Hitting the trails

Here's the thing about hiking: you don't really have to be good at it to enjoy it.

There's no special technique to walking and enjoying the scenery. And gear? You just need a good pair of sneakers and comfortable clothes; even old jeans will do.

Hiking is truly a versatile physical activity that anyone can enjoy. That's because a hike can be anything you want it to be; strenuous exercise, with lots of steep climbs and magnificent views atop a hill, or a gentle stroll on flat, wide terrain with the promise of a picnic at the end.

Even at its most low-key, hiking can help get your heart rate up (a good thing) and, by getting you away from the bustle of daily life for even just a little bit, decompress. It's never too late to get started. You can log onto The Day's Hiking Guide at www.theday.com/hiking and see what appeals to you.

Hiking is so low-maintenance you may not even need cash to do it, since most of the parks in southeastern Connecticut are free.

During the summer months, though, it's a good idea to bring a bottle of water to stay hydrated. And spray on that mosquito repellant, as the little buggers aren't shy about greeting you on the trails (back home, be sure to check yourself for ticks; Lyme Disease was, after all, discovered in this neck of the woods).

There are so many different types of hiking trails in Connecticut you're guaranteed to find one, or more, that suits your physical prowess. Are you normally a couch potato who prefers to drive rather than walk the half mile to the convenience store to get milk? Then you may want to start with a short, easy and breathtakingly beautiful walk on the lawns of Harkness Memorial State Park in Waterford ($9 for Connecticut residents and $15 for non-residents on weekends and holidays).

There's a reason Harkness makes an ideal setting for romantic seaside weddings. The salty air and unobstructed views of Long Island Sound will make you feel like one of the privileged few invited to some millionaire's ocean house for a relaxing afternoon.

There's plenty to do besides walk the paths carved out on the property's 230 acres: you can barbeque and picnic on the lawns, fly a kite or head to the small but pristine beach for some quality sunbathing.

If you're up for more of an I-hope-I-don't-slip-on-the-rocks type of challenge, head over to Lyme and hike part or all of the 10 miles of trails at Hartman Park, where evidence of beaver residence can be found in the ponds in the form of dams and lodges (one of the trails is even called Beaver Pond Loop Trail). You'll really feel like you've left civilization and entered a beavers-only universe.

Trails are narrow at times, and you're guaranteed a good scramble or two up and down steep and rocky ledges.

Unlike Harkness, parks such as Hartman have little to no amenities, such as bathrooms and trash cans. We want towns, land trusts and groups such as The Nature Conservancy to continue to grant the public free use of such parks, so be sure to carry out what you carry in.

There are plenty of hikes that fall somewhere in between easy and strenuous. The entrance to the George & Woodward H. Griswold Preserve in Old Lyme, for instance, sits right on Route 1 and satiates the need for a quick escape into the woods and back. Like many of the smaller hiking trails in the area, you can park your car on a dirt lot and immediately get started on the hike.

The preserve is one of many area parks where you'll find remnants of old stone walls mixed in with views of modern-day life. Walk the trail that leads to the Lower Mill Pond and you'll feel at once removed from the 21st century and voyeuristic as you peek over at the houses across the water.

Besides providing easy and quick entertainment for short-stay hikers, the preserve also plays host to the Mary Griswold Steube Fishway, which enables the migration of herring, salmon and eels from Long Island Sound to spawn.

If you weren't out hiking the land and seeing such things as the fishway for yourself, you'd probably never think much about the man-made boost fish need nowadays to overcome obstacles, such as roads and dams, that we've placed along their migration routes.

So get out and walk in the woods, at any pace you choose, and appreciate what the region's parks have to offer.

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