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Above it all: Hiking along the spine of Connecticut

After strolling on a tree-lined trail alongside a sparkling reservoir, and then clambering several hundred feet up a rugged slope, we eventually reached a sinuous escarpment atop Meriden’s Lamentation Mountain.

Here, the Metacomet Ridge, a rocky band that extends from Long Island Sound to the Vermont border, forms the spine of Connecticut — one of the state’s most prominent and distinctive geologic features.

It’s no wonder that the Connecticut Forest & Park Association, which maintains the Mattabesett Trail on which we were hiking, as well as nearly 1,000 miles of additional blue-blazed paths, describes this cliff line as “perhaps the most scenic traprock ridge walk in the state.”

The 62-mile-long Mattabesset, which I hiked/ran in its entirety over a three-day weekend years ago, also is part of the 215-mile New England National Scenic Trail.

From our 720-foot-high vantage point on Lamentation, we gazed west at a vista that ranged from a cow pasture and Silver Lake, to sprawling residential, commercial and industrial development. Twelve miles north, the Hartford skyline jutted above the horizon.

Although we enjoyed panoramic scenes all along the ridge, the din of distant traffic and construction equipment below never escaped our ears.

“We’ve been spoiled, living in southeastern Connecticut,” I remarked to my companions. The tallest hills in our corner of the state may rise only to about 450 feet, but these modest summits typically reward hikers with expansive views revealing nothing but forests, meadows, rivers and ponds; often, the only sound is whistling wind.

Over the past eight months of the COVID-19 pandemic, our small group has largely confined our socially distanced outings to nature preserves close to home; last week, we decided to venture about 50 miles to central Connecticut.

Lamentation Mountain was named in 1636 after a member of the Wethersfield Colony got lost and spent three miserable days wandering in the woods before a search party tracked him down. Legend also has it that a young Native American woman, distraught over a failed romance, leaped to her death from a ledge on the mountain in the 1700s.

We set out from 598-acre Giuffrida Park, formerly part of a 17th-century farm that the city of Meriden acquired in 1965 and named for Dr. Francis Giuffrida, a popular local surgeon and World War II veteran.

Only a few minutes into our hike, Maggie Jones, director emeritus of the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center in Mystic, made a beeline toward dried stalks of a sumac bush topped by clusters of red drupes.

“Have you ever tried this?” she asked, plucking one of the pea-sized fruits.

I’ve learned to trust Maggie’s judgment when it comes to wild edibles — all spring, summer and now fall we’ve snacked on such trailside treats as ramps, partridge berries, Indian cucumber roots and chicken of the woods mushrooms — so didn’t hesitate to pop a sumac drupe into my mouth.

It did have a subtle, lemony taste — various cultures use sumac as a natural seasoning and to flavor beverages — but given a choice I’d stick to raspberries, grapes or blueberries.

Later we tramped past a boulder covered with a blackish lichen.

“Rock tripe,” Maggie pronounced. “It’s a good sign that the air here is clear.”

After following blue blazes more than a mile northbound along the ridge, we doubled back and veered off on a red-blazed path to the east. The trail descended gradually into a valley near the north end of Crescent Lake, and then shot back up steeply toward Chauncey Peak. Although this 688-foot, boulder-strewn peak technically is part of Lamentation Mountain, some consider it a separate promontory because it rises more than 300 feet above the gap.

It’s evident that powerful tectonic forces shaped the relentlessly jagged, steep terrain.

Geologists say Meriden’s Hanging Hills, which include Lamentation Mountain, originated about 200 million years ago when molten lava flowed from giant fissures torn open during a breakup of the Pangea continent. After the lava cooled, a basalt layer cracked and tilted toward the east, creating sheer cliffs along the west side of the fault line that then were covered with sediment. Glaciation and weathering eroded the softer layer, exposing the hard basalt.

Also called traprock, basalt has long been quarried for use in roadbeds and other construction projects, as we soon realized.

The narrow, tree-lined trail butted up against just such a roadbed at the crest of Chauncey Peak. There, we stared at bulldozers, excavators and dump trucks that rumbled throughout an enormous, tiered pit.

The Suzio York Hill Company, which dates back to the late 1800s, bought 36 acres on the east side of Lamentation Mountain, including Chauncey Peak, in 1963, and has been steadily carving away at the hillside.

The deed prohibits York Hill from excavating rock within 50 feet of the top of Chauncey Peak, and the company has promised to keep the path open to the public.

“We have no intention of removing the trail,” Ric Suzio, owner of Suzio York Hill, told the Meriden Record-Journal last year.

The view on the west side of the trail is far more inspiring, leaving us with a sublimely ingrained image as we descended to the parking lot, completing a loop of about seven miles.

Another great day, we agreed.

More information about the Mattabesett Trail and other public walking paths is available on the Connecticut Forest & Park Association website, ctwoodlands.org. The organization also publishes the Connecticut Walk Book, an excellent guide to its extensive trail network.

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