Thursday, May 21, 2015

Hancock Brook Trail

After all the years that I've been in Waterbury, there are still so many wonderful things to be discovered. Today, when I was making a quick trip to view a historic bridge, I wound up hiking a trail that I never really knew existed. It took a lot longer than expected, but it was definitely worth doing.

The Hancock Brook Trail is a blue-blaze trail maintained by the Connecticut Forest and Park Association. It skirts along the edge of the Mattatuck State Forest Parcel G and along land owned by the railway. It is a "mere" 2.8 miles, but a good portion of that is steep uphill, steep downhill, and a little bit of rock climbing as well.

The trail starts at the end of Sheffield Street. There's a wide shoulder on the right side of the road that functions as a parking area (but is also used by trucks to make a wide turn into the quarry).

Trail signage hidden high up on the side of a tree. As the sign notes, a portion of the trail passes through private property.

The start of the trail. Note the dab of blue paint--this is the trail marker. If you try hiking this trail, keep a close eye out for the blue blazes. There are several places where other trails split off from the blue-blazed trail, making it easy to get lost (sort-of lost, but who knows where those unmarked trails lead?).

The first few feet of the trail take you through a small, muddy field. You might be tempted to take the rocky, mudless route to the left, but watch your step! There's an unexpected pit just before the parking lot.

A very large, deep pit, right where a pit shouldn't be.

As other bloggers have pointed out, the first leg of the trail isn't very promising. If I hadn't encountered someone returning from a hike at this point, I might have given up. Basically, you have to walk around the edge of a quarry parking lot to get to the good part of the trail.

The first glimpse of the real trail at the end of the parking lot.

Here's where the trail really begins.

A short way into the woods, the trail splits. This is the beginning and end of the loop. I took the trail to the right, which follows along the Hancock Brook.

There are little hints of the trail's history to be seen: a good portion of the trail is supported by a stone retaining wall, which was most likely constructed during the early 1800s, when Hancock Brook powered small mills from Waterville to Plymouth, when the trees were all cut down, and when the trail was most likely a well-used thoroughfare.

The trees are all relatively new growth, relatively young. The forest has reclaimed land that was once used for farms and industry.

There is fauna as well as flora to be seen. This is a Common Eastern Millipede. Completely harmless, and likely dead, but I figured it was best to leave it alone.

One of many rock outcroppings forming mini-caves. This one is almost seamlessly blended with the tree growing over it.

Retaining wall on the other side of the brook. There is a railway line running along the brook above it, apparently still in use, owned by the New Haven Railroad. It connects Waterville to Bristol and New Britain. It was built in 1850, and then upgraded in 1907. The wall appears to be from about 1850.

Much of Hancock Brook is rocky, with powerful rapids. You can easily see why water power was harnessed for powering mills. During the early 1800s, Hancock Brook was the primary source of power for Waterville's growing industry.

Another retaining wall on the other side of the brook.

The first of about a dozen fire pits along the trail, even though campfires are not permitted.

The jawbone of a deer, long departed.

Wild Geranium.

Pink ladies' slippers. This is a type of orchid found in woodlands throughout the Eastern United States and Canada. They grow only in very specialized soil, dependent upon a symbiotic relationship with a specific fungus. They are classified as endangered/vulnerable in four states and in Canada.

This is a beautiful trail, and so long as you stay close to the brook, it's a relatively easy hike.

A man-made cave big enough for tiny elves? More likely it's some sort of drainage system from about 1850.

The earliest form of bridge: a chopped-down tree. Why anyone thought crossing the brook on a tree was easier than just wading through the water is a mystery.

Lovely little beach, right? Beware! Any place where the water is flat, there are giant, industrial-sized mosquitoes. Seriously. Biggest mosquitoes I've ever seen.

The bright blue line is the trail. The big blue blob is a pond. The green area is the boundary of the Mattatuck State Forest. As you can see, when you get to where the trail does a U-turn, you are briefly on private property. This is where things get a little odd.

Here's an aerial view of the pond from the map above. It took some work to figure out what's happening here. To the right of the photo, there is an autobody/junkyard type of place (Brookside Auto Salvage). The pond and the junkyard are in Waterbury. Access to them is on a private road, off of Greystone Road Extension in Plymouth. Brookside Auto Salvage is technically in Waterbury, but there is no access from Waterbury. The operation appears to have expanded relatively recently (the property was purchased in 2011). Even from the hillside overlooking the yard, the various automotive oils could be strongly smelled, which is unfortunate.
Back the trail... When you get to the part where you can see and smell the junkyard, there is a very visible trail that crosses this small stream, which feeds into the brook at the bottom of the hill to the right. You may, like me, be inclined to follow this trail, thinking it's still part of the blue-blaze trail you've been following.

If you are like me and follow the trail across the stream, you will quickly realize that you're about to enter Deliverance territory. I later figured out that this is a possible extension of Brookside Auto Salvage. It's accessed from the same private road, and appears to someone's private campsite. Or the hideaway of a serial killer... Probably not, but I was alone and had no intention of finding out.

Turning around, I realized that the trail makes more of a sharp V-turn than a U-turn. I originally came from the trail to the left, and the blue-blazes continue to the right.

I was distracted by the pond, and lost sight of the blue blazes, absentmindedly following the most visible trail. When you go around the pond, there are several trails to choose from.

Another fire pit, although this one is on private property. There was a large supply of firewood nearby.

A chair located in an apparently random spot in the woods. This is when I started to realize that I might not be on the blue-blaze trail anymore.

See this trail? See how nice and big it is? Totally not the right trail. Not a blue blaze anywhere to be seen.

I turned around and eventually spotted the blue blazes leading up the side of the hill, on a very narrow path almost completely hidden by underbrush. After this point, the hike got tough. A lot of steep uphill climbing. If you want an easy walk in the woods, if you're not in peak physical condition, if you have small children or dogs with you, turn back when you reach the pond.

When you climb the hill, you enter a beautiful pine forest. The pine trees have been shedding their needles here for so long, the ground has a springy quality to it.

Beautiful though it may be, the side of the hill is covered in rabbit droppings (bunny poop).

Yet another fire pit. This was was built by someone who didn't really know what he was doing. The fire was too large and too close to the tree on the right. The bark caught fire and peeled off. Fortunately, nothing worse happened.

One of several mini-ponds on the hill. Swampy breeding grounds for mosquitoes. The only good thing is that the mosquitoes up here are smaller than the ones down by the brook.

You know how stair climbing is supposed to be a really good exercise? Try it with sloping steps covered in slippery old oak leaves. I thought I was in pretty good shape. I've been exercising regularly, building up muscles in my legs, getting an hour of cardio a few times a week. I failed at this hill. My heart and lungs were pushed to their limit, racing as they tried to keep up with the vigorous workout. Just when I thought I couldn't walk any further without collapsing, there was a beautiful big boulder, perfect for sitting.

Shortly before reaching the boulder, I heard a loud rustling noise from up the hill. At first I thought it was another hiker, but then I realized that I was the only human around. It sounded much larger than a squirrel. Maybe a bear? Maybe a bobcat? I decided to make my own loud rustling noises (easily done!), so that I wouldn't risk startling whatever critter it might be. My plan worked, the animal hunkered down out of sight, and I passed safely by.

After recovering on the boulder, I was ready to continue my trek up the hill. I started getting cranky when I discovered that the trail was washed out. I had to double check that this really was the trail. No blue blazes in sight, but no other possible trail was in sight either. Up I went, using the saplings and rocks to help keep my balance. It was about as steep as it could get and still be walkable.

Hooray! A blue blaze! At this point, I was overheated, sweaty, breathing heavily, heart racing, wondering why in the world I was following this trail.

My spirits lifted when I saw the trail meet the sky. At last, I was at the top of the mountain!

The trail leads directly to an open spot perfect for viewing the brook's valley--and for sitting down and eating a snack.

This rock formation is named Lion Head and is the peak of the mountain, 660 feet from sea level. Not recommended for anyone afraid of heights. It's a long way to the bottom if you get too close to the edge!

A panoramic view from the summit.

From the top, you can see where you started. That's the Blue Stone Quarry in the foreground.

Plants that don't care about heights, long falls, or minimal soil.

The climb down from the summit involved a little bit of rock climbing. See the blue blaze on the rock? That's how you know it's the way to get to the dirt trail beyond.

Just when I was feeling good about going downhill, the trail went back uphill again. Up a steep hill again. It did this several times.

Unexpectedly, the trail led to a second rocky promontory, with a second great view to enjoy.

From here, I could see Sprague School, Route 8, and Waterbury Hospital.

A closer view of the same shot.

Nearing the end, one more tricky downhill hike.

Finally! The end of the trail! It took me forever to hike 2.8 miles. At least two hours. The hiker I encountered on my way in, and everyone who has ever written about this trail, completely misled me. The hiker was fresh as a daisy. The writers barely mentioned the difficult parts of the hike. By the time I finished, I was sweaty, disheveled, and tired. I guess that's the difference between someone who rarely hikes (me) and someone who hikes dozens of miles every week (not me).

View of the quarry on my way out.

After my hike, I drove around to the Plymouth section of Hancock Brook and was pleasantly surprised to see this historic marker. Two hundred years ago, Hancock Brook was a busy industrial waterway, and the trail connected Waterville to Greystone Falls and now-famous clockmakers Eli Terry and Silas Hoadley.

A former mill site at Greystone Falls. On the other side of the wood fence is the road leading to Brookside Auto Salvage and the pond.


John McDonald said...

Thanks for this well-written post describing a nice trail that runs through what amounts to Waterbury's largest green space. As you have seen, in many spots it is edge habitat. This can be discouraging to those used to more pristine locales, but for those used to living "on the edge" or interested in the history of land use in Waterbury, the Hancock Brook Trail is worth the trip,

Unknown said...

Thanks for this write up! I was looking for a place to hike nearby today, and now I have it :)

Mrs. Marks said...

Thank you for the extended write up. I was looking for a place to hike near Waterbury today, and now I have one!

Anonymous said...

That was a great hike,I didn't get you did all the work for me.loved the pictures and storyline.thank you