Congress designated about 200 miles of hiking trails in Massachusetts and Connecticut this spring as a National Scenic Trail. This is New England’s first nationally-designated trail since the Appalachian Trail was established in 1968. As WNPR’s Nancy Cohen reports the New England National Scenic Trail winds through one of the most densely-populated regions of the country, but still offers an escape to nature
The trail winds south from the New Hampshire Massachusetts border along wooded swamps, by farm fields, through suburbs and cities and over mountains. Ecologist Elizabeth Farnsworth of the New England Wildflower Society is taking me to the summit of Goat Peak in Holyoke, Massachusetts.
“You can see for miles. Absolutely lovely.”
Looking west, the foothills of the Berkshires float along the horizon. And if Mt Tom wasn’t in the way, Hartford would probably be visible to the south. Farnsworth spent the better part of a summer surveying the natural resources of the trail and found a mix of habitats
“As you reach the summit the rain falls right off the bedrock and doesn’t soak in. There’s not a lot of soil development here. So these trees are scrappy!”
These trees are small, clinging to the thin soil. But there are other parts of this mountain with large interior forests: where white pines, hemlocks, and sugar maples grow tall. Farnsworth says the trail forms a green corridor for a lot of animals, but it also passes within ten miles of two million people. The trail goes through East Granby, up Talcott Mountain, past HeubleinTower, then south to New Britain.
“There’s no such thing as wilderness along this trail and there hasn’t been for several hundred years.”
But there are still lots of places, like this forest just below Goats’ Peak, where the sounds of humans fade. And birds, like the hermit thrush dominate the airwaves.
Although the trail received its national designation just this spring it’s been around for a long time. Native Americans traveled these footpaths to their hunting grounds. On the trail in Connecticut, near Middletown, Farnsworth points out a stand of old Mountain laurel.
“See how gnarly and old they are. Really beautiful very, very twisty old shrubs that are left over from the time that this was probably a sheep pasture, even in the colonial era. So, these trees may be a hundred years old or even older. “
That’s because sheep never developed a taste for Moutain laurel.
Long after the colonists, avid hikers carved out the trail. A professor in Middletown and a librarian in Meriden were among the first to blaze it. In Massachusetts it’s called the Metacomet Monadnock trail and in Connecticut the Metacomet Mattabesett Trail. Much of this “MMM Trail”, as its known, is privately owned. Eric Hammerling is with the Connecticut Forest and Park Association. CFPA maintains the trail in Connecticut with a cadre of volunteers. Hammerling says back in 1929 the early trail blazers asked landowners permission to use their land.
“They talked to hundreds of people and received permission. Most of it, though, was not written permission. Most of it was based on handshake agreements. People were very comfortable with that.”
Back then many of these properties were quite large. But today they’ve been subdivided and have changed hands multiple times. Now there are 615 landowners who own 1080 parcels over the length of the trail.. Hammerling says although many landowners like having the trail on their property, a few tell him they aren’t comfortable with it.
“Gosh. I don’t know if I want someone walking through my property. What if something happens to them? What if they’re a mean person and I’m going to feel unsafe?”
Hammerling says fortunately Connecticut has a law on the books to protect landowners from lawsuits.
“The state of Connecticut passed, in 1976, a landowner liability law which says essentially if someone is not charging admission to use their property for a trail, if someone were to fall and hurt themselves, they wouldn’t have any liability.”
The CFPA will re-route the trail if a landowner doesn’t want it. In Massachusetts there are several gaps in the trail because a landowner has asked that it be removed from their property. The new federal designation will bring some funding to help pay for communication with landowners. The national designation might also fund part-time employees in both states, but Elizabeth Farnsworth points out the trail is still a lot of work done mostly by volunteers.
“These challenges are going to continue to face us and they are going to continue to demand that each of us who live in this area and use the trail take responsibility for it.”
Despite the limited funding Ann Colson worked about a decade to get the trail’s national designation. She been a major force behind extending the trail south from North Guilford, through woods, along streets and all the way to the water. Colson is leading the way across a windswept soccer field at Chittendon Park in Guilford.
“We’re just going to walk right across here about 100 yards. We can see Long island Sound right now! Right at the beginning of the field.”
Beyond the park we come to a patch of beach which could become the southern-most point of the trail. The exact place is still being decided. Colson notices a large hawk overhead.
“That’s an osprey flying. Flew directly overhead there and he’s fishing right now.”
The bird hovers over a salt marsh. Then plunges feet first.
“And there he goes. He got a fish. Do you see it there? “
The National Park Service wants the National Scenic trails to be accessible to the public. By the end of this year, when the extension to Guilford is finished the trail will be so accessible people from New York can hop off the train here and start walking.