Hikes are seldom as perfect as this.
From the moment I set off down the violet-blazed trail at Sleeping Giant State Park until, five hours later, I reemerged at the winter-closed picnic area, nothing occurred to upset my even, upbeat mood, and much happened to sustain it. I chose to start on the violet trail – “mostly level, some rises” said my map – because I did not know how passable the Giant’s trails would be after a frigid, snowy February. It seemed unwise to go straight up the Giant’s head. I had not climbed the head before, but had heard that its spectacular views come with an element of risk even in the best conditions.
The violet trail soon came down to the Mill River. Here, admiring the ice extending from banks and midstream rocks, I noticed that the sun was shining, earlier than forecast. It threw tree trunk shadows across ice it made brilliant, and established my buoyant mood. Next, the trail passed beneath the Giant’s head. It is a head disfigured by the 20 years of traprock quarrying that ended in 1933, although the craggy cliffs of the quarry now add to the park’s drama. The trail began to climb the Giant’s left flank, gradually, and always in woods carpeted with deep, bright, pristine snow. I was not the first to walk the trail since the snowfalls, and moved easily on a line of compacted snow – a narrow line; stumble off it, and you sank into a foot of powder. I was wearing microspikes, but had opted to leave my snowshoes in the car.
After an hour and a half on the trail, beyond an up-and-down stretch near the Giant’s left leg and hand, I paused to get my energy back, and listened to the woods as I did so. Winter beech leaves rustled in a weak breeze; a woodpecker knocked; a chickadee sang. Then I heard the sound of a snow shovel in action, and knew I must be near Chestnut Lane and the eastern entrance to the park. Five trails head back west from this entrance, named for rainbow colors, plus white. I tightened my bootlaces, and took the white trail toward the 680-foot hill called Hezekiah’s Knob. It was a climb onto the topmost ridge of the Giant. The sky grew closer and bigger; the trees gave way to views here and there. On a rise, a pine pointed into the cloudless blue.
On top of the Knob I switched to the blue trail – “hard, steep climbs” said my map. Some slopes were indeed steep, but the big change was that the blue trail had been used less. In fact, it looked as if just one hiker had preceded me. I stepped wherever I could into the safety of his footprints, even where he had sunk deep. Snowshoes would not have made my progress any easier. The rewards of this trail were pine-clad ledges, traprock cliffs, and views over the Giant’s wooded hillocks. On one ledge, two turkey vultures flapped briefly into the air from the cliff just below me. Eventually, the trail came out at the stone tower that sits on the Giant’s highest point, 739 feet above Long Island Sound. I climbed to the open top floor, seeking out snow that had drifted into the tower’s passages so that I would not have to remove my microspikes.
Connecticut is a small place where I have lived for 16 years. I tend to think that I know what it contains, at least in terms of geography. Sure, I might struggle to place the town of Pomfret or give you directions to Pachaug State Forest, but I’m pretty good west of the river. At least, I thought so until I looked out over New Haven County from the tower. What was that impressive escarpment far to the east and southeast? What about those two shapely hills close together in the north? I made a guess they were the Metacomet Ridge and Hanging Hills respectively, features of western Connecticut that I have never set foot upon. I resolved to fix that in the spring. (You can see the views from the tower, and photos of the hike as a whole, in my Day Hike Notes – The Frozen Giant album, no login needed.)
It was an easy descent on the tower path into the cleft between the Giant’s head and chest. There, I had a decision to make; stay on the path and soon be back at my car, or turn onto the blue trail again and make an attempt on the Giant’s noggin. I decided for the noggin, telling myself I would turn around at the first sign I might careen into the quarry. The ascent was straightforward, ending in more fine views if you kept your gaze off the sprawling campuses of Quinnipiac University to the south. But the descent, along the rim of the quarry, demanded – and received! – care, patience, and the seat of my pants. Careening into a quarry would be an unfortunate end to a perfect hike.
|If you go …|
|PARKING||SGSP entrance on Mt Carmel Ave (no parking fee in winter). Mt Carmel Ave is off Route 10 in Hamden, CT.|
|DISTANCE||About 7 mi.|
|DURATION||Just under 5 hours.|
|MAP AND ROUTE||Maps available at www.sgpa.org. COLOR map highly recommended. OUT – violet trail all the way to Chestnut Lane. BACK – white to Hezekiah’s Knob; blue to stone tower; tower path to beneath Giant’s chin; blue again over chin and head.|
|WHAT TO TAKE||In snowy conditions; sturdy boots, microspikes, poles, layers, food and water.|