Published in The Hour Online – July 2013.
You would think that a hiker living in Connecticut for well-nigh 15 years now would know the Sleeping Giant quite well. After all, it gets a great write-up. One guidebook ventures that “Few places in New England are in the same league as Sleeping Giant State Park”. Praise indeed! But I hadn’t taken notice. I knew the park was there, of course, out beyond New Haven. But I’d pigeon-holed it – unseen – as a tame, suburban place. And so things might have remained but for the good luck of the Appalachian Mountain Club’s organizing a “Leadership Training Session” under the giant’s nose. This is an event where club members learn to take other hikers into the hills, or – more exactly – learn to bring them out again unscathed. As soon as I drove into the picnic area where the event would be held, and felt the deep woods surrounding its tall pines, I had an inkling I had got the Giant all wrong, and would come back here soon to hike.
I came back a month later, on the first Saturday in July. It had been a hectic intervening month. I’d seen little of my family, so I asked them along. Since we weren’t seeing much of each other, my invitation was e-mailed – “I am going to leave about 7am on Saturday to hike at the Sleeping Giant – about 6 miles on what the park leaflet calls ‘hard, steep’ trails. Weather looks good, but hot”. My wife and two of three daughters took up the challenge. We must have looked a ragtag party in the parking area at 8am, dressed in pants ranging from hiking-standard beige to gaudy beach shorts; and t-shirts from plain blue to pink-and-lilac tie-dye. It was already a sticky 80 degrees. Then, a few zigzags up the Tower Trail, I felt the itch of a mosquito bite beneath my right shoulder blade. It was going to be that kind of hike.
The Tower Trail meanders through the woods for a mile and a half, rising gently to a squat gray tower atop the Giant’s left hip. It is a dirt road really, though bikes and vehicles are barred. This morning we met only a handful of hand-in-hand couples and sweat-shiny joggers. The trees parted occasionally for views. The first was sudden and spectacular. My eldest daughter saw it first – the massive fractured cliff on the giant’s head backed by a hot sky. This wasn’t like New England at all. Farther on – right beneath the cliff – a plaque was embedded in a boulder. On June 18th 1875, it read, a 12-year-old “lad” fell down the precipice. A local tragedy, you might think. But the significance of the tumble is that the unfortunate boy was one Arnold Dana. In 1930 – a lad no more – Dana took over the campaign that saved the Giant from disfigurement at the hands of traprock quarriers. The Giant had spared his life, he thought. He returned the favor.
We were sweat-shiny now too, or at least I was. The tower offered relief. Set in a small clearing 739 feet above the Sound, it was open to a soft breeze that kept the heat and bugs down. There were fine views from the open, turreted top story, particularly southwest to the distant towers of New Haven. We shared the scene with just one other family, and then departed along the “blue” trail towards the eastern edge of the park. It lay, I thought, something over a mile away. But the blue trail was no dirt road. It was rugged and beautiful. There were views over seas of woods from the top of sheer drops, knee-jolting bouldery descents, carpets of pine needles, and the bug-ridden ravine of a dry stream. Rest stops became frequent. I asked how everyone was doing. Only my youngest’s words matched her expression – “It’s too hot”.
We stopped on a high, rocky clearing where the blue and white trails intersected. I felt sure we were very near our turn-around point at the boundary of the park, but the map showed no blue-white junction there. Now, the SGSP trail map is a busy affair, hard to read for the sweat-soaked and bug-tormented. My wife pointed out that the blue and white trails met on Hezekiah’s Knob. I said we must have crossed the Knob ages ago. Then a lone hiker climbed onto our summit. I suppose we looked in need of help – seated, sweaty, studying the map. And he was dead set on helping. Did we need water? Bug spray? A guide? Maybe assistance in Simplified English? I explained the mystery of the missing junction. “Oh the trails do cross,” he said, “Here, see, on Hezekiah’s Knob.” It wasn’t looking good for getting this group out unscathed.
If you go …
|PARKING||SGSP entrance on Mt Carmel Ave, or nearby picnic area ($9 park fee). Mt Carmel Ave is off Route 10 in Hamden.|
|DISTANCE||About 5 miles.|
|DURATION||We were out 4 hours.|
|MAP AND ROUTE||Maps available at www.sgpa.org. COLOR map highly recommended. Route took Tower Trail, blue trail to Hezekiah’s Knob, then white back to Picnic Area. The guidebook I quoted is “Nature Walks in Connecticut” by Laubach and Smith, 1999.|
|WHAT TO TAKE||Strong boots. Masses of water. Snacks. Bug repellant and sunscreen. Your leashed dog.|