Hanging Up

E ven if you’ve hiked Meriden’s Hanging Hills before, when you clamber over the last rocky shelf and arrive on West Peak, chances are you’ll be awed all over again. This aerie atop a traprock ridge that stretches north-to-south through the heart of Connecticut treats visitors to a nearly 360-degree view from more than 1,000 feet up. Far to the south, a glistening ribbon of Long Island Sound seems to lie at the feet of Hamden’s Sleeping Giant.

How do you get to this spectacular view—perhaps the best in southern Connecticut? That’s half the fun. My friend Heather and I set out on a bright fall morning armed with hats and gloves in the face of a chilly breeze. We drove 30 minutes to Meriden’s Hubbard Park, itself a pretty destination for non-hikers, who might enjoy a lap around the small lake and over the dam. Our original plan was to drive up to the ridge, but when we arrived, we discovered the road already closed for the season.

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Agreeing we’d try another route and turn back if we ran out of time or stamina, we parked at a well-marked trailhead just off the loop road that circles the lake. Then we headed out on a flat, white-blazed trail through the woods that parallels I-691. Less than a mile in, the trail crosses the interstate on a chain link-enclosed footbridge—an adventure in itself—then climbs into the woods. Another quarter of a mile or so brought us to the junction with a red-blazed trail, which, after a few more turns, leads hikers up to Castle Craig, a stone observation tower built in 1900 that, sure enough, looks like a castle when viewed from the city below. The power of its view comes not from its stubby 32-foot height but from the majestic cliff on which it’s perched.

We, however, had a different perch in mind. We took the red trail but watched for our turn a few yards farther along: a rugged blue-blazed trail that climbed steeply into the woods to our left. “You can see why people choose the Castle trail,” Heather observed; wide and gentle and striped with sunlight, this one rolled easily over a tiny rise and disappeared.

The correct turn onto the blue trail, it turned out, was tricky to find. The blue trail enters from the left to meet the red trail, follows it for a few yards, then dodges left into the woods again. Hikers should take the first left turn for the blue trail. The second, the wrong one, appears a few yards later near the well-blazed spot where it splits off from the red trail again.

The lower left corner of the mobile-optimized Hubbard Park trail map hints at what to expect as you climb this blue trail; it’s lined with plus signs for scenic overlooks, like cross stitches on a handkerchief. Breaking out of the woods below the ridgeline, the blue trail leads hikers along the raw edge of the hill, up a scree-strewn path and over large boulders on its route to the top, where, just before the fire tower, you can take a little detour from the marked trail to find that spectacular view.

The rock on the mostly flat, expansive surface of West Peak is shiny and dark, with veins like ridges on the back of a giant tortoise shell. Those veins, Yale geologist David Evans says, are cracks formed by lava “as it cooled from nearly 2000 degrees Fahrenheit to room temperature in a matter of hours to days.” The whole shelf is part of a 200-million-year-old lava flow, “the same age as the underground magmas of West Rock, East Rock and Sleeping Giant,” he says.

As Heather and I stood on the bald peak, basking in the sun, we observed our surroundings. To our east jutted another tall hill much like the one on which we stood, with a dark nose of rock on its face. Beyond it, the landscape folded into ridges, while to the west it flattened like a carpet. We settled in near the cliff’s edge beside a stunted maple tree and communed for a while with the sky.

The blue-blazed trail up West Peak is part of the larger Metacomet Trail, which travels all the way to Massachusetts. It follows the ridge for more views to the south and west, so we hiked out that way until it felt like time to turn around, marveling at each new vista. The November landscape below us was tufted orange and gold and green, with lacy strips of gray, bare trees running through its patterns.

The day was quiet, and we didn’t see much wildlife—just a garter snake rustling the leaves as it slithered away from us. From somewhere up in the canopy, we heard the songs of a few hearty birds. We didn’t see the legendary black dog that supposedly wanders the Hanging Hills, bestowing joy at the first sighting, sorrow at the second and death at the third. (“Believe it or not, it’s a fun tale to tell as you walk on the peaks,” claims one veteran hiker in the guidebook Short Nature Walks Connecticut.) Most of the leaves near the top of the ridge had already fallen by the time of our visit, but hikers should take care. Leaves on steep trails can be slippery.

The route we took up to West Peak is just one of many choices for a beautiful autumn hike at Hanging Hills. The trail map—employing terms like “breathtaking” and “spectacular”—suggests four others and a fifth that makes a loop of the West Peak hike. No matter which way you trek, the Hanging Hills will lift you up.

The Hanging Hills
Hubbard Park – 999 West Main St, Meriden (map)
Hubbard Park Info | Trail Map

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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