My friend Rob McWilliams used the phrase “Wild Corner of Connecticut” when I told him where I was backpacking last weekend, and I loved it. So thanks, Rob, you just made my blog title snap! Check out Rob’s blog here. There’s lots of rugged trail here in Connecticut, but I definitely think this is an accurate description of the Riga Plateau. On the A.T. it starts in Salisbury, quickly rising a thousand feet to Lion’s Head, a very scenic outcropping on the southeastern corner of the plateau. The entire plateau includes several peaks in Connecticut, New York and Massachusetts. Fielden Stream and I completed the Connecticut section of the Appalachian trail through here just about a year ago by completing this final section and ending just over the Massachusetts border at Sages Ravine.
While I didn’t cover the section up to Lion’s Head or Down from Bear’s summit this Memorial Day weekend, the alternative route up was hardly less strenuous. I was up here to cover the trail between these two very popular peaks and the A.T. campsites in between, to greet and assist hikers during the day and overnight.
If I made any mistake it was not hitting the trail until just after noon, on a scorching hot day. The undermountain trail is a blue blaze that is one of several which climbs from Rt 41 up to the plateau where the A.T. traverses along its eastern ridges. The others are the Race Brook Falls Trail and Elbow Trail behind the Berkshire school, both just north of the Massachusetts line. At its starting point the elevation of the undermountain trail is about 675ft. When it finally reaches the A.T. its 1,000ft higher. And as my goal this morning before returning to camp at Riga shelter was the summit of Bear Mountain, Connecticut (2,316ft) … well I had a good climb ahead and I knew it.
It was a busy holiday weekend and luckily I got the last of the spots in the trailhead lot. There were also many cars along the road, which is not a big deal if you’re just out for a few hours. Overnight I’d worry about parking on the road. As I was getting my gear together I chatted with some day hikers headed up the same way and gave them a map and made sure they had plenty of water. I also spoke to a section hiker who just did the entire Connecticut section and was waiting for a ride from a family member, and would then join them for a family get together just over the New York border. He gave me useful information on the water sources, and had lots of enthusiasm post-hike to talk trail, which got me sufficiently fired up to start the long climb. While never really terribly steep, one must not be fooled by the long continuous ascent. While I have done worse, in the heat and humidity it was tough. I was thankful to meet a lot of hikers along the way and stop to chat with them.
I was more than relieved when I reached Riga Junction and the intersection of the Appalachian Trail. I was 2/3 of the way up now, so I took a snack break here and appreciated the last bit of shade I would get from the forest canopy, as the ascent up the south side of Bear opens up to a series of gentle scrambles along a rocky spine with nothing but a little krumholz and mountain laurel to shade you from the sun. It’s about .9 miles from here to the summit but its a good 600ft ascent. But, at least the views south and west are extremely rewarding. Just like last year, I snapped away on my camera. I love photography so always go a little overboard. Better to have more and filter out the bad ones, than less. I took a break every spot there was shade and kept a vigilant eye out for snakes. I startled one on the way up the undermountain trail which I pointed out to a group of day hikers on their way down. I ran into snakes two more times on this trip. Fortunately they were all garter snakes!
I reached the summit and promptly headed to the shady area behind the tower. I spent about an hour alternating between this spot and the hot rocky summit tower, interacting with day hikers and backpackers. This is probably the most popular section of trail in all of Connecticut. We all took lots of pictures and I educated them on the history of the summit tower, the plaque and the past notion that this was our state’s highest point. While it is the highest single summit entirely within the state, the shoulder of nearby Mt. Frissell has the honor of the highest point in Connecticut, even though its own peak is over the border in Massachusetts.
From the remains of the stone tower, I reveled in the sweeping views east and north to Mts Race and Everett, which Fielden Steam and I will hike along the trail in just less than three weeks with our Florida friends. I made sure to send them these great shots, and they were happy to see them! I also met my first annoying set of bees and flies of the weekend. They would harrass me for the next 24 hours, either because I was such good company, or smelled half dead. I helped hikers with directions and information for a while longer before taking one more long look and then heading back down the south side of the mountain. I met the day hikers I saw in the lot that morning on the way down and they treated me to some fresh carrots and broccoli they were snacking on at a viewpoint near the summit.
Once back at the junction, the trail gently undulates south along the ridge through mountain laurel tunnels for miles until a short ascent to Lion’s head on the southern end of the plateau. I would visit there tomorrow. The laurels were only blooming at the summit of Bear at this time, but the pink honeysuckle was abundant, and I would find some coveted wildflowers in my near future. I stopped briefly at Brassie brook to fill up on water, as I had depleted nearly my full 3 liters at this point. I met a nice couple section hiking with their dog Jimmy and who would be at the campsite with me later that night. Shortly after I stopped into the Brassie Brook shelter and campsites where I cleaned up a stealth fire ring. Boy I was tired at this point, but it had to be done! There was no one at the campsite recently as far as I could tell. Sages Ravine and Riga really draw the most crowds and so this and Ball Brook really handle the overflow when those two are full or for tired hikers stuck in between.
As I headed out of the Brassie Brook campsite, I ran into another section hiker I saw at the summit of Bear and we hiked south together and spoke until we reached the Riga campsites. While we passed Ball Brook campsite on the way, I decided I’d check it on the way back tomorrow. It’s a lovely little group site on the ridgeline, but not often used except by scouts.
She told me she had never met a volunteer ridgerunner before and thanked me for my work. That happened again later as I headed down undermountain trail the next day, and I have to admit, it felt great. We traded stories and reached the Riga site about 30 minutes later.
As I got into the campsite I briefly chatted with some hikers who were also excited to meet a trail volunteer, and signed into the shelter as we took in the famous view. You can see at least 50 miles east over the mountain tops here. It’s a well loved spot. I then headed to set up my great new tent the REI Quarter Dome 1 for its maiden voyage and afterwards, set about the business of meeting all the hikers and helping them as they settled in for the evening. I talked tents with some of them, fascinated by the cuben fiber options out there though happy with my purchase. One was a former caretaker for the Green Mountain Club in Vermont.
All in all, there were many flip-floppers (hiking from the middle of the trail one direction, then the other from the middle again to mitigate crowding), the section hikers I met at Brassie Brook, a couple celebrating the second half of their honeymoon hike by doing all of Connecticut and a NYC group who coincidentally was led by an outdoor shop a block from my sister-in-law’s in Brooklyn, NY! Small, small world.I’ve been in the shop often. We became quick friends, as you can imagine. I’m very happy to hear that his business is growing. I showed him the demerit badge I got in his shop of the bee, which Fielden Stream gave me when I was stung by a mud wasp on Sharon mountain and screamed so loudly that she thought I was bitten by a rattlesnake! Another group came in closer to dark as I was finishing my dinner of beef jerky. (left my titanium spoon in my wife’s pack!)
I chatted with the girl from earlier and the honeymoon couple while filtering water, then spent the rest of the evening looping around the camp showing hikers to the privy, bear box, water source, and reminding them fires aren’t allowed. It was a full house, but I loved feeling like a helping hand to them all.
The rain never came though a nice breeze blew through the treetops through the night, and I drifted in and out of sleep until I knew I spotted the makings of the famous sunrise. I ran out to the clearing in front of the shelter, and many of the hikers were there snapping the epic photos of the sun rising over Canaan mountain and the misty valley below.
I retreated to the tent to try and catch a few more Z’s since sunrise was at 5:45, but it was no use, and I knew it was going to be beastly hot again. So best to get going and beat the heat as much as I could. I made my breakfast, said goodbyes and inspected the campsites as everyone was leaving, and then headed south to check out Lion’s head.
As I approached the northern viewpoint, I spotted the rare pink lady slipper, a favorite flower of ours. It’s also quite rare. Conditions have to be just right, and because of that I haven’t seen one since 2014. I took oodles of photos and then headed to the southern viewpoint with its sweeping views over the twin lakes of Salisbury all the way to Rand’s view in Canaan/Falls Village. I met a nice couple there who were intriqued in what I do, and they took some nice shots of me there.
I told them about the lady slippers and the northern view and suggested some hikes for them tomorrow as they were staying in town. As I headed back and took more shots of the flowers I met them there, and a family that was day hiking past who spotted a whole patch of them! How did I miss so many on the way up. Tired, I guess. It was getting hot and hotter already and it wasn’t even 8 am. I ran into the honeymooning couple on the way back up to Riga Junction and one of the groups from the campsite who were hoping to make it another 20 miles to Silver Hill. They looked young and fit enough but in that heat, I suggested some alternates a little closer just in case!
On the way back I managed to irk a bee or wasp sufficiently so that it followed me and quickened my pace significantly back to Riga Junction. On the way I checked out Ball Brook campsites, which were empty. I entertained another go up Bear, but the temperatures were soaring and I was done.
I headed down the undermountain trail to my car and along the way got many kudos from a day hiker for my volunteer work again. She said “yay, Appy guy, love it love you thank you thank you!” I must have blushed. Her son smiled at me, a little embarrassed. Though it’s always great to be thanked. I also spotted one of the boundary markers I remembered here from last year.
On the drive home I stopped in Kent to visit some of my favorite shops and to pick up some dinner at my favorite bakery there. I had a great adventure, and was ready for my hike the following Saturday for National Trails day. As I’ve been working on this entry a while, that day was today. I had a great hike today and met more great people. I’ll write about that soon. I don’t think I’ll be out next weekend so hopefully I can catch up then on the blog!
Miles day 1: 5.9
Miles day 2: 5.83
Snake sightings: 3!