Connecticut's own John Muir Trail

by Rob McWilliams

The forest had been peaceful, but beautiful only in bits – the brightly rippling river; the stands of pine rising tall from an understory of mountain laurel; a glimpse of the wooded hump of a hill. Mostly the forest was, well, tree trunks; and broken-off bits of timber littering the ground, uncovered as yet by snow worth the name. But, an hour into my walk, I came to a pond, and it was undeniably pretty. I pushed through the undergrowth to reach its reedy shore, and stepped gingerly onto its young ice to get a better view. It was shallow, sand-brown reeds growing even in the middle. The forest surrounded it, part evergreen, part bare hardwood. From my vantage point, there was no sign of human habitation. It was the kind of place where you could think yourself deep in the wilderness.

I was in fact in Paugnut State Forest, up in Torrington. The rippling river had been the East Branch of the Naugatuck; the wooded hump, Walnut Mountain. Though the trails at the pond did not quite fit with those on my rudimentary map, I decided this was Burr Pond. I had read something about it. It was named for Milo Burr, who in 1851 dammed some upland brooks to power his sawmills. The forest was named for Chief Paugnut, about whom the only thing that seems to be known is that he was “the last Indian of this region.” I am sure he predated Milo by many generations.

A third name from history accompanied me on this walk too. About the time that Milo was building his dam, an immigrant boy from Scotland was helping his father hew out a farm 800 miles to the west in Wisconsin.

In 1860, the boy, now 22, left home, traveling to Madison, Wisc., on the new railroad. Before long he took to his feet, wandering the Midwest and Ontario on “botanizing” trips, and making a living in manufacturing, to which his inventive mind was well suited. In 1867-8, he walked from Indiana to Florida, sailed on to Cuba and San Francisco, and walked for the first time into the California sierra.

He was, of course, John Muir, father of wilderness conservation and founder of the Sierra Club. There is, naturally, a hiking trail named after him in the Sierra Nevada. It is 215 miles long, and ends on the summit of Mount Whitney, the highest mountain in the Lower 48.

As far as I know, Muir visited Connecticut only to collect, aged 73, an honorary degree from Yale. But that’s no reason not to name a Connecticut trail after him, and the path through Paugnut State Forest is also a John Muir Trail. It is one hundredth as long as its flashy Californian cousin, and tops out at a modest 1,200 feet. Yet I failed to complete it.

It should have given me a clue that the reedy pond did not look like a mill pond, that its volume of water would not generate enough power to saw anything much. Believing it to be Burr Pond, however, I started to follow the trail around it, looking for more good views. This would be the Wolcott Trail, I thought, the path that, according to my map, circled Burr Pond, staying mostly close to its banks. But instead the trail headed off into the woods, leaving the pond behind. It was not my plan anyway to go all the way around Burr Pond (a 2.5 mile loop) and after a while I stopped, sat at the base of a tree to eat a sandwich, and went back the way I’d come. It was only later, back at home, studying better maps, that I realized I had stopped short of Burr Pond, missing out on a few hundred yards of JMT.

I retraced my steps to the reedy pond, and saw now that two homes stood on its west side, dispelling my illusion of wilderness. The pond, I checked later, is just an unnamed swamp, too trivial for the map I carried to record.

Still, I admired it again, and then admired too the trail through straight pines that came next. Half a mile on, I left the John Muir Trail for the track up Walnut Mountain. I had read about “seasonal views”, and this would be the right season, wouldn’t it? On the flat summit, there was indeed a wooded ridge on the eastern horizon, but it was obscured by Walnut Mountain’s own branches and twigs . Still, I found a rock under the bright blue sky where, among twisted trees, I sat to finish my lunch. Not the High Sierra, but much better than being indoors.

Rob McWilliams is a local resident. Taking a Hike appears monthly. Contact Rob at “McWilliams Takes a Hike”, blog and Facebook. He’d love to hear from you.


PARKING Sunnybrook State Park parking lot, Newfield Road, Torrington CT
DISTANCE The John Muir Trail is 2.1 miles each way; Walnut Mountain side trail is 0.3 miles each way.
DURATION I was out for 3 hours, 45 minutes.
MAP Connecticut Forest & Park Association (CFPA) Walk Book West. However, the CT DEEP Paugnut State Forest map gives a better idea of the features of the land.
WHAT TO TAKE Boot chains helped a lot with the glaze of icy snow.