Rock Park is open from sunrise to sunset. West Rock Ridge State Park is open from 8am to sunset.
East Rock Park | West Rock Ridge State Park
Written and photographed by Jake Goldman.