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Ledyard rocks: Family-friendly trails abound

Cascading glacial boulders, tumbling streams, a tunneling path through dense rhododendrons, towering Atlantic white cedars, expansive views of a secluded estuary, a weird mushroom — an abundance of these natural features rewards hikers who ramble through a band of woodlands between Ledyard Center and the Thames River.

The other day, our small hiking group decided that instead of tramping for hours in a single park or preserve, we would explore several in close proximity, one after another.

In so doing, we not only would maintain coronavirus social distancing but also break up each outing into modest sections, appealing to families with young children as well as to those less inclined to embark on protracted marches.

Hikers on a tight schedule can choose to visit one or two of these parks; those with more time and energy can tackle all of them.

We began at Avalonia Land Conservancy’s Avery Preserve, which spreads out over nearly 100 acres on both sides of Avery Hill Road. Trails in both sections collectively measure only about two miles — but what may be short in distance is long in satisfaction.

Highlights of the 76-acre West Tract include glacial boulder deposits as well as a stone structure called a sheep wash. In colonial times, settlers would herd their sheep through a narrow opening and bathe them in Billings-Avery Brook.

The 22-acre East Tract starts out boggy and buggy, but stick with this muddy trail for a short distance to enter a stunning passage through an impressive array of rhododendrons, a native species also called great laurel.

The five of us exclaimed “Wow!” in unison as we approached the tightly packed grove, still flowering in mid-July. Maggie Jones, director emeritus of the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center in Mystic, explained that unlike cultivated rhododendrons, great laurel’s pink-tinged flowers bloom later in the season.

Next stop: the town of Ledyard’s Kettlehole Trail on Avery Hill Road Extension, only a half-mile south of the Avery Preserve.

This short, flat, quarter-mile path circles the perimeter of a bowl-like depression formed when ice melted during the last period of glaciation some 22,000 years ago. Many kettleholes fill up with water to form ponds, but Ledyard’s is a dry kettlehole that can be explored via a short side trail.

This modest attraction might appeal to very young hikers, but older, more active children will find the 21-acre Ledyard Glacial Park a half-mile away on Whalehead Road much more invigorating.

Also owned by the town, this parcel features a ¾-mile loop trail that climbs steeply about 150 feet before dropping into a ravine strewn with glacial boulders, some as big as cars. A side trail avoids the most challenging stretch, but if you decide to scramble down and back up the more “treacherous” path, as a sign warns, be prepared for a knee-jolting workout.

The park also features a gigantic, flat stone precariously balanced on a rock pedestal, which hikers can walk beneath and hope a sudden tremor doesn’t shake the overhang loose, mashing them like guacamole.

After traipsing through the glacial park, our group had a choice. We could backtrack a couple miles on Avery Hill Road to 234-acre Poquetanuck Cove Preserve, where a 1.5-mile ravine trail passes through lush stands of pine, hemlock and beech trees while offering breathtaking views of the two-mile-long-cove. Or we could press on to Avalonia’s Pine Swamp Wildlife Corridor.

Having hiked several times at the Poquetanuck preserve — in fact, I’d interviewed the previous owner, Desire Parker, when she donated her property to The Nature Conservancy in 1988 — I suggested we venture into the swamp corridor.

In retrospect, I should have realized that trudging through a swamp on a steamy summer afternoon might be less appealing, especially considering that the paths we chose passed close to housing developments and busy roads.

After slogging along for a little more than a mile on two contiguous tracts — the corridor consists of several contiguous parcels with eight separate trailheads — we traipsed back to our cars.

There doubtless are worthy sections — the corridor teems with wildlife, glacial moraines, open forests and burbling streams. According to Avalonia’s website, it “was well known to the local Indians who called it Cuppacommock which translates to a refuge, hiding place, or a close place or haven. It was also called Ohomowauke meaning owls’ nest, owl-place, or a resort of owls, (mhmmau-auke).”

Avalonia also notes that the property was known in colonial times as “Mast Swamp,” because pine trees there were used for ships’ spars.

“The last known pines were removed from the swamp in 1820, the final ones having been cut to supply ships in the Revolutionary War and War of 1812. Large pines have since regrown in the swamp,” the website adds.

We’ll have to revisit the swamp corridor on a cooler day.

As for that weird mushroom, it looked exactly like a carrot.

“No, that’s a mushroom,” Maggie noted. More specifically, it was a stinkhorn, sometimes called devil’s dipstick. True to their name, stinkhorns emit a putrescent odor, used to attract insects to help spread its spores.

I’m pleased to note that Ledyard’s Conservation Commission has been working on a guide to 13 trails in town, and eagerly await updated maps that eventually will be available on the website at bit.ly/ledyardtrailmaps.

There are several other worthy hiking destinations in Ledyard, including Lantern Hill on the North Stonington Border, the Pike-Marshal Trail off Pumpkin Hill Road and the Avery Farm Preserve on Lambtown Road, to name a few.

If you have a favorite hiking or paddle destination, leave an online comment on this column or send an email to s.fagin@theday.com.

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