Clear Head

Clear Head

The 60.8-mile Mattabesett Trail takes a circuitous route from Middletown to Berlin—just eight miles as the crow flies. Along the way, it passes through Haddam, Durham, Madison, Guilford, North Branford, Wallingford, Middlefield and Meriden. According to the latest edition of the Connecticut Forest & Park Association’s Connecticut Walk Book, “The trail was one of the first conceived by early Connecticut trail builders and remains popular today.”

Shorter trips along both the main trail and its many side routes offer hours of varied hiking adventures, but I was just looking for a pleasant fall ramble when I set out for Guilford’s Bluff Head one sunny morning. An ample parking area off Route 77 was easy to find, marked by a blue oval Mattabesett Trail sign. From the parking lot kiosk, there are two trails to choose from. I took the one to the right, blazed orange and blue, which offered the most direct route to the top.

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It’s a short but steep climb from the get-go, a scramble best attempted with well-soled boots, taking extra caution where fallen leaves mask the ground. In no time I had reached the initial ridge and a view through the nearly leafless trees across a narrow valley—home to the Coginchaug River, though you can’t see it from here. November had shorn the trees and bared the folds of the facing ridge, known as Broomstick Ledges, though a few leaves in shades of brown and green hung on and followed these lines like decorative seams. The old hills are worn smooth, barely rising to a high point like a blanket nipped and lifted. A tuft of bare trees stood in a tiny saddle near the peak.

This stretch of the Mattabesett Trail often runs just a step from the precipice. Although trees along the slope give hikers a sense of security, vertiginous moments remind you how high above the valley you’ve climbed. You won’t get to stay on the ridge, however; several times the trail drops into a secluded notch before climbing again, always rewarding the stalwart with another overlook.

As I covered ground, surprised by the unseasonal warmth of the sun on my shoulders, I kept watch for the little surprises that every hike provides. A snakeskin was twisted against a rock, as if its former owner had used the leverage to shed and escape. Spots of sunlight skipped like stepping stones down a narrow vale. Sunny moss pooled and padded off into the trees. Far below, Meyerhuber Pond, which drains into the Coginchaug, was freckled with tiny lily pads.

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Bluff Head, for which this segment of the trail is named, is the first of several overlooks, more than 720 feet above sea level according to the Guilford Land Conservation Trust, which owns the property. I carried on farther until the trail left the edge of the ridge and plunged into the woods to circumnavigate a pair of high boulders. On their far side, I took a little spur to mount the front-facing rock, a perfect spot for a rest and a snack. All of the trees between me and the view were bare except for one small oak, whose dry leaves rattled like maracas in the breeze.

You could, of course, continue for miles on the main trail, but side trails offer numerous opportunities for loops, including one that would take you down into the valley and around the far side of the pond before delivering you back to the parking lot, a trek of about four miles. Numerous unmarked trails abound as well. I opted to head back to the parking lot via the Bluff Head Alternate Route, which swings away from the ridge at Bluff Head into the woods.

While I passed a half-dozen hikers on the main trail, I had this alternate path to myself as I followed it down a gentle slope to a winding forest road, where I lost track of time and almost expected Henry David Thoreau might round the bend in front of me. This trail is marked orange and blue on several maps, but confusingly, it had been reblazed blue, while the steeper trail—the one I started up—bore the orange and blue blazes. Vestiges of old blazes on several trees along my downward route clarified that a change had been made.

The forest road ends at a passable gate—two posts strung together with chains. On a knoll just above this spot is a little cemetery that includes the family plot of the Meyerhubers. According to the Land Trust, a team of oxen led by farmer Conrad Meyerhuber (1869-1946) dug the aforementioned pond bearing his name.

The only thing marring my 2.5-mile walk was the sound of a firing range at the nearby New Haven Sportsman’s Club. While the facility’s hours aren’t listed on the club’s website, an early morning hike might avoid this distraction. The farther north you hike, the less noticeable the sound is.

But you don’t have to hike far to appreciate the landscape of the Mattabesett Trail. Autumn sunshine and sweeping views are easy to find, an antidote for small worries and a tonic you can take again and again.

Bluff Head and the Mattabesett Trail
Trailhead: Durham Rd (Rte 77) north of Great Hill Rd, Guilford (map)…

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. This updated story was originally published on November 11, 2020.

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