’Front Line

C onnecticut has its fair share of rail trails—converted train beds for hiking and biking. Trolley trails are less common, but that’s just what you get with Branford’s Trolley Trail, a beautiful, waterfront, easy out-and-back hike of just under two miles. Spanning the border between the Pine Orchard and Stony Creek sections of town, the trail follows a track that was active from 1907 to 1937, the extension of a 1900 line from New Haven to Branford that continued to run until 1947.

My friend Nancy and I parked at the trail’s terminus on Tilcon Road (though it turns out the trailhead is easier to find from the Stony Creek end). We began by crossing a set of railroad tracks—a spur off the main Amtrak line used by Tilcon, a supplier of crushed stone, asphalt and concrete. We saw the company’s big blue engine traveling back and forth, sometimes on its own, sometimes pushing a few cars, but always going slowly and ringing its bell in warning along the way.

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The old trolley bed itself is narrow and feels more so along this stretch of trail, where a reedy, swaying wall of phragmites press in from both sides. When the view opens up, you’ll find yourself gazing across a broad marsh toward the Long Island Sound. The tide was slack when we arrived just before 9 a.m., the water high and sluggish, as if it wasn’t sure which way it should go. A lone boat carrying three men motored in among the grasses. Osprey platforms stood empty, fringed with the sticks and vegetation of last year’s nests, and the rising sun painted the entire landscape gold.

We chose the Trolley Trail over a more wooded walk because the weather had been icy and cold, and we figured there was a better chance it would be passable. But even on this slightly warmer morning, the trail’s low spots were filled with green-gray ice entombing massive white bubbles like maps of a mysterious undersea world.

Though you may not realize it at first, the trail is essentially a long earthen bridge across a broad inlet. A concrete boardwalk with rope handles crosses part of the inlet, making the bridge more evident. It’s impossible to escape humanity here among the rumble and buzz of boats and trains as well as cars on the out-of-sight highway. Amtrak trains sped across the north end of the inlet a couple of times during our outing. But the salty air smelled like vacation, and bird watchers will have a literal field day here. We heard plenty of chatters and calls from the marsh, and we spotted several different birds in flight, including one that looked like a bald eagle. With no binoculars and no experts along, we couldn’t be sure.

On the far side of the first inlet, a rocky outcrop was trimmed with fir, and a few deciduous trees clung to their brown leaves. This ridge was blasted through to make way for the rail bed, which creeps between its solid walls, where frozen waterfalls hung like tresses of silver hair. The temperature was climbing, and one ice fall dropped sparkling beads of water from its locks.

A white-blazed trail loop known as the Branford Trail follows the Trolley Trail for a short distance but peels off here and heads up the ridge. Then the Trolley Trail crosses under the small overpass for Pleasant Point Road, and the view opens up again. It’s classic Connecticut, Nancy observed: a mix of natural beauty with markers of an industrial past, most strikingly an old trestle bridge. The waterway here seemed broader and smoother, its surface undulating gently like a flag in a breeze, even though it’s the narrower of the two crossings. The reflection of the sun off the water threw tricks of light on the rusted beams of the bridge.
It’s not far across this second inlet. We crossed the bridge, and the wake of a distant boat sent wavelets lapping against the berm. In the parking area at the Stony Creek end, we paused to ride some squeaky old swings, then decided we should walk a little bit farther to the town dock. We didn’t have any money with us, so we couldn’t pick up a cup of coffee at the Stony Creek Market, despite the fact that the sign on its door said, “Open.” We’ll plan better next time.

From the end of the dock, we found a clear view of the trestle bridge we’d just crossed as well as more of the Thimble Islands than we could see from the trail, each of them home to a luxurious and global warming-vulnerable house. Boat tours of the islands leave this dock several times a day in season. From there, we retraced our route back to the Tilcon parking area, where we noted the white trail forking off the driveway and heading north—another path to explore on another day.

The Trolley Trail is just one small segment of a much larger network of trails maintained by the Branford Land Trust. It’s also part of the planned 25-mile Shoreline Greenway Trail, anticipated to run from New Haven’s Lighthouse Point Park along the shore all the way to Hammonasset State Park in Madison. According to its website, so far, just three miles of the trail are designated, including the Trolley Trail, with an additional three miles proposed or under construction.

The sun was warm and bright by now, and we’d dispensed with hats and gloves. Time for a swim, suggested a man standing beside a truck in the parking lot. “Better you than me!” I joked back. No one was going for a swim that morning except the geese.

Branford Trolley Trail
Trail Map | Google Maps

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg's associate editor. She's also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter. Her perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the green and a coffee milkshake.

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