by Rob McWilliams
The Little River is almost entirely a Redding river. Its furthest headwaters, north of Putnam Memorial State Park, sneak into Bethel; but otherwise the river occupies a valley between Redding ridges. We see this valley most spectacularly on the steep down-up drive from Redding Center to Redding Ridge on Cross Highway. The Newtown and Black Rock turnpikes also touch the Little River, but elsewhere its short, hurried course to Saugatuck Reservoir passes through remarkably undeveloped land. Protection is provided by state forest and park; a Town of Redding preserve; Redding Land Trust parcels; and private land generously opened for a trail. Early this month, feeling not exactly as Lewis and Clark may have at the mouth of the great Missouri, I set out to explore the Little River.
I planned to walk upstream, first through Samuel E. Hill Little River Preserve. “The Book of Trails” (Redding’s guide to its open lands) advertises this preserve nicely – “it has more than a little of a lot of good things.” On my drive to these good things, I stopped beside Newtown Turnpike to take a first look at the Little River from the footbridge that takes the Saugatuck Trail across it. It was pretty as well as little, a stream of rocks and riffles, its peace barely disturbed by the turnpike’s morning traffic. From here, the river has only a quarter-mile to run. But since the Saugatuck Trail does not keep it company to the reservoir, I returned to my car and set out to find the Little River farther north.
My plan for the Little River Preserve was to follow its Rivulus trail to Cross Highway, turning onto a few side trails to take in those “good things” – swamp, ledge, hardwood upland. This plan was thwarted immediately. The Book of Trails had proudly announced a “splendid new footbridge” carrying the Rivulus trail across the river. A trailhead sign announced it had washed out. I pushed on regardless, and was rewarded with a 30-minute ramble – Rivulus and Quercus trails – to the spot where the splendid bridge once stood. The morning was chilly and bright, the forest floor streaked with trunk shadows. The Little River itself ran shallow and clear between banks of mossy stones. Shallow, but too deep to cross dry-shod.
An hour later, I stood on the opposite bank, at the other end of the now departed bridge. I got there by driving to Cross Highway and hiking Rivulus from the north. I do not recommend this, and neither do Redding’s trail gurus (their signs warn that the trails approaching the old bridge site are not being maintained). You would, anyway, need to be in a bullheaded mood to push beyond the trailhead. If the mire underfoot does not put you off, the thorns should. They scraped at my jacket, stole my wooly hat, and seemed to want to pull me down into the mire and hold me there in their prickly embrace. Bullheadedly, I pushed on. I learned only later (from one of those Redding trail gurus) that, while there are no plans as yet to replace the bridge, you can still reach Cross Highway through Little River Preserve – just follow the Equus Trail to Crossfield Scenic Area.
North of Cross Highway is the 2.6-mile Little River North Trail, much of it in state forest. I hiked it north-south, and back again, four days after battling the thorns. It was a different proposition from the first outing – a purposeful, point-to-point trail, without complications of navigation. The day was different too; heading toward 60 degrees, the breeze cool not cold. First, there was a descent from Sunset Hill to Black Rock Turnpike, where a rustic bridge takes the trail across the Little River, here looking younger and swifter. Next, some up-and-down, ending at a swamp. The Little River must flow through or beside this marsh, although I could not see it. It was a beautiful place in the cloud-filtered sunshine, cattails reflecting in reed-choked water. (Photos of the swamp, and the hikes as a whole, can be found at “McWilliams Takes a Hike” on Facebook.)
South of John Read Road (a track), I met the river again, and we stayed together all the way to Cross Highway. She – surely she – is a little beauty here; clear, lively, and bright. I lingered where she gurgled over a line of rocks, all that was left of a farmer’s stone wall of long ago. Riverside debris, and that washed-out bridge downstream, said that our little beauty has darker moods. Not today, and as we arrived at the open fields by Cross Highway, a flight of cardinals swooped joyfully over her.
A short distance above the northernmost section of the Little River North Trail lie the ponds in and about Putnam park. They are the source of the Little River. The northernmost of them, just inside Bethel, is called Little River Pond. It lies just outside the park, a stone’s throw from what may have been the powder store for General Israel Putnam’s winter camp of 1778-9. I would have liked to finish my Little River hikes at the pond. But I ran out of time before I ran out of river.
|IF YOU GO …|
|LITTLE RIVER PRESERVE||LITTLE RIVER NORTH|
|PARKING||On road, on Tunxis Trail (off Mattatuck Trail, off Newtown Turnpike) and Cross Highway.||On road, on Pheasant Ridge (off Sunset Hill Road) and Cross Highway.|
|DISTANCE||The preserve has 2.9 miles of trail.||5.6 miles roundtrip.|
|DURATION||I spent 1.75 hrs in the preserve.||Just over 2 hrs, roundtrip|
|MAP||The Book of Trails IV.||The Book of Trails IV.|