Friends in high places: The region’s top overlooks
While gazing from the summit of Mount Misery in Voluntown at the verdant, 27,000-acre expanse of Pachaug State Forest, now beginning to display the season’s splashy hues, you can appreciate John Muir’s observation: “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”
Never mind that Mount Misery rises a scant 441 feet — barely a foothill compared to Muir’s beloved Sierras — the celebrated naturalist’s words resonate just as vibrantly today as when he penned them more than 120 years ago.
Everyone loves a view. Beyond the inspirational benefits, you can’t get much more socially distant during a pandemic than standing atop an overlook.
While much of southeastern Connecticut, like the rest of the state, is elevationally challenged, there are several hiking trails leading to scenic vistas from which to embrace good tidings and nature’s peace.
This a 491-foot promontory at the Ledyard-North Stonington border offers one of the most sweeping panoramas, with views that extend to Rhode Island’s Block Island, New York’s Long Island and the highlands of southern Massachusetts.
Pitch pine and laurel proliferate amid peak ledges, where turkey vultures often circle and soar.
Composed of one of the world’s largest single quartz deposits, Lantern Hill and adjacent Long Hill had been mined extensively since the 1870s for the silica that had been used to manufacture glass, toothpaste, paint, pool filters and even the facing of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston.
The Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, which regards Lantern Hill as a sacred site and refers to a stone formation at the summit as Sachem’s Seat, purchased the property in 1994.
The tribe, whose Foxwoods Resort Casino dominates the view west of the summit, once considered building a restaurant on Lantern Hill but now keeps it undeveloped and open to the public for hiking.
The main trail, which includes a few steep sections, departs from Wintechog Hill Road in North Stonington.
This peak rises among the evergreens in a section of Pachaug that extends into North Stonington, connects to Lantern Hill via the 22-mile-long Narragansett Trail.
The closest access is just north of the Wyassup Lake boat launch, where the trail enters a fern-filled wonderland of ridges and ravines before ascending a short but steep slope overlooking a forest that is satisfyingly devoid of human intrusion.
Named by colonial farmers frustrated by relentlessly rocky terrain, Mount Misery offers a similarly uncluttered view thanks to the state’s decision to acquire a nearby abandoned mill and other distressed properties in Voluntown, North Stonington, Preston, Griswold, Plainfield and Sterling during the Great Depression.
Then in 1933, The Civilian Conservation Corps, created under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal program, began clearing trails and planting trees in Pachaug and other parks across the country.
A bronze statue honoring the CCC, nicknamed “Roosevelt’s Tree Army,” stands at the entrance to Pachaug’s Chapman Area not far from the trail to Mount Misery on Cutoff Road.
Nehantic State Forest
CCC workers also were busy here, a spread of more than 5,062 acres in East Lyme, Lyme and Salem.
Created in 1926 as a source for lumber, firewood and other wood products, the state forest, Connecticut’s first, later was opened up to fishing, hunting, swimming, boating and hiking on the Nayantaquit Trail.
This path’s 452-foot high point is Nickerson Hill, where, as at Lantern Hill, turkey vultures circle and swoop on thermal air currents.
A clearing that faces south brings warmth on sunny days and provides a stunning view that stretches across the sound to Long Island.
Leave it to Lyme, which protects half of all its land from future development, to set aside two strings of nature preserves that offer elevated views. These tableaus will be more stunning when fall foliage is in full splendor, and some say most rewarding when the leaves eventually drop, revealing more distant perspectives.
River to Ridgetop South, comprised of the Mount Archer Woods, Eno and Pickwick’s preserves, measures 398 acres traversed by 4.8 miles of trails that are accessible from a parking lot south of Mount Archer Road. River to Ridgetop North, made up of the Pleasant Valley, Jewett and Johnston preserves, measures 920 acres that are crisscrossed by 13.5 miles of trails. There are parking lots on MacIntosh Road, the Jewett cemetery entrance on Mount Archer Road and the Johnston parking lot on Route 82. More information: lymelandtrust.org
Finally, you wouldn’t expect to combine kayaking with ridgeline viewing, but if you paddle on the Connecticut River to a small clearing just north of the ferry landing in Hadlyme, you can beach your boat and hike on a path that leads to Gillette Castle State Park, perched high above on the tallest in a chain of hills known as the Seven Sisters.
It’s rewarding enough to visit the 24-room, 14,000-square-foot mansion built in 1924 by actor William Gillette, purchased by the state of Connecticut in 1943 and now on the National Register of Historic Places; taking in the sweeping river valley below is icing on the cake.
Back when COVID-19 first reared its ugly head more than seven months ago, many of us thought, or at least hoped, we would be past the worst of it by now.
Sadly, that doesn’t appear to be the case, which reinforces the therapeutic value of exploring the great outdoors.
Stay active and stay safe.