Taking A Hike: Connecticut's Wild Corner

For a small and densely populated state, Connecticut – as I hope this column has shown over the years – possesses many fine places to hike. But for me, the finest of all lies in the far northwest of the state, occupying about a quarter of the town of Salisbury. This is Connecticut’s wild corner, high and rugged, a slice of the Taconic Mountains untouched by asphalt or subdivisions. Summit ledges, free of all but stunted forest, offer Big Sky views.

The Wild Corner is formed by the right angle of the New York and Massachusetts state lines. It comprises a plateau and an escarpment. The plateau – between 1,800 and 2,000 feet above sea level – extends east from New York and tumbles over the 1,000-foot escarpment into Salisbury’s settled parts. Along the corner’s northern edge – the Massachusetts line – are rounded summits and the dark fissure of Sages Ravine. The Wild Corner is traversed by a half-dozen trails and one dirt road.

My plan was simple: hike the corner east to west – scale the escarpment, round Bear Mountain (the highest summit in Connecticut at 2,316 feet), weave along the Massachusetts line over a couple more peaks, and end in New York at the top of another big slope. Then I’d return by the same route. The weather forecast for November 18th was perfect, and I was more than usually excited for this outing. I calculated the distance  at 12 or 13 miles, and since the days were shortening fast, I left home well before dawn to be at the trailhead around  sunrise.

The predawn rise, the long drive up to Salisbury, and probably overdoing the breakfast pastries en route, had left me feeling out of sorts at the trailhead, impatiently stuffing my needs for the day into my pack and making a meal of tightening my bootlaces. But there is nothing to beat a steep climb to sort you out, and by the time I reached the plateau somewhere along Paradise Lane Trail, my mind was at peace and the pastries were burned off. It helped that I love Paradise Lane, love how it skirts a swamp beneath the hump of Bear Mountain. Today the hump rose into a cloudless sky marked only with a pale, waning moon.

Paradise Lane meets the Appalachian Trail at the top of Sages Ravine. Taken south, the A.T. scales Bear Mountain and follows the escarpment edge to Lions Head, four miles distant. But my plan was to find Northwest Road, a trail I knew only from maps. They showed it departing the A.T. before the latter begins seriously to ascend Bear. There was no sign pointing out Northwest Road, and no blazes on it; but it was obvious enough, a wide gap in the woods heading around Bear instead of up it. Oh joy!

An easy hike along Northwest Road ended at a cabin in pinewoods, the sun climbing behind them but barely illuminating their shadow. The cabin had a ramshackle, fairytale quality, as if three bowls of porridge might be steaming on a table inside. It would be hikers’ porridge though; this was the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Northwest Camp, open all year to any who reserve. No one was about, and I pushed on.

I came to Mount Washington Road, a dirt, north-south route over the plateau. You can drive it in the warmer months, and there is (limited) trailhead parking along it. I crossed over, picking up the Mount Frissell Trail more or less opposite where Northwest Road had deposited me. Soon the trail began to climb the steep, but mercifully short, flank of Round Mountain; and on the way up, the first big views appeared, soon followed by more. First, 50 miles of Massachusetts stretched north, from adjacent Mount Everett to the twin humps of Mount Greylock just a few miles short of Vermont. A scramble to the summit of Round Mountain, and the scene switched south – over Riga Lake, off the plateau, down the Connecticut-New York line through hazy hills. West stood the ledgy curve of Mount Frissell, rising into that cloudless sky beneath that same pale, gibbous moon.

Mount Frissell is well known to local outdoor types. Its fame has little to do with its qualities, which are unremarkable. Similar mounts around it – Gridley, Plantain, Ashley – draw little attention. No, Frissell, whose summit is in Massachusetts, is known because of a point on its southern slope that happens to be the highest place in Connecticut (at 2,379 feet, 63 feet higher than the top of Bear Mountain). The Mount Frissell Trail takes the hiker right to the high point, by way of a steep col and Frissell’s wooded, viewless summit. But it’s where the trail goes next that is best.

Keep going and you reach a steep west-facing ledge. Plant your feet firmly and look up. If you have as clear a day as I had, the jagged gray line of the Catskills, 40 miles off beyond the Hudson, will be visible. Descend the ledge, pass the marker where three states meet, and reach the western edge of the plateau. There is clear ground here and the same huge westerly view. Rest and return.          

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 Undermountain trailhead, CT Route 41, 3mi north Salisbury (70 miles from Ridgefield via routes 7 and 112).
DISTANCE About 12.5 miles
DURATION I was out for 8 hours.
MAP South Taconic Trails by the NY-NJ Trail Conference
ROUTE Undermountain Trail, Paradise Lane Trail, Northwest Road, and Mount Frissell Trail to lookout on South Taconic Trail just north of Brace Mountain. Return by same route.
WHAT TO TAKE Be prepared with warm clothing, although I did not need mine. Take food and water; map and compass; and a headlamp in case you get delayed.