Taking A Hike: The view from Peoples State Forest

What is your favorite Connecticut state park? Readers of this column will likely have one. Sherwood Island for a stroll beside the Sound? Maybe Sleeping Giant for a hair-raising scramble up a huge traprock head? For me, it’s the secluded wooded valley and enveloping hills of Macedonia Brook west of Kent.

Now, what about your favorite state forest? Harder. State forests don’t get much hiker recognition. We walk the Appalachian Trail, not thinking about Housatonic State Forest which it passes through. If we hike at Squantz Pond, we may forget that the woods there belong to a forest called Pootatuck. My column this month will give pride of place to a state forest and make the bold claim that it contains one of Connecticut’s very best views. Here we go.

Peoples State Forest in Barkhamsted is, for Fairfield County folk, a bit off the beaten track. It took 18 years of Connecticut residence before I hiked in its majestic woods. The forest isn’t particularly big and contains no celebrated hills to lure the hiker. As for Barkhamsted, it is a town of villages, home to just 3,700 inhabitants. All I knew about Barkhamsted before I visited was that these inhabitants run into bears far more often than most Connecticuters.

Late last month, I had a Saturday appointment in the Hartford area to help my eldest daughter move from one apartment to another. This was good exercise in itself, hefting furniture downstairs and maneuvering it upstairs. There was energy-sapping anxiety too when we drove a box spring — only loosely secured to the roof rack of my car — 10 miles down I-84. By the time the moving was done, I was starting to feel that my plan to take a hike on my way home was not such a good idea, especially as getting to Peoples State Forest would involve a mighty detour. I could, after all, go home directly and lie down.

But I knew that if I hiked I would feel sharper soon enough, and instead of I-84 homeward I took Route 44 northwest, and in 45 minutes arrived at the Barkhamsted village of Pleasant Valley beside the West Branch Farmington River. Now, this river bisects the state forest in Barkhamsted, dividing Peoples (east) from American Legion (west). Even if you have no plan to hike, the river north of Pleasant Valley is special. The West Branch flows through a deep, cool cleft, a natural tranquilizer of a place.

Five months before, on a frigid late-winter’s day, I had set off on a clockwise loop from the same trailhead beside the West Branch that I was using today. The loop had begun with a lung-testing climb. Today, since I was feeling drained, I hoped for a gentler start, and set off in the counterclockwise direction. It was indeed a little gentler, but the trail still climbed quickly, leaving the river — soon invisible — far below.

The trail leveled out 400 feet above the river, and on this high ground I knew there was a swamp. Back in March, I had stopped beside it and, even as a frosty wind nipped my skin, had admired its beauty. Now I wanted to see its summer self. I crossed Beaver Brook and turned onto a side trail to reach the swamp. It had changed. The surrounding woods were now a uniform green, and the reeds had lost their winter brown. Lily pads floated where before there was black ice. The wind did not nip me now, but bugs did.

Now I rounded the swamp — Beaver Brook Meadow by name — on the Charles Pack Trail, and wondered if the evening might bring out a Barkhamsted bear. But it brought out only more mosquitoes, and I looked forward to a breeze on the open ledges that I knew awaited. When they came, they did not disappoint.  

The first offered views to the north, upriver. They were fine views. Though somewhat obscured by trees, there below was a silver-gray length of the West Branch and the village of Riverton. But it was the next ledge, a short walk down the trail, that wiped away any last vestiges of tiredness or doubts about the wisdom of my hike. This ledge was a big, sloping slab commanding unobstructed views down a perfectly wooded valley bounded by perfectly wooded hills as far as the eye could see. In the bottom of the valley, at the foot of the cliffs on top of which I sat, the shady line of the  river ran through it. It was, I thought, definitely one of Connecticut’s best views.


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 East River Road, Barkhamsted CT (GPS: 41.942672, -73.007466).
DISTANCE A little under 5 miles.
DURATION Allow 3 hours.
MAP Available at the trailhead from ct.gov/deep
ROUTE Falls Cut Off, Jessie Gerard, Charles Pack, Agnes Bowen, and Robert Ross trails (or the other way around).
WHAT TO TAKE Water, snacks, bug repellant. Pets on a leash are permitted.