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    Wednesday, August 17, 2022

    To some hikers, Bear Rock is barely visible

    Bear Rock juts from a rugged promontory in Cockaponset State Forest in Durham. (Maggie Jones)
    Coginchaug Cave is an overhang in Cockaponset State Forest in Durham. (Maggie Jones)

    “There it is! I see it!” Maggie Jones exclaimed, as she scrambled the other day through a corridor of mountain laurel toward a massive rock formation in Durham.

    Andy Lynn and I followed up a steep slope and craned our necks.

    “I don’t see anything,” Andy said.

    “Where?” I asked.

    “Right there!” Maggie insisted, pointing up. “Look – there’s its head …”

    Andy and I continued to peer at what may popularly be known as Bear Rock, but we could discern nothing more than a huge outcrop.

    “Maybe it’s a Y-chromosome thing,” I suggested, “or a Rorschach test.”

    “I guess we’re psychologically damaged,” Andy added.

    Finally, by tilting our heads and squinting, we were able to make out the shape of a bear’s head. I was expecting to see a ferocious grizzly with fangs bared, but this one looked more like a cuddly cross between Yogi Bear and Winnie-the-Pooh. The only things missing were a porkpie hat or Tigger.

    We were not in Jellystone Park or Hundred Acre Wood, though, but Cockaponset State Forest, a 17,000-acre tract that, in addition to Durham, extends into Haddam, Chester, Deep River, Killingworth, Guilford, Madison, Clinton, Westbrook, Middletown and Middlefield.

    Named for a Native American chief of the Wangunk tribe, Cockaponset State Forest was acquired by the state in separate purchases beginning in 1926. In the following decade, workers at three Civilian Conservation Corp camps there built roads, cleared trails, cut timber and planted trees.

    Bear Rock was the first of two geologic features we visited along the Mattabesett Trail, a 62-mile footpath that features some of the state’s most rugged, breathtaking terrain. The hike to the overlook at Bear Rock is considerably less challenging than the trek to the summits of other peaks on the Mattabesset, including Besek, Fowler, Higby, Lamentation, Pistapaug and Totoket mountains, as well as Chauncey Peak and the Broomstick Ledges. The Mattabesett also is part of the New England National Scenic Trail, a 215-mile footpath that winds from Long Island Sound to the Massachusetts-New Hampshire border.

    After hiking to Bear Rock, we drove a few minutes to another section of the Mattabesett and followed a blue-blazed trail to Coginchaug Cave, which technically isn’t a cave, but a recess in a massive overhang of bedrock. Whatever it’s called, the formation serves as an impressive reminder of the extraordinary tectonic forces that created the ridges and ravines along the rocky spine of central Connecticut eons ago.

    Rather than retrace our steps back to the car, we extended the hike a mile or so past the overhang, up and over a series of hills, bringing the total distance we covered on both hikes to about five miles.

    It’s heartening to have so many places to stretch your legs. The blue-blazed trails we hiked are maintained by the Connecticut Forest & Park Association as part of an 825-mile statewide network of footpaths. Thousands of miles of other trails also beckon not far from home.

    Viewing such prominent features as Bear Rock or Coginchaug Cave is always a bonus – the main benefit is enjoying open space, far away from commercial, residential and industrial clutter.

    As Edward Abbey once observed, “Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread.”

    The closest trailhead to Bear Rock is located on Harvey Road off Bear Rock Road in Durham. From a small parking area, follow the blue-blazed Mattabesett Trail for about half a mile, cross a small stream and take a right fork to the rock. Bear Rock will be on your left.

    The section of trail leading to Coginchaug Cave can be reached from a parking area on Old Blue Hills Road in Durham. Follow the light blue blazes.

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