Hidden Depths

Hidden Depths

Lake Saltonstall hides in plain sight, even though it’s nearly as long as the city of New Haven. Located on the East Haven-Branford border and crossed by I-95 between exits 52 and 53, you may have passed it hundreds of times without taking notice. From the inside, Saltonstall seems to exist in another dimension. Its lean body arches away from the highway and reclines behind a western ridge, veiling the sights and sounds of the busy neighborhoods beyond.

Managed by the Regional Water Authority, the lake and surrounding land offer 7.9 miles of hiking trails and a launch with boat rentals for fishing or just rowing about. On the sunny Friday morning of my visit, I met two young fishers: four-year-old cousins out for an adventure with their respective parents and a couple of unruly fishing poles. They’d tried their luck from the floating dock but were headed out in a boat in search of bigger fish to fry. Bass are native to the lake, the RWA employee who was manning the boat launch told us, and the state stocks it with trout and walleye as well. You can’t bring your own watercraft—an effort to prevent the introduction of unwelcome biological hitchhikers into the water supply—but rentals are available.

Lake Saltonstall first appears in the historical record as Lonotonoquet (“Tear of the Great Spirit”), according to the Branford Historical Society. English settlers, who arrived in 1644, called it the Great Lake and later Furnace Pond after a 17th-century ironworks was established there. That business lasted from 1655 to 1679, when “the deaths of numerous employees (attributed to an epidemic that spread throughout the area) brought production to a halt” along with “dwindling supplies of nearby ore,” according to Connecticut Humanities. More than two centuries later, in the 1890s, the Branford Historical Society says the lake was a “recreational playground” where “small boats brought people from a trolley station at the southern end of the lake up to a picnic grove that was bordered by ballfields.”

The lake obtained its present name from colonial governor Gurdon Saltonstall, who built a home on the eastern bank. Saltonstall, who ruled the Connecticut Colony from 1708 to 1724, is known in part for being “the chief proponent of bringing Yale College to New Haven instead of Hartford,” the historical society says.

Despite the fact that the highway cuts across Lake Saltonstall’s southern tip, a walk along its shore and up the ridge on its western side is one of the quietest in Connecticut. There was no hint of traffic noise—just birdsong and brushing leaves and the occasional plane overhead—as I hiked a mile up the green-blazed Lake Saltonstall Trail from the boat launch. Following the bank along this shady jeep road, I spotted only two or three boats out on the water from between the trunks of maple, oak, tulip and sassafras trees.

At the junction with the white-blazed Nature Trail, I began to climb, first gently through a pine grove, where the trail softened and a lush understory of ferns grew in the cool shade, then more steeply through an area where selective logging had felled a few trees. In the distance, I heard logging trucks at work, but they were far enough away that I still felt the pleasure of being in remote woods.

Hikers are encouraged to park in a lot near the northern end of the lake, but regardless of where you park, a permit from the RWA, which starts at $25 for an individual for one year, is required for access. From the north lot, it’s a short walk in to the red-blazed Ridge Trail. I followed this just far enough to get the lay of the land, stepping past a wary turtle, who folded himself into his shell. The red trail climbs steeply to a foliage-blocked vantage point above the lake which would surely be a beauty in a leafless season. The boat launch keeper told me later there are numerous views of the lake along the Ridge Trail and also, on a short orange-blazed spur, of New Haven to the west.

Returning the way I came, I checked out the lower half of the white-blazed loop, where there are a few old interpretive nature signs. Then I picked up the eastern side of the green-blazed loop, which follows a power line in what would make a great rolling ride by bike (or, in winter, cross-country skis) but was too exposed on a hot morning. It also wasn’t very clearly marked. In fact, blazes on all of the trails were sparse, and hikers should keep a sharp eye out at junctions with unmarked logging roads. I escaped from the sun back into the woods, opting to return the way I came, along the breezy lakeside trail.

There aren’t too many places in greater New Haven that still look today as they did centuries ago, but Lake Saltonstall may be one of them. I was told that the dam at the south end of the lake on Route 1 raised the water level only eight feet, not much for a lake that bottoms out at 113. The Branford Historical Society reports the foundation of Gurdon Saltonstall’s house can still be found on the lake’s eastern bank. No doubt the Quinnipiac left behind some traces as well. I saw neither. On that clear summer morning, the tranquil lake wasn’t giving up its deepest secrets.

Lake Saltonstall
Entrances along Hosley Ave, Branford | map
(203) 401-2654 | trails@scrcog.org
Trail Map & Info | Permits

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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