Rising in the East

E ast Rock Park has been there our whole lifetimes, its tower a landmark to orient the traveler, its traprock cliffs changing color with the time of day. But until last year, many New Haveners didn’t give it much more thought than that. Then the pandemic hit, and the city closed Farnam and English Drives, which run a circuit along the Mill River and over the ridge. Longtime park visitors agree that foot and bike traffic has surged, and New Haveners are discovering what’s been in their back yards all along.

“I have a close friend who’s lived here all his life, and when I told him the route I was doing, he said, ‘What are you talking about?’” recounts a hiker from Hamden named Rich, who, since April, has taken up a daily 10.5-mile route. “I took him up Whitney Peak, and he said, ‘I’ve never been here before!’ And there are a lot of people that just don’t know how wonderful the park is. This park is a treasure.”

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That treasure entices neighbors in through different entry points. East Rock residents tend to come through College Woods or along East Rock Road, while Fair Haveners enter near the Ralph Walker Rink, the East Gate or Bishop Gate on State Street. Hamdenites are more likely to find their way in from Davis Street at the park’s north end. How you enter tends to influence what you think the park has to offer. For example, sisters Emma and Rose Bromage of Fair Haven often walk their dog, Selma, in the park for an hour or two. Before the road closure, they’d take the lower trail, and they still usually stick to a route up to the summit and back. But despite being seasoned parkgoers, they’ve made some new discoveries of late. “I finally figured out the way to Hamden,” Emma says. “I hadn’t realized that before.”

Rich, who’s been walking in the park for 37 years, estimates that park usage has tripled, at least on weekends. “It used to be my walks were pretty solitary except for around the monument,” he says, referring to the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument above the Rock. Now he sees more runners in Yale gear and more families. “Everyone is nice and friendly,” he says. “The park is being used. It’s very nice.” One New Haven native who was out walking his dog, Peaches, says he runs 30 miles a week in the park, following his own 10-mile route that includes a loop around Rice Field and a circuit to the top. He estimates 90% of those visiting the park today are newcomers who rarely, if ever, came in before the pandemic.

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The initial appeal for some may have been the closure of the roads. “It was so glorious to see all of these elderly people on the road,” for whom footing on the narrow wooded trails would be dangerous, says Cory Walsh DeLise of East Rock. “And, of course, no litter, no dumping, no speeding cars, no exhaust… It was almost like this renaissance of the park,” she adds, comparing the feel of the broad walkways and friendly pedestrians to being on a boulevard in a European park. DeLise, who already knew the trails well, started bringing her 16-year-old daughter, Sage Urban, with her to run. They started on a flat road segment and worked their way up to a steeper, two-mile route four times a week. The section of English Drive between Orange Street and the park’s south end has since reopened in order to allow safer access in and out of the Cedar Hill neighborhood, but a lower, narrow trail along the river offers an alternate route.

Use of the park grows throughout the day. Early morning athletes like DeLise and Urban who are up with the sun give way to a slightly larger cohort of walkers, runners and cyclists as the day settles in. One recent sunny morning, a friend and I enjoyed a few solitary moments at the summit, with sunlight flaring off the water behind a fringe of trees on distant Beacon Hill, though we crossed paths with plenty of people on our way up and down. Weekday traffic peaks as people end their work days or hurry out to catch the last daylight. “Hordes of people” visited the park in the spring, DeLise says. Fewer have been out this winter, but she expects to see more again when the weather improves. “People who had never used [the park] before and kind of discovered it, I think now that they know, they’ll go back to it,” she says.

Those discoveries include features like the Giant Steps trail, a unique and challenging climb to the top, and the Pardee Rose Garden, which blooms extravagantly in late spring. You can canoe on the Mill River, play ball at Rice and Blake Fields, sled in North Meadow, picnic at the summit. And wildlife abounds. Audubon Connecticut names East Rock Park “one of the most important landbird stopover areas in Connecticut in the spring.” DeLise has seen many raptors and deer on her travels through the park. Rick Cohn, an East Rock resident who rides his bike in the park every other day or so, was surprised to see a bobcat crossing about 25 feet in front of him on a recent walk down Farnam Drive. “It was very much on a beeline,” Cohn recalls. “It was walking very slowly, but it definitely knew where it was going.” He and his wife watched the big cat cross the road and head up the hillside. “It’s so well camouflaged that even though we were watching it, we’d lose track of it,” Cohn says.

Most park visitors won’t be lucky enough to spot a bobcat. But some delights are there for everyone to enjoy. “I like watching the sun rise in the morning,” Urban says. “Whenever we leave the house, it’s always just starting to be pretty colors.” By the time she and her mom reach a view of downtown, the skyline is lit by the sun, and a new New Haven day is dawning.

East Rock Park
Spanning the New Haven-Hamden border between Whitney Ave and State St (map)
Open daily, sunrise to sunset
www.newhavenct.gov/…

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image 1 features Emma and Rose Bromage with Selma. Image 2 features Hamden hiker Rich. Image 3 features a New Haven park regular with Peaches.

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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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