Autumn has made its presence known here in the Northeast; our forests in Connecticut have reached their peak colour transition, the nights are getting longer and chillier, and farmers are completing their harvests before winter sets in. The excitement also draws folks from out-of-state, touring our back-roads and parks to see for themselves the grandeur of Nature’s fiery foliage, a beloved hallmark of our rural countryside.
I figured it would be ideal for me to make a 3 day-2 night journey on the Ives’ Trail – the time-off would be a welcome celebration after finishing all the tiresome work overhauling the front yard at home. In the morning on Tuesday the 19th, I set out to the Ives’ House and the trail-head.
After looking around for a short while, I hopped back on the bike and made my way to the trail-head, just down the road. From there, it was a steady climb up Town Hill (summit 820 ft/250 m). Near the top I came across the ruins of an old mansion, dating back to the very late 1800s.
Many people mistakenly call it a “castle” due to the stone construction, disregarding the fact that many other structures built before the 1900s were also made with stone, such as cellars, cottages, and spring houses. This building has Victorian architecture. It was constructed in 1879 as a summer mansion for local photographer E. Starr Sanford. After only 5 years, Sanford sold it and the property passed through multiple owners until the town of Danbury acquired it in 1985.
It was a nice place to stop for a bit and have some granola for a quick snack.
This is a mixture I put together myself, consisting of some pre-made gluten free granola (Bear Naked Maple-icious Pecan), dehydrated slices of heirloom old-stock apples (mostly Newtown Pippin), and for an extra kick of calories and fat, 1 qt of raw sunflower seeds. This mixture was great for breakfast meals and for snacking.
Before I started on again, I noticed nearby the old mansion were the ruins of a circular stone wall.
After the trip I did some research and found out that this was likely the spot of one of Mr. Sanford’s gardens. Apparently he also had a goldfish pond somewhere on the property.
I continued on descending a steep side of Town Hill, crossed a road, and made my way over to the adjacent Laurel Hill (summit 787 ft/240 m). From there, once you reach the southern foot of the hill, the Ives’ Trail branches off in two directions: to the left, it continues south past Beaver Lake and into the towns of Bethel and Redding; to the right, the trail meanders mostly west and south, down to and up over Black Oak Ridge (aka Thomas Mtn, summit 938 ft/286 m), up and down Hemlock Heights (aka Moses Mtn, summit 971 ft/296 m), and beyond into Ridgefield. I decided to go to the right as the rugged and steep terrain would give me a nice challenge.
This brook snakes into the valley bisecting Black Oak Ridge and Laurel Hill, fed by runoff down from the ridge and a marsh farther to the south. Normally there would be more water flow, but the dry weather we’ve been having has dried up many streams.
Climbing Black Oak Ridge via the Ives’ Trail cannot be done whilst riding the bike. The angle of the slope is just too steep, and the only recovery spots are a few switchbacks. Thankfully, there wasn’t a mess of leaves to disguise any loose rocks from view. I pushed the bike up most of the way until I reached near the top. Then I came to a 3 way branch-off. One direction I knew would take me off the Ives’ and down the ridge in a loop. The other two directions seemed plausible to follow, but I couldn’t be sure since the Ives’ Trail markers were not present on either paths. Unfortunately, my topo map wasn’t of much help, since it was printed just two years before the Ives’ Trail was created. I remembered briefly looking at a posted overview map back at the trail-head, but this also wasn’t helpful as that map didn’t include many of the visual features portrayed on my topo map. So I hopped off my bike and went down both directions for a short distance, hoping to at least see one marker indicating that I was on the Ives’ Trail. Alas, there were none, so I walked back to my bike, studied the topo map and thought for a few minutes, and then made my best guess.
Fortunately for me, my guess was accurate. But it wasn’t until I was partway down the other side of Black Oak Ridge when I saw the trail markers again…this was the Terre Haute section of the Ives’ Trail, which parallels the contour lines of the ridge for about 3 miles/5 km.
After a little over a half mile/ .8 km, the Ives’ branches off and continues down to the valley of Black Oak Ridge and Hemlock Heights. It was there that I was bestowed the view of a beautiful gorge.
At the very bottom was a rocky brook that threads through the valley, feeding into a lake about a half mile to the north. There was no water flow to be seen due to the dry weather.
All around the gorge were large boulder formations, left behind by the glaciers. As I crossed the brook and started the climb up Hemlock Heights, I looked behind to see the view of the gorge from that side. It was just as beautiful, but with a bonus – there was an overhang formed by a ledge just below part of the Ives’ Trail on Black Oak Ridge, near the brook. I took note of its location and planned to stop-by there the next day.
Ascending Hemlock Heights was challenging, as the first 250 ft/76 m or so was nothing but a mess of large stones on and all around the trail, and the incline was at a steep angle. Perhaps if I didn’t have the bike to push up, the ascent wouldn’t have been so tricky. Eventually I made my way near the summit, where I stopped for a short break at the edge of a dense grove of Canada Hemlocks.
Here, the trail is much more manageable on the bike :).
It was a little after 14:00 when I started the descent down Hemlock Heights. In the distance I heard the pow and bangs of firearms from Wooster Mountain State Park, where there is a public shooting range.
Here’s a view of Spruce Mtn (summit 892 ft/272 m), part of the state park.
As I continued the descent, I stopped at the Ives’ Trail Register and wrote down my name, trail name, how long I intended my trip to be, and some other info.
The last section of the trek down Hemlock Heights was rather perilous, and I wisely dismounted and walked my bike, gripping both brakes to stop it from rolling out of control and taking me with it. The trail went straight down at a precipitous incline with lots of leaves covering hundreds loose rocks. More than once I lost my footing and slipped.
But at last I was down safely, following the now mostly level trail as it turned left to the south, hand-railing the gorgeous Sugar Hollow Lake, and farther across on the other side, Route 7.
The lake was home to several beaver families…this was one of their lodges.
After about 3/4 mile/1.2 km the trail ended at the edge of a road perpendicular to Route 7. In truth, the Ives’ Trail continues across Route 7 into Wooster Mtn State Park, and then to Pine Mtn (summit 997 ft/304 m), Hemlock Hills Open Space and Bennett’s Pond for another 8 miles or so. I’ll leave that hike for another time, probably for a snowshoeing return trip during winter. As it is, there are sections of the Ives’ Trail that do not permit mountain biking, unfortunately…but a winter snowshoeing trek would be just as fun :).
So, I turned around and started my way back. By now it was approaching 15:00, and I knew I needed to ascend Hemlock Heights and make camp for the night. It was then that I ran into two hikers carrying day-packs (or super-duper ultralight kit). One of them, as we introduced ourselves, was Mark Cunningham, the chairman of the Ives’ Trail. We had a quick chat, and since we were all going in the same direction, we set off to begin the climb.
Suffice to say they both left me in the dust on the ascent :P. Here’s Mark climbing like a mountain goat.
The trek up Hemlock Heights was just as tricky as it was coming down…if I planned the trip in November or December, a light coating of snow would make it next to impossible to ascend and descend. By the time I reached the top, Mark and his companion were way ahead of me.
In short order I picked a site to set up camp, an exposed rocky knoll near the summit that had been cleared by previous storms, knocking down the mature Canada Hemlocks that once grew there. On the plus side, it gave me a fantastic view of Spruce Mtn and the sunset.
Here’s my setup, an enclosed tarp shelter (I call it the “Summit” design) that I have a liking for. It works great year round and is very useful in winter for trapping heat.
And on the menu for dinner….
Backpacker’s Pantry Katmandu Curry! 😀
I’m a sucker for anything involving curry, and I thoroughly enjoyed the meal. It has a solid 680 calories per 6.6 oz/187 g pouch, within the ideal 100 calories per ounce ratio. Aside from being gluten-free, it is also vegan ;).
To be on the safe side, I hung up my food supply in a bear bag. Connecticut is seeing a dramatic increase of black bears after an absence since the late 1800s. I don’t want Yogie and Booboo rummaging through my camp – a bear who isn’t afraid of humans and purposefully seeks out human food is a dangerous bear.
Here’s a view of the setting sun…
I was glad I used the Summit tarp shelter design for the night… the wind picked up and blasted the western side of Hemlock Heights until the wee hours of morning. Inside I was toasty and quite comfy in my Snugpak Sleeper Lite mummy. I don’t think the temperature dipped below 35 F/2 C.
On the morning of the second day (Wednesday the 21st), I packed up, had a quick breakfast of my granola mix, and struck camp. Descending Hemlock Heights to the east back towards Black Oak Ridge was much easier than the ascend the previous day. At around 10:30, I reached the bottom of the gorge and saw the overhang that I remembered. I figured it would be a nice place to sit and have lunch. 🙂
You can comfortably shelter two people and their kit under the overhang. It also occurred to me that primitive peoples, without a doubt, once used this very shelter long ago, for the inside rock was blackened from the smoke of ancient fires. It’s location also made it an ideal spot, for the brook would provide water and fishing, as well as game that would come there to drink. Below is a view from the shelter.
For lunch, I had Backpacker’s Pantry Louisiana Red Beans and Rice with some cocoa. Afterwards, I spent some time enjoying the solitude, views, and watching the wildlife. At 11:30, I packed up again, but before I headed back up Black Oak Ridge, I made a quick stop at the edge of North Beaver Lake to filter water and refill my bottles.
Just after midday, I came to the Terre Haute section of the Ives’ Trail, and I decided I would take it as an alternate route to the south towards Beaver Lake, instead of climbing to the top of the ridge and down. I knew that Terre Haute would again connect to the Ives’ Trail further on….and I’m very glad I made the detour.
It was here that I heard the haunting wail of a Common Loon on the other side of the lake. For me, it was a moving experience and one of the most rewarding parts of the trip. I spent over an hour listening to the loon and enjoying every moment of the colourful immersion alone.
Here’s a panoramic view of Beaver Lake…
I followed Terre Haute back to the Ives’ Trail (the section that goes to Bethel and Redding), and continued on to the north.
Pausing for a moment to locate a good place to camp for the second night.
Just after 15:00, I found myself a secluded site to set up camp, about 100 yards off the trail on Laurel Hill. Once again I hung up my food in a bear bag, but I chose not to setup my tarp at all, for I knew the night would be warmer than the day before. So instead I laid out my space blanket into a bivy configuration. Then there was little to do but watch the sun go down and make dinner.
The night was a bit breezy, but I was roasting hot in my bivy. I had to unzip the sleeping bag halfway to air myself out. I probably would’ve been fine with just the space blanket, my Thermarest pad, and the base layer clothing I had with me, because the temperature dropped no lower than 50 F/10 C. To the south in the distance, I heard the far cries of coyotes howling at the moon.
I awoke to morning’s light just after 08:30 on Thursday the 22nd, readied myself breakfast, packed up, and pedaled on out. It was a fantastic trip, and I really enjoyed the solitude…I encountered only 4 people total. My base weight (excluding the bike and helmet) for the trip was about 19 lbs/9 kg. I could have cut more weight had I known both nights were not going to as chilly as expected from the weather forecast. The total distance I traversed was approximately 12.5 miles/ 20km…end-to-end, the Ives’ Trail runs about 20 miles/32 km.
I’m planning on a winter trek for the continuation of the Ives’ Trail through Wooster Mtn State Park, Pine Mtn, Hemlock Hills, and Bennett’s Pond….a snowshoeing trip if possible :).