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Sunday, March 24 Living

The payoff at Hurd State Park: A sweeping Connecticut River view

A trip to Hurd State Park offers the day hiker a delightful variety: a peaceful walk on the Connecticut River as well as dramatic ledge views, the tranquil cascades of Hurd Brook alongside marvelous remains of stone walls and old quarries.

Hurd State Park lies in the busy cluster of state parks that congregate around the Connecticut River Valley, and is one of the oldest in Connecticut, established in 1914 only one year after the State Park Commission was established.

A walk through Hurd State Park is an encounter with the Connecticut River. New England’s main waterway, the Connecticut flows down from Quebec Province to Long Island Sound. One could argue that this long, placid waterway is the defining natural feature of the state: the very name Connecticut is a corruption of a Mohegan term meaning “place by the long tidal river.”

The park is named after the Hurd family, early settlers from Scotland who moved to Middle Haddam from Massachusetts in 1710.

The land here is geologically distinguished by its ridges of granite veined with feldspar. Before it became a park, small quarrying operations mined these minerals along with flint and mica. This conflicted identity between public, natural landscape, and private mining concerns reached its head in the 1930s, when a legal battle erupted over persisting claims to the land’s mineral resources. The resulting court decision fortunately ruled in favor of the state, preserving the park for the enjoyment of future generations.

The hike

Our route starts with the white-blazed trail down to the River Trail blazed in red, then to the yellow trail (Split Rock Trail). From there, you’ll walk along the park road to the Picnic Pavilion and join up with the green trail (previously blazed in white) back to your car.

In the parking lot, you’ll notice a yellow metal gate. Don’t follow the woods road behind the gate, and instead follow the road to the right of the gate through the woods. Your path will be marked with white blazes.

You’ll soon pass a trail to your left; keep straight and gently descend, continuing to follow white blazes. The hemlocks along this road look very unhealthy, and many have died, victims of the hemlock looper and the woolly adelgid. These pests feed on hemlock needles and twigs, respectively. Southern Connecticut hemlock stands, particularly along the Connecticut River, are noticeably affected. Salvage logging began in 2000 to remove some of the trees; and you can see small seedlings of maple, beech, and birch vying for sunlight in their place.

About one mile from the parking lot trail, you will come upon the paved park road — take a right here onto the red-blazed River Trail. Follow the River trail down the steep hillside treed with black birches, beeches, tulip trees, and more unhealthy hemlocks. In the winter and early spring before the trees leaf up, you’ll have an inviting view of the Connecticut River during most of your descent.

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Emerge at the bottom into a clearing along the Connecticut River. Take your time and enjoy the view, scooting down short side paths to the river. Follow the river downstream to your left. Soon you’ll come to a grassy clearing used mostly by boaters plying the river. Across the river to the right is the United Technologies jet engine facility. The trees here are different from those in the surrounding hillsides: sycamores, dying elms, tall sassafras, cottonwoods, silver maples, and willows form this canopy. Podded milkweeds fringe the open areas; look for the Monarch butterflies that favor this plant.

Before continuing on the Red trail, go farther down the grassy stretch along the river to the primitive boating campsites. You’ll also see a 0.5-mile-long rock jetty on the banks of the river made from two or three layers of huge, quarried blocks. The jetty is a lot of fun to walk along as you dodge piles of flotsam and giant tree-trunks that have floated downstream and gotten stranded.

On one side of the jetty is the river; on the other, a small tidal cove. The views up and down the river are tremendous, and any block is a great spot to sit and watch the river flow past.

Excerpted with permission from “50 Hikes in Connecticut (Sixth Edition),” which was released March 6 from Countryman Press.

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