Taking a Hike: Up Mohawk Mountain, but not by ski lift

I once praised in this column the virtues of trying something new. Overcome fear of disappointment, I said, and head somewhere you have not hiked before, even if it does not come with other people’s five-star ratings. I still have trouble taking my own advice. When I started studying the maps for the last miles of the Mattatuck Trail, I noticed things that might disappoint me. Hmm, those roads to cross and to walk along, how would they feel? What about the summit lookout towers, and the ski runs at the end of the trail? A magnificent November hike in the unspoiled Taconic Mountains was fresh in my memory. Would the Mattatuck Trail pale in comparison?

The day after Christmas, I drove through the dawn up routes 7, 202, and 45, noticing how the remnants of a week-old snow grew with the miles north and the elevation gained. By the backroads of Warren and Cornwall, these remnants were quite substantial. But also by this point, I began to like the look of the land. It was inhabited, definitely, but there was a high and isolated feel to it as if forest and swamp were big players around here.

About sunrise, I parked where the Mattatuck Trail crosses Flat Rocks Road. If I took the trail south, it would lead me – eventually, and with two breaks in its course to deal with – to Wolcott, by Waterbury. But I went the other way, into Mohawk State Forest, crunching through several inches of icy snow. It was well below freezing, but the rising sun cast a warm glow over a wooded summit off to the northwest.

In half an hour I came to College Street, a country lane. I expected the Mattatuck Trail’s blue blazes to direct me next up a straight dirt road called Perkins. Instead, they turned right and, after five minutes beside tarmac, veered into the woods and took a wandering line. The line straightened at a wood of leaning birch, where bark and snow shone in the brightening sun. There was something Russian about the scene, as if a band of Cossacks might step out of the trees at any moment to block my passage. But none did, and I kicked on through the snow.

Clearly, the Mattatuck Trail had been rerouted since my map was published, but now it met a well-defined track, a section of its old Perkins Road route. The track ran downhill to an expanse of ice the color of watered-down milk. The ice was bounded with patches of sunlit bronze reeds and dotted sparsely with stumps in various states of decay. The misted ice fuzzily reflected the encircling bare and evergreen trees. There was a snow-blotched hump of debris beside one bank, a beaver lodge probably. I thought this must be a well-known beauty spot, but the maps show only a swamp and give it no name.

Back to a narrow, meandering, up-and-down path, the snow underfoot draining my energy faster than dirt would have. The trail came to Camp Road, one of the road-walks I had feared would disappoint me. I liked it. It was as tranquil as the trail, and the frozen-dirt surface was an easier walk. The track down to Mohawk Pond, however, was pure, thick ice, demanding the microspikes that fortunately I had brought with me.

Mohawk Pond marked a change of terrain. Before it, the hike, though sometimes up and down, had gained little elevation overall. Beyond it, the Mattatuck Trail climbed 500 feet to the summit of Mohawk Mountain. The summit was visible behind the pond, distinguished by a slender mast, a squat dish-covered tower, and a swathe of cleared land on an otherwise forested ridge. All this was lost to sight when the trail looped east to approach the mountain circuitously. Indeed, most of everything was lost to sight except the trees of Mohawk State Forest. But the viewless climb – which twice used iced-over sections of a woods road – was strenuous but not exhausting, and still brought with it the pleasant airiness of elevation.     

The summit came suddenly; a glimpse of the squat tower through the trees, followed by arrival at the manmade bald. It was a shabby place with a great view. I gravitated to the north side of the summit, the side that looked 20 miles across the winter Litchfield Hills to the blue-gray silhouette of the Taconics. Six weeks ago, in those mountains, I’d rested on rocks to drink in just this kind of scene. Not here! All morning the temperature had been a degree or two either side of 20, but I’d stayed warm. Now, 1,683 feet up without protecting trees, the weak breeze threatened to set me shivering. Winter hikes keep you moving.

Normally, having hiked 5.4 miles to a mountaintop, I would turn around and head back. But Mohawk Mountain is not the end of the Mattatuck Trail, which I had set as my objective. Objectives can be strict, unreasonable masters, and this one demanded a 1.4-mile postscript-trek to the top of the ski runs, where skiers were pulled effortlessly up Mohawk Mountain and slid smoothly down it. I returned to my car the ponderous, low-tech way. But I did use every available road to cut some corners.

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 Flat Rocks Rd at Great Hollow Rd S, Cornwall (roadside, limited).
DISTANCE Something over 12 miles roundtrip.
DURATION Just over 6 hours.
MAP The CFPA’s Connecticut Walk Book West is now out of print and out of date for this section, but the trail is well blazed.
ROUTE Mattatuck Trail north to where it ends at the Mohawk Trail; then back, cutting corners on woods roads and country lanes.
WHAT TO TAKE In winter conditions, strong boots, microspikes, trekking poles, plenty of layers, warm hat, food and water.