Over the years, the highways from home to Hartford have become very familiar to me. They’ve been part of trips to my kids’ colleges, sometimes to a business meeting, and, for some time now, to my eldest daughter’s home in the capital. I won’t say that they have become like old friends; they’re too dull for that. The scenery beside Route 15 and Interstates 91 and 84 is unobjectionable but rarely inspiring.
Over the same years, the range of my hikes and grasp of Connecticut geography have grown too, and I’ve developed the habit on tedious car journeys of recognizing geography along the way, especially geography where I have hiked or would like to hike — “There is Mount Higby on the Mattabesett Trail” or “That’s West Rock Ridge above the tunnel entrance,” I tell myself.
The Naugatuck Valley has fitted into this entertainment in a slightly different way. One day long ago, stuck in traffic on the Merritt Parkway, I turned on to Route 8 looking for a faster drive to Hartford. I did indeed make better progress but then, north of Beacon Falls, I noticed something else — the scenery had grown, well, kind of inspiring. Here, for a few miles, craggy, wooded hills tighten on the Naugatuck River and the highway, and the bored driver can imagine himself somewhere wild and remote.
Thereafter, I sometimes chose Route 8 and the Naugatuck Valley as my Hartford route just for the pleasure of driving that scenic stretch; and at some point I learned that winding into those craggy, wooded hills was the Naugatuck Trail. I made a mental note to hike it; and recently I did.
The hills that squeeze the Naugatuck River from west and east are part of Naugatuck State Forest. The Naugatuck Trail — another Connecticut Forest & Park Association blue-blazed trail — lies east of the river in the towns of Beacon Falls and Bethany. The Naugatuck Trail is 5.2 miles in length. My plan was to start at Route 8 and hike 4.6 miles east, then take the short side-trail to Beacon Cap. The Cap — a summit of 775 feet — promised a view and a glacial boulder. Then, since the Naugatuck Trail is a point-to-pointer, I’d retrace my steps.
I set out for the Naugatuck Trail, on a frigid morning, with modest expectations. Although the hills could be imagined wild and remote, they are no such thing. The Naugatuck Valley is populated and boasts a long manufacturing history — brass, rubber, and chemicals, now yielded to deindustrialization. I feared that the town of Naugatuck, in particular, might feel cheek by jowl with my hike.
At first, my fears seemed justified. The first half-mile of trail tracked the four lanes of Route 8, though even here amid the roar of traffic rugged nature commanded the attention at least as much as the works of man. Route 8 and the — hidden — Naugatuck River wound through their gorge and, beside the trail, yard-long icicles grew from the rock face. Then, at Egypt Brook, the trail swung east and quickly climbed 300 feet and more, leaving the din of traffic far below.
Next, for two miles, the trail was pleasant, but without offering wow! moments. It meandered among the forest hilltops, surprisingly flat in sections. Beauty was in unshowy things — hazy sunshine, stands of proud conifers, luminous moss on a dead trunk, the bright bark of a half-fallen birch. Once or twice, the buildings of Naugatuck showed below through the bare branches, but hundreds of feet below and little sound filtered up.
Abruptly, the trail arrived at a wider track, signposted as the Whittemore Trail which, if I followed it, would lead me down to Route 42. But I kept to my path and entered woods with a new feel about them — higher, airier, ledgy, a few almost-views. Turning on to the Beacon Cap Trail, this promise was fulfilled as the low surrounding hills and clearing sky began to dominate the scene. A quarter-mile on, an obvious summit appeared ahead, nothing beyond it but deep blue sky decorated lightly with high, veil-thin clouds. Sitting on the summit was a lonely boulder.
There is nothing superlative about Beacon Cap, not elevation, nor panorama or isolation. Even that glacial boulder is equalled in size many times across our state. But the Cap was a fine place to linger. The day had brightened and sun, bare rock, and windlessness made it feel warmer than the 30 degrees the mercury would likely have read. The Cap is a small bald and I ambled around it eating an apple and making sure I saw what views it offered. They would be best from on top of the boulder, I thought — ten feet higher! But the clamber looked awkward and I gave up easily.
Walkers do scale the boulder — younger, braver ones than me perhaps; or those with a friend to give them a push-up. Another time. Now I headed back to the Naugatuck Trail and the miles through the woods to the craggy gorge of the Naugatuck River.
*Editor’s Note: Bald is a treeless, rocky summit.