The Shepaug River rises on either side of Mohawk State Forest in the towns of Goshen and Cornwall. Its east and west branches run south to meet at Shepaug Reservoir on the Litchfield-Warren line. The united river holds to the southerly course through Washington and Roxbury, and soon after enters the Housatonic at Lake Lillinonah. The Shepaug is a country river. The busiest road to cross it is two-lane Route 202; the largest community it flows through is little Washington Depot. “The Shepaug is a river to break your heart,” says a book I first read a decade ago. I’ll come back to the book, but I hope I’ve said enough to explain what lured me to the Shepaug for three hikes on its banks and hillsides. What I can’t explain is why I waited so long.
STEEP ROCK PRESERVE: It is true that I had hiked at Steep Rock once before. But it had been a short-notice group hike, led by a friend. I had no need to research anything, just show up. It became a chatty outing too, so I noticed less of our surroundings. This time I did my homework, and went alone (best resource for homework, the Steep Rock Association website). Since it was Friday, July 3rd, a holiday, I started early, driving the 40 miles to the Preserve by 7:30. It was idyllic at the trailhead – a cloudless sky, cool air, just one other car in the parking area. I walked the road bridge across a shining Shepaug – here roughly halfway along its course – and began to zigzag into the hills.
Steep Rock Preserve’s 974 acres do not lack variety. There are pine-clad hillsides, fine views from Steep Rock Summit itself, and plenty of riverbank to wander. The trails are broad and well-marked, some following the bed of the old Shepaug Valley Railroad (1872-1948). The river meanders madly, turning 180 degrees to head north before changing its mind to swing abruptly south again. I headed first to Steep Rock Summit, 400 feet above the second meander, the morning cool seeming to evaporate as I climbed. From the summit, I saw the river’s winding furrow, but little of the stream itself. Straight ahead lay a hilly, wooded blob of land almost entirely encircled by the Shepaug. It is, for its shape, known as the Clamshell Area. A 30-minute hike took me to the shell’s hinge, by way of a bouncy-trouncy footbridge over the river.
The Shepaug appeared full-flowing, a fact that brings me back to that book I mentioned. The river will break your heart, says George Black in The Trout Pool Paradox, not just because of its beauty and fine trout, but “because it has spent eighty years on the brink of extinction”. The reason? A 1921 agreement allowed Waterbury to divert Shepaug water for the city’s use. The agreement required 1.5 million gallons of water per day to stay in the Shepaug from May to November, but this was not nearly enough to sustain the river. Its temperature soared, bacteria flourished, trout died. A court case in 2000, which Black describes, ended with Waterbury ordered to leave much more of the Shepaug in the Shepaug during the summer months; but I was unsure if the ruling had stuck and, if it had, whether it had solved the problem. I am still unsure, but was pleased to see that the Shepaug at least looked healthy on this mid-summer morning. (You do not need to be a fisherman to enjoy The Trout Pool Paradox, by the way; it is excellent on Connecticut’s industrial history, illustrated by the differing fates of the Naugatuck, Shepaug, and Housatonic rivers.)
I wrapped up my Steep Rock hike by rounding the clamshell on perfect riverbank trail that emerged right at the dark entrance to the old railroad tunnel. It did not occur to me – cave-fearer that I am – to enter, but I believe you may. I looped back to the river and hugged its left bank back to the parking area, now filling fast with holiday visitors. But it was still mid-morning, and I intended to hike more of the Shepaug valley. Unfortunately, I only have space to give you the briefest of accounts.
HIDDEN VALLEY PRESERVE: Construction of a new footbridge has disrupted the start-finish of the Van Sinderen Loop, but the trail is still well worth hiking. I somehow missed the Pinnacle marked on the map, but enjoyed the Lookout and, especially, the river walk that passes magnificently tall, straight pines. A dank former Quartz Mine (abandoned 1915) was the historical interest.
BATTLE SWAMP BROOK PRESERVE: Tucked in the steep sides of the Shepaug valley, and accessible only by dirt road, this preserve’s attractions are the little pools and falls of its namesake brook. If stopping to take my boots and socks off had not meant inviting more itching mosquito bites, I would surely have cooled my feet in them.
|IF YOU GO …|
|STEEP ROCK||HIDDEN VALLEY||BATTLE SWAMP BROOK|
|PARKING||2 Tunnel Rd Washington, CT.||Just north of 116 Bee Brook Rd, Washington, CT.||1 mi. south Judds Bridge, Judds Bridge Rd, Roxbury CT (space limited).|
|DISTANCE||About 6.5 mi.||3.5 mi.||1.35 mi.|
|DURATION||2.75 hrs.||1.5 hrs.||30 minutes.|
|MAP AND ROUTE||Map available Steep Rock Association website. I followed the Steep Rock Loop and “Orange Square” trails||Map available Steep Rock Association website. I followed the Van Sinderen Loop anticlockwise.||Available Roxbury Land Trust website. The preserve has just one trail.|