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    Wednesday, February 28, 2024

    Groton’s Candlewood Ridge and Avery Farm Preserve: Nature, close to home

    A bridge crosses a stream and continues along a section of trail at Candlewood Ridge in Groton. (Steve Fagin)

    As our hiking group ducked beneath lush tunnels of mountain laurel, roamed over forested peatlands and clambered up a rocky ridge that provided sweeping views of the surrounding countryside, we had to remind ourselves that we weren’t in a remote region of northern New England, but right here in southeastern Connecticut, not far from residential neighborhoods, shopping centers and an interstate highway.

    “It's amazing to have a place like this so close to a densely populated area,” Maggie Jones said, gazing at a shimmering sliver of Long Island Sound, some 10 miles south.

    We were roaming through a pair of adjoining parcels north of Route 184 in Groton — 91-acre Candlewood Ridge, and the 305-acre Avery Farm Nature Preserve, both owned and preserved by the Groton Open Space Association (GOSA).

    The town of Groton also holds a conservation easement here on a seven-acre cranberry bog, while the town of Ledyard protects additional, contiguous open space. Nearby, the state-owned Candlewood Hill Wildlife Management Area spreads out over 201 additional acres on the north side of Route 184, also known as the Gold Star Highway.

    Combined, these properties provide expansive habitat for a multitude of plants and animals, as well as an extensive network of well-marked hiking and mountain-biking trails.

    “There’s something for everybody,” Maggie, director emeritus of the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center in Mystic, remarked during a two-hour hike the other day. Joining us were Maggie’s son, Clancy Philbrick; along with Allyn Halsey and Mary Sommer. Our group also met a handful of cyclists and strollers enjoying the crisp winter air.

    “This is great!” exclaimed Jeff Kulo, who lives nearby and hikes the Avery Farm and Candlewood Ridge trails regularly.

    Having two separate properties named “Candlewood” may be confusing, but understandable. Colonists used this name for the pitch pine, a native tree with a high-resin content that burns like a torch.

    The state’s Candlewood Hill Wildlife Management Area includes one of Connecticut’s largest pitch pine forests, measuring 44 acres. Once abundant, pitch pine forests are now regarded as one of the state’s most imperiled ecosystems.

    GOSA’s Candlewood Ridge is largely devoid of mature pitch pines, but does contain saplings planted in recent years by volunteers. During more than a half-century of land preservation, GOSA — rooted in protecting such landmarks as Haley Farm State Park and Bluff Point Coastal Reserve — has established a well-deserved reputation as one of the region’s leading conservation organizations.

    The association led the drive to acquire the Avery Preserve as well as both Candlewood tracts — in the process, stepping on a few political toes.

    Some members of the Groton Town Council were outraged when the state, at GOSA’s behind-the-scenes urging, purchased the Candlewood Hill Wildlife Management Area in 2017 without consulting them. Local officials had hoped that the land, formerly owned by Tilcon, an asphalt and concrete paving materials supplier, would eventually be developed and kept on the tax rolls.

    Instead, today it is a popular recreation area, open to the public.

    GOSA acquired Candlewood Ridge in 2013, raising money from member donations, community clubs, local organizations, businesses, local and national foundations, and a grant from the state’s Open Space and Watershed Land Acquisition Program. At the time, a developer had cut down trees on a section of the property, filled in wetlands and built a dirt road in hopes of selling house lots. The sale to GOSA ended development plans.

    Candlewood Ridge “is part of a critical large block of diverse wildlife habitats,” including oak-hemlock-hickory upland forest, native shrubby and grassy habitat, forested peatlands, kettle type bogs, tussock sedge, poor fens, multiple seeps, vernal pools and streams, according to the GOSA website.

    The same year the association was working to acquire Candlewood Ridge, members of the Avery/Weber family, who had farmed their property for generations, were looking for a way to protect their land in perpetuity. GOSA and the family reached an agreement in which the family donated 152 acres in Groton, and retained ownership of an 18th-century farmhouse and surrounding 1.5 acres in Ledyard.

    The state holds a conservation easement on the entire 305-acre parcel, while GOSA manages the fields, which are closed to the public, through renewable lease agreements for farming. GOSA notes the preserve contains grasslands, hedgerows, an oak-hemlock-hickory upland forest, an Atlantic white cedar swamp, forested peatlands, kettle type bogs, vernal pools and part of a 38-acre marsh.

    The Avery Farm watershed flows into Haley Brook and Mystic River before emptying into Long Island Sound.

    “Candlewood Ridge and the Avery preserve extend the existing greenway from such coastal parks as Bluff Point and Haley farm well inland,” Maggie noted. Combined, “they connect critical wetlands and watersheds flowing into Long Island Sound — a whole greater than the sum of its parts,” she added.

    The easiest access to Candlewood Ridge, where trails also lead to the Avery Farm Nature Preserve, is at the end of Larchmont Terrace in Groton.

    From the Gold Star Highway, also known as Route 184, go north at the light on Lambtown Road, directly across from the Flanders Road intersection. Take first left off Lambtown Road onto Larchmont Terrace and park at a dead end, where the trail begins.

    There also is a separate parking lot and trailhead at 1770 Gold Star Highway.

    The path at Candlewood Ridge passes glacial boulders.

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