The "Castle" at Sleeping Giant State Park

Head for the Hills

New Haven is blessed to be surrounded by cool climbing places. Within city limits there are the East and West Rocks. Then, not far beyond, is a formation whose very name seems less rocky, more comfy: Sleeping Giant.

Hikers don’t lose sleep wondering if they can handle Sleeping Giant. There are harder and easier trails winding through its woods, but the whole mountain seems eminently manageable. Kids dig it. So do dogs (on leashes).

You might think of climbing Sleeping Giant as a weekend leisure activity, and indeed there are swarms of folks marching gleefully up the hilly ramps on Saturday and Sunday mornings. But on an average weekday you’ll find a similar outdoorsy mix of families, dogwalkers, strolling philosophers, outdoor iconoclasts, snow-deprived cross-country skiiers and just plain hikers. The park is an easy respite for, say, Quinnipiac University workers on their lunch breaks, which lends a new meaning to the phrase “higher learning.” It’s a delightful invitation for drivers to pull off the highway and take a break.

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The main path, or “Tower Path,” up Sleeping Giant is wide, flat, clear, so smooth in places that it seems virtually combed and brushed. Most of this path is not fundamentally different from a city sidewalk. It’s a strong, firm vantage point from which to look at trees (both upright and fallen), rises, depressions, natural streams, rocks, an abundance of plants and—peeking through the treetops, enlarging its scope as you ascend gradually higher—clear blue skies.

At Sleeping Giant, there’s an easy identifiable target you can walk towards: the “castle,” a stone observation tower on what is considered to be the reclining giant’s “left hip”—which, at 739 feet, is the highest point of the Giant. The tower was constructed as a Works Progress Administration project during the 1930s. It’s a thrill, after a brisk and only mildly taxing hike, to ascend the multi-storied tower and stare out through the cobweb-shaped iron railings on its windows at the Quinnipiac River Valley.

Like most hiking trails, the Tower Path offers isolation and time for reflection in a setting unsullied by modern urban obstacles. But the path is also imbued with a special sense of community, with occasional benches and monuments placed to honor those who made this wilderness traversable for others. There’s a plaque in honor of Edgar Laing Heermance (1876-1953), responsible for the “blue blazed hiking trails.” And how about this dramatically phrased sign?:

Down the precipice opposite this spot, fell on June 18, 1875, the twelve year old lad who fifty-five years later led the Sleeping Giant Park Association in its victorious campaign to silence the quarry and to give this head, free and clear, to the public as an essential part of our monumental state park. Attempting the descent with Arnold Dana were his companions George Woolsey and George and William Fisher.

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Sleeping Giant is walked and enjoyed by countless feet every week. There are also those who tread more knowingly and volunteer to contribute to the park’s upkeep. At 1:30 p.m. this Sunday, May 19, the third of eight scheduled “work parties” is being thrown by the Sleeping Giant Park Association (SGPA) Environmental Stewardship Committee. The purpose of the work parties is to identify and “suppress” invasive plant species in the park. This involves a bit of training, surveys and work gloves. It’s knowledge you can bring home to your own yard and garden, so you can avoid making invasive species spread more widely by not planting or encouraging them.

Sleeping Giant is a state park, but the SGPA provides additional support, including the buying up of land to add to it. According to the group’s literature, they’ve been acquiring extra land for the park, which currently runs to 1500 acres, since 1924. The SGPA also leads hikes, organizes special projects, publishes a newsletter, and prints and maintains brochures and other information available in a kiosk at the base of the mountain, along with running an online “trading post” offering books, T-shirts, patches and other items promoting the Giant.

Many of the association’s books and pamphlets further the indomitable legends which have swirled around this mystical piece of land which continues to command the attention of untold skygazers and motorists daily. The most enduring one describes Hobomock, a massive spiritual figure who began as a bringer of harmony and peace to all peoples but turned into a vengeful and obstreperous type who diverted rivers on a whim. The wayward spirit was subdued by a nicer spirit, Keitan, using a sleeping potion slipped into Hobomock’s oyster dinner. The Giant (who in another legend is credited with slaying a destructive and humongous beaver, so that the animal was essentially fossilized into becoming the shape of the Sugarloaf mountain range in Massachusetts) remains in a somnolent state, despite all those hikers tickling his tummy on a regular basis.

There are more modern legends as well: how in the late 1800s, in the wake of back-to-the-land treatises such as Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, land-owners built cottages and carriage roads in parts of the park, and how local citizens rose up in fury when a local traprock company began blasting away cherished bits of the mountain in the early 20th century. That conservationist zeal led to the Sleeping Giant Park Association, to a continued and well-deserved dirt nap for Hobomock and to lovely walks through the gorgeous green parklands at Sleeping Giant State Park.

Sleeping Giant State Park
200 Mt. Carmel Avenue, Hamden (map)
Open daily from 8am to sunset.
State Park Website | Sleeping Giant Park Association Website

Written and photographed by Christopher Arnott.

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