Taking a Hike: The Mohawk Trail bit-by-bit

A hike has a beginning and an end and a lot of walking in between. Often, you begin in the morning and end before dark — a day hike. Alternatively, you might begin in the spring and end as the leaves turn — a thru hike (of the very long-distance variety). On day hikes and thru hikes, when you are not actually putting boots to trail, you are doing hike-related things — resting, eating, fretting about your feet. A section-hike is different. When you tackle a trail bit-by-bit, you return to normal life in between. Section-hikes have a beginning and an end, and too much time in between when you would rather be out hiking.

When I took a hike on the Mohawk Trail in April, I had no plan that it would be the first of a series. I was just looking for a place for a Sunday trek. I parked near Cornwall Bridge, climbed Dark Entry Road and the sides of Bonney Brook, traversed Coltsfoot Mountain, and came down steeply into Cornwall Village. Then I walked back the way I’d come. There was much to enjoy on this walk in the spring sunshine — a cascading brook and a tranquil one, a wooded mountain, a broad meadow. But when I got back to my car, I thought that my hike was done, that it already had both beginning and end.  

A month later, the air now thick and buggy, I returned to the Mohawk Trail. I parked at the entrance to Mohawk State Forest on Route 4 and set off once again for Cornwall Village. Mohawk is an unclosed loop, both ends attached to the Appalachian Trail (AT). In April, I’d hiked counterclockwise on my outward leg; today, clockwise, back to where that first outward leg had ended. It was an assorted hike, beginning with a slow climb to a view of leafed-up hills stretching away to the Taconic Mountains. I crossed the top of Mohawk Mountain’s silent ski runs and descended to Cathedral Pines Preserve (the pines, devastated by tornadoes in 1989, are not what they once were, but they retain magnificence). Next, a country lane to Cornwall Village and a rest on the same bench I had rested on in April, overlooking the flat-bottomed, steep-sided valley running south from the village, now become a lush green.

Somewhere on the return leg to my car, I decided to make a project of the Mohawk Trail; and to tidy things up, I drove to Cornwall Bridge and hiked the 1.2 miles of Mohawk to Bread Loaf Mountain, where Mohawk and AT meet. I had now completed a little under half the Mohawk Trail (twice! — out and back). I knew that I’d return for more, and that my hike had begun in April but had not ended yet.

Now that Mohawk was a project, I collected more details about the Trail. It runs for 25.7 miles, winding from Sharon to Canaan but almost entirely within Cornwall. Its route was part of the AT until the AT was moved west of the Housatonic River 30 or more years ago. Mohawk today is a blue-blazed trail in the Connecticut Forest & Park Association system. But what about its name? The Mohawk, after all, are a people of upstate New York. The Trail, I assumed, was named for Mohawk Mountain, but that just changed the question: Why “Mohawk” Mountain?

Another people — the Mahicans — inhabited northwest Connecticut, and these Mahicans gave the Mohawk their name — Maw Unk Lin, bear people, mangled by the Dutch into “Mohawk”. The Mahicans and other tribes of Connecticut seem to have feared the warlike Mohawk and used a hill with big views to watch for, and signal, raids arriving from north and west. The hill is Mohawk Mountain, but I wonder how on earth the Mahicans could detect anything moving in the thick, unbroken forest that covered the land.   

Two months later, I returned to the thick forest for my third Mohawk hike. So far, the Trail had provided a constantly changing scene — pretty brooks and mountain views, a rustic valley and country lanes, majestic pines and ski lifts. This section was different; it provided, well, forest. True, on Red Mountain there is a spacious ledge open to the sky and the surrounding scene. But, two or three miles farther on, promisingly-named Overlook (1,428 feet) overlooked nothing. The rewards of this section were hummingbirds, brilliant fungi, and an occasional cool breeze. Its trials were bugs and blowdowns.       

After this third outing, what remained of Mohawk was too much to undertake in one shift. Hiking alone, out and back, doubled all mileage. But Katie — my eldest and frequent trail companion — came to the rescue. “Do you want to hike on Sunday?” she asked. Of course I did, and so on a mild and overcast morning last month we set off to finish the Mohawk Trail.

The final section had a sting in its tail. At first, we walked again in a uniform forest, broken only by a single swamp. Then, after the rain-swollen waterfalls of Dean Ravine, we turned north for Outlook Point with only two miles to go. And what a slog and sweat and scramble the Point turned out to be, just when we were ready for an air-conditioned car. It was as well that the fine view from the top provided a fitting end to four-month section-hike.  

Rob McWilliams, a local resident and author. Taking a Hike appears eight times a year. Contact Rob at McWilliams Takes a Hike, blog and Facebook. He’d love to hear from you.