Taking a Hike: The Den’s Big Little Places

Once upon a time I hiked at the Devil’s Den almost weekly. That was back when my daughters were small and I worked a corporate job. The Den was a great place to get the girls outside, or get just myself outside, escaping the hubbub of home, office, and Metro-North for an hour or two. The Den provided recreation in the primary sense of the word, an essential restoring of mind and body. It was only fitting that my first Taking a Hike column, published in December 2012, was about walking to the Den’s Great Ledge.

After my girls grew too big to be dragged along on hikes, and – mostly – I began to work my own hours from my own home, I stopped visiting the Den as often. It wasn’t that I had fallen out of love with it, just that now I had the chance to try less familiar, farther off hiking places. And how could anyone fall out of love with the Den? It is 1,756 acres of wild land plumb in the middle of Fairfield County, land that could maybe have become 1,756 homes with big yards. What a miracle that, instead, it is a place where – as my wife and a daughter discovered this summer – you might meet a lazy bear out enjoying the warm evening woods just as you are.

Like any public open space – from vast national parks to tiny preserves – the Den has its favored places, the hot spots to which visitors gravitate. In the Den, first among them is Godfrey Pond, an old mill pond nestled among rocky, wooded slopes. A loop around Godfrey is an easy outing from the Den’s Pent Road parking area. Next, there is the Great Ledge, subject of that first Taking a Hike column. The Ledge is an hour’s trek north from Godfrey, a trek rewarded with fine views from a 100-foot cliff. Ambler Gorge, on the Den’s west side, is another popular destination. Here, after rainfall, Ambler Brook tumbles into wetlands by way of a boulder-filled chasm.

These places deserve their popularity, but when I returned to the Den last week it was to seek out its lesser attractions, the little places whose small-scale beauty had rewarded my years of Den-walking. The Den, of course, is not a uniform expanse of unexciting woods dotted with a handful of worthwhile destinations. The Den is the destination, all of it. It’s an experience brewed from tranquility, ever-changing leaf color, boulder-scapes, mosses, lichens, water, and countless other ingredients. But if you are like me, you like to hike to something. So enjoy the Den along the trails that lead to these unsung places.

THE BEAT-UP BRIDGES OF THE WIELH TRAIL: The Wielh Trail is a Den byway, a short, narrow path between better trod routes. But along its brief length it crosses not one, but two streams. Walking Wielh in a westerly direction, the first is Sap Brook; but it is the second crossing – of the West Branch of the Saugatuck River – that I especially like. Even last week, with the drought-stricken river scarcely flowing at all, it was a pleasant, secluded spot to hang about. The bridges are an essential part of the charm, so aged and weathered that they seem a part of the natural forest. Come here after we have had a soaking rain; the sight and sound of the running brook will sooth you.         


THE GULLY ON ENSOR’S TRACE: Ensor’s Trace (a trail) runs into Redding from the northwest corner of the Den. You can access the Trace from Redding’s Brinckerhoff Preserve. But I reached it through the Den, and walked only a short distance along it. Soon after it leaves the Donahue Trail, Ensor’s Trace crosses a headwater of Ambler Brook, and the brook flows (if there has been rain!) out of a pretty gully. Stay on the Trace a few yards more, and you come out above the gully, and to another big little place. Even on a cloudy day last week, the little canyon wore eye-catching, though modest colors – the copper of newly fallen leaves, dark green moss, jade-hued lichens, gray tree bark. On my hike back to the parking area, already well pleased with my outing, a scruffy coyote added to my satisfaction by loping across the trail 50 yards in front of me, apparently oblivious to my presence.

THE LEDGES ON HILTEBEITEL: Much of the Hiltebeitel Trail runs along a ridge (it’s a great place for sunsets, especially in winter). Hiltebeitel boasts several outcrops of bare rock, where you can enjoy sky and a sense of space. I nearly always hike Hiltebeitel north-south, and it is the first outcrop you meet coming from the north that I especially like. I am not sure why. It’s a modest enough clearing, carpeted with lichen and low brush; but sitting there a while soothes, re-creates in fact.

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 Pent Road, Weston.
TRAIL MAP Maps may be available at the parking area. Alternatively, download the PDF on The Nature Conservancy website. THE DEN  HIGHLY RECOMMENDS THAT HIKERS CARRY A MAP.
LOCATIONS (1) WIELH TRAIL: between trail posts 15 and 14 (see map).

(2) ENSOR’S TRACE: runs north from trail post 81.

(3) HILTEBEITEL TRAIL: between trail posts 38 and 20.

DISTANCE & TIME None of the “little places” described in this article demand more than 2 hours / 4 miles of hiking, roundtrip.