Trail Mix

Trail Mix

Elders with walking sticks, babies in jogging strollers, dogs walking their families—all humanity, it seems, is making the winding trek these days up the wide gravel Tower Trail at Sleeping Giant State Park in Hamden. But the tower, with its narrow hallways, is temporarily closed for social distancing, and the Tower Trail covers a mere 1.6 of the park’s 32 miles of trails. On a recent breezy morning, my husband and I decided it was time for a road less traveled.

We decided to take in the entire breadth of the park by hiking the length of the White Trail, rated one of the park’s most challenging and the one offering the greatest number of lookouts. From its trailhead, at a sharp turn in Chestnut Lane, the Violet, Green, Orange, Yellow and of course White Trails spread out, only to meet again deeper in the park, like the interweaving strands of a braid.

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As we set out, we were surprised that even in the latter half of April, while trees were leafing out at the base of the mountain, up here all the branches were bare. But on closer inspection, green was sprouting all around us, in moss and tufts of grass and tiny ferns in the shade of rocks. Pine boughs bobbed in the wind, and the mountain laurel held tight to its leaves, pocked brown from winter wear. Violets clung to crevices in the rocks, one of the surest signs of spring.

We climbed up the first of many chunky rock outcrops, passing rivulets of rainwater trickling in the other direction. A little zephyr lifted a dry leaf in our path and spun it like a ballroom dancer. In no time we’d reached the rocky, tree-covered knoll known as Hezekiah’s Knob, but we didn’t pause for long. We knew there were plenty more vistas ahead.

The White Trail cultivates curiosity. It’s a “three-dimensional” trail, my husband noted, meaning it moves in every direction—always turning, always climbing or dropping, always making you wonder what’s just over that next crest. Best of all, we had this adventure to ourselves. Early on, traversing a sloped rock face, we’d said hello to one man with a remote control jeep he was about to drive up the hillside. After that, for more than an hour, we crossed paths with no one.

Descending into a wet glen, we spied the Green Trail again, here a lane of mud. Then, ascending the Giant’s knee, we saw our first clear sign of damage from the tornado of 2018; one uprooted tree had cracked open the rock near its roots—diabase, which was once magma that cooled below the earth’s surface, according to a geological history of the park. Unlike its lichen-encrusted neighbors, this freshly exposed rock was colored rusty gold.

We passed through a small pine grove, our feet landing happily on its spongy cushion following step after step on solid rock. We’d never hiked this part of the White Trail before, but here I found my new favorite Sleeping Giant overlook. It faces the heart of the park, looking inward, not out. Below us, two tiny hikers followed an unmarked trail in the valley between our ridge and the next. A northwest wind kept us from venturing too close to the edge, but we lingered to savor the sense of calm that came, perhaps, from enclosing our sights to the next close ridge, not spreading them out for miles across the landscape.

The labyrinthine trail took us down and up again to a southern vista. Beyond New Haven’s blocky skyline, we could see the dove gray water of the Sound and the dark blue land mass on its far side. The air was so clear we could even make out sand bluffs on the Long Island shore. Closer at hand, the rural landscape was bathed in muted colors: yellow-green and reddish leaves sprouting, bare brown limbs waiting and a few ivory-colored trees blossoming, all capped by a pale blue sky and white clouds with gray soles.

It wasn’t until we were down the other side of this summit, having used both hands and feet for the scramble, that we looked up and saw what a steep cliff we’d just descended. The White Trail is not a good choice for little kids or the faint of heart. And we weren’t done climbing just yet. Three overlooks are noted on the trail map at the Giant’s chest, where a stone cairn about seven feet tall comes to a point with a tiny pebble.

We knew we were close to the Tower Trail because now we passed hikers on our path again. The trail veered south and descended to cross the wide Tower Trail, then cascaded down to the parking area. We’d hiked 2.8 miles in all, at the leisurely rate of one mile per hour, slowed by frequent stops to take photos and notes.

The White Trail is one of eight that offers prominent numbered markers along the way labeling geology stations. We easily spotted these white painted circles with red numbers all along the route but weren’t checking the online guide to read about the Giant’s “esophagus,” glacial scours in the rock, granitic veins, pockets of pegmatite and more.

No matter. Sometimes it’s fun to leave the experts at home and observe for yourself the turkey vulture hunched on a branch waiting for its next prey, the single oak leaf suspended in a pool of rainwater, the curl of a strip of birch bark fallen on the forest floor.

Sleeping Giant State Park – White Trail
Trailhead | Trail Map

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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