Exploring Topstone Park, Redding, CT

Off we go!

Off we go!

I can’t always make it to my favorite trail, the Appalachian Trail. It’s at least an hour drive in any direction. So when I have less time I enjoy finding new closer spots that provide the serenity I love as well as that have at least some challenge in the terrain. A view from an overlook is always a bonus.

In early January I explored a park in Ridgefield I had on my radar, and also learned a little bit more about this park when looking at the options for that morning. Ridgefield is about a 25-minute drive for me which is doable, and I’ve done much of the trails there. I will go back and explore more of the trails on that last hike at Seth Low Pierrepont State park, as well as the Hemlock Hills trails. On the way up route 7 I’ve noticed signs for a few others like Bobby’s Court and Topstone Park. I get excited whenever I see a trailhead, and make a note to explore those when I get the chance.

One of the streams that feeds the pond

One of the streams that feeds the pond

Having the afternoon off last Wednesday and needing to clear my head of a lot of extra baggage, I was once again looking for a trail to explore. I thought about finishing the Housatonic Range trail in New Milford. But that is 5.7 miles, almost an hour away, and challenging enough that I just wasn’t sure I wouldn’t be racing the sunlight and hence moving too fast on the tough parts and risking injury.  One feature known as “Suicide Ledges” entails a 10-20ft scramble through and over large boulders and ledges as I understand it.

While I’m up for the challenge I was also concerned that time pressure and potential leftover ice and snow would make it unsafe without a hiking partner. I did try a few of my friends in the area but as it was mid week the best I could secure was a shuttle back to the start.

Topstone Mountain in the distance

Topstone Mountain in the distance

In hindsight it warmed up significantly by this time and I likely could have made it work but I think it’s always better to be safe than sorry. I’m a husband and a dad and bravado and risk taking doesn’t just affect me anymore. I’ve read way too many backcountry disaster stories to feel good about my decisions when I play it safe and wait for the right conditions to approach a challenge.

 

Along the pond edge before the climb

Along the pond edge before the climb

So I re-focused my attention on closer areas and looked up Topstone park in Redding. Right off Route 7 just east of Ridgefield, it was just over 20 minutes away and a very pleasant surprise. There is a large pond in the middle of the park, with a beachfront and canoes, kayaks, dinghies and what looked like a jumping platform.  The gate to this area was closed for the off-season though you are permitted to walk around it to enjoy the trails that circle the pond and above on the eastern and western hills and ridges.

Eastern view from Topstone Mtn

Eastern view from Topstone Mtn

I parked in the main lot and checked in on my alltrails app which has all of the trails marked within and I was on my way up the Saddleback trail. Also called ‘the west way’ as it climbs and follows the ridge of a 650ft hill due west of the lot. I was amused that the trails here were white-blazed like my favorite trail.  Technically this trail is east of the pond but facing due south in the lot it is indeed west. It climbs quickly up the hill then levels off as it skirts the edge of a wetland and a few homes in the woods before winding through more forest and over streams that feed the pond. This trail, known as Boulder Top, also has two connectors to a nearby road and eventually reaches the pond trail near the beach. This trail, or rather all the trails in this park, are white-blazed but well marked with fresh blazes and signs at each intersection.

Too bad no camping here!

Too bad no camping here!

I followed the pond trail around the perimeter, enjoying nice views of the beach and pond at water level. It reminded me of Sunfish pond on the A.T. in New Jersey. Another trail or two led up to the road from the pond trail before I reached the turn off to start the climb up to the views on Topstone Mountain. The Pond trail continues around the perimeter of the pond, but I planned to come back that way once I saw on my app that there was a trail known as the Base Trail which would bring me back from the summits on a connector midway up the mountain.

Beech in winter along the pond

Beech in winter along the pond

I headed up the Topstone trail and after going a bit past the next turnoff, turned around and found the next junction I missed. To be fair it was marked; I was just in the moment and walked past a little bit. I made the turn back up hill and climbed up the trail to the summit between large walls of rock that made up the base of the ledges I’d soon be standing on.  They were dramatic and very attractive to look at. My heartbeat began to pick up from the scenery as much as from the modest ascent. While only a few hundred feet in elevation gain, It was just as good as many a portion of the Appalachian Trail.

Beech in winter along the pond

Beech in winter along the pond

I reached the first viewpoint which looks east over the pond and beach below and took a break to process a few things while perched on the rocky ledge. I imagine in summer the scene below is one of much activity and that this spot too would have been occupied by a few of the more adventurous kids enjoying the day with their families.

Knowing there were more views to be had I moved on and took a left on the long view trail which leads .2 miles to the edge of another of the rocky prominences I saw on my walk up here. That view is known as long view and has an equally if not more impressive view all the way across Route 7 to the hills and farms of Ridgefield as well as south to West Redding’s other hills.

The Long View

The Long View

Here I sat longer under a pitch pine taking in what was indeed a long view and had a snack. My sadness I came to address had lifted and a big grin came across my face as I took it all in. Like the views at Pine Mountain or Seth Low Mountains in Ridgefield, these were no disappointment. They required only a small effort to reach and provided the kind of views you’d expect from larger hills and mountains.

Trail junction

Trail junction

I headed back down the other side of the mountain and picked up the Base trail which would bring me back to where I was previously but only briefly before I descended back to the pond trail. The base trail is aptly named as it follows along the base of the long high walls of rock that made up the mountain’s body. Here the temperature was at least twenty degrees cooler, as the cliffs shaded me from the sun, and I bathed in cool breezes.

The base trail follows the rocky ridgeline

The base trail follows the rocky ridgeline

I smiled again and recalled when we did a section in Beartown State Forest along the A.T. in Massachusetts which also skirted walls of rock caves and represented a significant temperature drop. Those caves were surely home to bears, and I did spot one small cave in the wall here but for obvious reasons opted not to try and get a closer look!  It was very unseasonably warm and in the mid 60s — hotter in the sun. So this small stretch was a nice relief not to mention quite beautiful.

Swimming spot

Swimming spot

After reaching the bottom I followed the pond trail along its western edge and past a small swimming area and the drainage causeway that emptied the pond into another large stream. Here there was the platform as I imagined to be for jumping from. I am not sure though as the pond empties just behind it and while there may be a grate, perhaps that would be too strong a current to swim next to. The trail then climbs back through woods to the parking lot of the beach area and then follows the entry road back to the lot I parked in.

Pond spillway

Pond spillway

It was a lovely hike, with nice views and just enough challenge. There were several spots in the forest where I wish I could have just set up my tent for the night , but that is obviously not allowed nor was an overnight in today’s plan or I would have gone elsewhere!  I highly recommend this park. I don’t recall the parking fees for the beach or if you have to be a resident, but if you just want to walk the trails I don’t think there’s any restrictions year round. I think the main issue would be finding parking on a nice weekend. That said you could access the trails from the side trails to the road I passed on my loop. I am sure they have small parking areas along the road for a car or two.

Miles: 4

— Linus

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A Day in the Life of a Trail Patroller: Winter Weekend Cleanups

The icy Housatonic below Bulls Bridge

The icy Housatonic below Bulls Bridge

When it’s not ridge runner season, I am out doing the volunteer equivalent of the role the rest of the year for my Connecticut AMC chapter. Doing so is how I found myself in the ridge runner role for the first time last summer! I love being outdoors, especially on the Appalachian Trail. And giving back and taking care of the trail, even when I’m not getting paid for it, is a pleasure and a privilege as well!

Since the new year I have managed to get out and address some trail issues twice — once in late January and also last weekend.

Stoney Brook

Stoney Brook

In January my buddy Ray from our Bull’s Bridge task force joined me for a quick hike out to the Ten Mile River campsites and shelter. This is a very popular camping area year round and often we find lots of fire rings here from those who like to rough it in winter and practice their skills. Of course, fires are not allowed on the A.T. in Connecticut. I suspect the rings we find along our section are primarily from local weekenders. Most thru hikers and backpackers have put in high miles and are exhausted by the time they get to camp so they opt for a quick boil of water on their stove to heat up their dinner and then go to bed.

Stoney Brook Group site side trail

Stoney Brook Group site side trail

I was pleasantly surprised not to find any fire rings at the campsite. However, in the privy was a bunch of dry wood someone had left there for a fire, which I had to clear. These hikers either opted against the fire or cleaned it up before they left which is better than not. There were also some nasty wipes in the duff can. This is not a trash can, it’s where we put soil and leaves (known as ‘duff’) for you to throw in the privy after you go to help the decomposition process. Since the bucket had no duff, I’ll assume these hikers didn’t know. Always pack it out though, especially wipes which don’t biodegrade for a long time no matter what they say.

Ice sheets from the ice dam

Ice sheets from the ice dam

We then went to the shelter and found a few trash items, and a few spots where there were clearly fires, as there were piles of ash in the mud in front of the shelter and evidence of burned logs. I got my work gloves nice and muddy cleaning that up, as the ash and all the dirt around it were very wet from recent snow and rain. The bench in front of the shelter was also stuck in the mud so we moved that a bit. There’s a great new picnic table there with one of the metal sheets on one end to put your stove on when you cook. It had a plaque on it indicating it was an Eagle Scout project. Thank you!  We checked the bear box for trash, and that the pump was working. Our broom at the shelter was broken so I packed it out with the other trash and let management know that would need replacing. The privy at the shelter was clean.

Heading up the campsite trail

Heading up the campsite trail

It wasn’t a long hike but it was nice as it always is, and the river was raging after the recent clearing of the ice dam that afflicted the Housatonic river in the Kent area, even closing part of the A.T. for a few weeks as well as many of the roads in town to access it.

Our overseer of trails was out in early February at Stewart Hollow Brook shelter and reported many more fire rings and wood stored under the shelter that was still all frozen to the ground. So last weekend with several warmer days behind us, I set out to clean these up as well as check in on the Stoney Brook campsites about half mile north. Both of these are also popular for locals and weekenders as they are close to a road, and the trail here is completely flat and along the river.  So we are often cleaning up things at both sites, though the shelter is more popular as it has a nicer privy and obviously the shelter and a picnic table.

Nature adapts

Nature adapts

I went first to the farthest campsite, Stoney Brook group campsites. Its about 50-60 feet up a side trail on a hill west of the trail. There were no fire rings here but there was some trash and a tree that had fallen and was blocking the privy path. So I cleared the tree and the trash and headed back south just across the brook to the side trail up to the individual campsites. This trail goes up a bit farther, with several campsites on tiers higher and higher up the hill. At campsite #2 there was a decent sized fire ring. I immediately scattered the rocks and once the ash was removed, I covered it with leaf matter to hopefully not let anyone else get the idea this would be a good spot for a fire. In fact, its where a tent is supposed to go!

Stoney Brook

Stoney Brook

At the privy, which is a brand new though still just a basic box with a seat (we call a ‘chum’ privy), I cleared a wet frozen roll of toilet paper left there. That’s very nice and all to leave toilet paper for the next hiker, but we all know it could be weeks before someone else comes, and rain and the elements will surely get to it first. Luckily for me it was frozen so I was able to remove it without a lot of mess. Pack it out please!

I then headed back to Stewart Hollow to tackle the big rings and stored wood. There was a very large one with multiple logs right next to the picnic table, and though still a bit frozen to the ground they had thawed enough where I could knock them loose. And that I did. I then scattered the burned logs and ash and covered the site with leaves. Of course I would never do this if it was still potentially warm… but that was not an issue today!

Please no fires on the CT AT

Please no fires on the CT AT

I moved onto two more elaborate fire rings in the other camping areas, complete with seats the people had made from stones taken from the nearby stone wall. So those stones went back and I did my best to cover these sites and make them less obvious and inviting. Much of the ash was still frozen so I removed what I could and covered the spots with leaves.  I then moved onto what were many very large logs and branches under the shelter. A few were stuck but I managed to get them loose and scatter them as well.

I had a snack and packed out any trash I found, and left a note in the shelter register regarding the task performed and a reminder of the rules. This was only two entries after the culprits’ entry bragging about their raging fires.

A favorite trail plant

A favorite trail plant

Thanks, guys. Glad you had a nice birthday celebration here, but rules are rules and best not to brag about it and leave your names? Maybe go to a campsite in New York or Massachusetts next time where they’re allowed… We’ve had several large brush fires along our section of trail each year from this kind of behavior — feel free to google it. We have the rules for a good reason. And its hard work clearing all of this.

On the hike back to the trailhead, myself and a day hiker noticed what looked like tire tracks. He was quite amusing and said it looked like someone brought a Harley out here. I suspect dirt bikes or mountain bikes with very fat tires. At the trailhead gate I was able to find the point of entry where they drove around.

Wood stored under the shelter I cleared

Wood stored under the shelter I cleared

So thanks to these guys we will likely be blocking the route with large rocks and trees. Trouble will always find a way to cause trouble of course, but we will do our best to make it very difficult for anyone to get a large or motorized bike out there again.  There are some great trails in Connecticut for mountain bikes and dirt bikes, I’m sure a quick google search would return quick results if that’s your preferred outdoor activity. Tires cause a lot of damage to the trail and the delicate wildlife that grows alongside it.

The riverbanks were lined with large sheets of ice — some the size of cars. This was all that remained of the ice dam. It was really an interesting sight.

Another thing I do after these hikes is report any large blowdowns or trail damage that our sawyer and trail crews need to address, as well as update our water report spreadsheet so hikers visiting our chapter page know if they have reliable water sources along their hike. All of the brooks were running at full force with all the recent rain and snow.

Beech in winter

Beech in winter

It was a brisk 33 degrees but felt downright balmy compared to the deep freeze of the recent weeks. I can’t believe as I write this in the end of February that it’s 65 degrees and will be 70 tomorrow!  I was able to get out on a short hike close to home today as I needed to clear my head of some tough recent events, and I was virtually sweating. What a beautiful February day. I will write up that hike as soon as I can. It was a new park for me and I was very pleasantly surprised to find another great local spot so close to home. I can’t always make it to the A.T. for my fix, so it’s a bonus to find these other options when I have less time.

Miles hike 1: 3

Miles hike 2: 4.8

— Linus