T he chill of a northeast winter can induce a bit of amnesia, making it easy to forget the topographical splendor that surrounds New Haven. But why let snowfall and single-digit temperatures dissuade you from walking beautiful peaks and woods of tall oaks and pines?
For a quick forest jaunt without any strenuous inclines or climbing, a good bet is the frantic-sounding but actually quite peaceful Racebrook Tract, with 391 acres of trail-rich, mostly undeveloped land that begins in Orange and moves into Woodbridge. The pathways here are flat, wide and well-maintained, snaking through miles of hemlock and oak trees.
Its white, purple and red trails pass through rows of beautiful white pines, arranged neatly on either side. Farmers who once owned the land planted them back in 1909, and there are still a few intact stone fences that were used to demarcate property lines, plus a modest footbridge here and there. So there are vestiges of mankind here, but the difference between the clutter and noise of Route 1 and the tall trees and snow-crunching, jaybirds-squawking soundtrack inside the Tract is striking.
If you’re looking to get above the tree tops and birds’ perches, head north on the Wilbur Cross to Middlefield’s Higby Mountain. Higby is a traprock ridge with an easy-to-use trail system starting from a small lot off of Meriden Road (Route 66). From there, a short white-blazed access trail gives way to the blue-blazed Mattabesset Trail, which shoots straight to the top. The 892-foot elevation may sound like a lot, but the rise is gradual, and it can take as little as 40 minutes to surmount the blue trail at a determined pace.
The payoff is one of Connecticut’s finest views, the ridge stretching above the tree line, with small piles of rocks making rustic seating. To the north, Lamentation Mountain’s peak is visible, as is Chauncey Peak to the west, in Meriden. Each of these formations is part of the Metacomet Ridge, which stretches from the Sound in New Haven all the way to the Massachusetts-Vermont border. On fair-weather days atop Higby, you might also see the state’s law enforcement future as the CT Police Academy in Meriden is in clear view.
A little farther north and west is Meriden’s Castle Craig. There are several routes to the top, each with varying degrees of difficulty. For winter walks, there’s a reasonable route via Hubbard Park. Among its placid duck pond and scattered picnicking areas, you can find a white-blazed loop, a quick way to the top where there is, yes, a castle. While it’s fairly steep, the trail is wide and short, and the castle, which sits atop East Peak, part of the Hanging Hills, can be reached in 20 minutes if you’re fast.
Built in 1900, the castle is a 32-foot observation tower made of traprock, the same stuff that comprises the Hanging Hills. Unfortunately, in winter months the entrance to the castle is closed, but the view here is still spectacular. On clear days, the Long Island Sound, more than 20 miles away, is visible, and the manmade stone ledge surrounding the tower makes for a great resting spot before scrambling down to the parking lot. The castle was designed and bankrolled by the once-prominent entrepreneur Walter Hubbard, co-owner of The Bradley and Hubbard Manufacturing Company. The company, a Meriden-based powerhouse in the late 1800s, made all sorts of metal objects like lamps, clocks and bookends.
But if a mountain isn’t your thing, and you’re still pining for fresh air, Farm River State Park in East Haven might satisfy. Compared to the other hikes mentioned here, Farm River is the smallest and easiest but no less beautiful. The main trail can be accessed from a small parking lot off Short Beach Road, and from there, it’s only a few hundred yards to the Long Island Sound.
There are a couple of walking routes here—you can simply wander through the varied landscape of hickories and oaks toward some salt marshes, or there’s an easy-to-follow, self-guided trail to keep to, with small, circular blue and yellow numbers painted mostly on rocks to guide the way. Alongside each number is a directional arrow that will lead you to the next point. There are twenty-two points in all and several of these points (especially numbers 11, 18 and 21) provide excellent views of the Sound. There are no real heights here, but simply sitting on a rock outcropping, watching the reeds sway along the banks of the river is plenty pleasant.
Bundle up and enjoy.
Racebrook Tract, Orange/Woodbridge (map)
Higby Mountain, Middlefield (map)
Castle Craig, Meriden (map)
Farm River State Park, East Haven (map)
Written and photographed by Jake Goldman.