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    Saturday, October 01, 2022

    A real cliff-hanger: Indian Council Caves a sheer wonder

    Maggie Jones, Andy Lynn and Phil Plouffe amid boulders at Indian Council Caves in Barkhamsted. (Steve Fagin)
    This so-called cave is actually a gap in overlapping rocks. (Steve Fagin)
    The Tunxis Trail passes alongside a near-vertical wall. (Steve Fagin)

    Having clambered up, around, through, under and over Rattlesnake Ledges in Glastonbury, Soapstone Mountain in Somers, Lamentation Mountain in Berlin, Chauncy Peak in Meriden, Coginchaug Cave and Bear Rock in Durham, Squaw Cave in Bolton, Sleeping Giant in Hamden, the Fat Man Squeeze in Killingworth’s Chatfield Hollow and countless other amazing rock formations in Connecticut, friends and I thought we’d seen the best.

    Last week, though, when Maggie Jones, Phil Plouffe, Andy Lynn and I rounded a bend on the Tunxis Trail in Barkhamsted and came upon Indian Council Caves, we issued a collective “Wow!”

    “This is like the Metropolitan Opera House of overhangs!” Maggie exclaimed, staring at a massive stone wall, riddled with deep crevices and surrounded by a jumble of enormous boulders.

    Never mind that these cracks really aren’t caves, and that there’s no definitive evidence that Native Americans ever met as a “council” here – whatever its name, the site is astounding.

    We scrambled to the base of the ledge, crawled up and over slabs, poked into narrow openings and worked our way around all sides of the rockfall – each view was stunning.

    “It’s hard to put it in perspective,” Phil commented.

    Indian Council Caves were the icing on the cake of a glorious hike through Tunxis State Forest, which spreads out over 9,152 acres on both sides of the Barkhamsted Reservoir. Unlike many state forests, which once were abandoned farms, Tunxis was heavily wooded when it was purchased in 1923, the state Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection notes.

    “The forest was amazingly quiet but for a few birds, including hermit thrush and black-throated green warbler,” Maggie noted, adding that it was a good day for vireos – blue-headed, red-eyed, yellow-throated, white-eyed and Philadelphia. She said the breeding season is over and these and neotropical migrants are already starting to move southward, feeding on insects throughout the day.

    The forest contains a wide variety of deciduous and coniferous trees: scarlet oaks, red oaks, white oaks, sugar maples, striped maples, white pine, hemlock and tulip poplar, to name a few we observed.

    “A lot of diversity,” Maggie said, adding that the presence of old trees is a sign of a healthy forest. She called one such venerable specimen, a white oak that towered over surrounding trees, a “wolf” tree.

    According to the Heritage Conservancy, the term “is thought to have originated from foresters in the late 1900s who believed that these old, massive trees were devouring too much space and sunlight; as a result, they were often eliminated from the landscape, similar to the wolves that were being hunted down for consuming too many forest resources.”

    The rest of the forest was equally impressive.

    “The passage through dense laurel and the evergreen forest, where white pine and hemlock were either in competition or in harmony, the ground was soft with needles, and the mix of light and shade created a reddish effect on the tree trunks,” Andy noted.

    A section we hiked through is owned by the Metropolitan District Commission (MDC), a non-profit municipal corporation chartered by the Connecticut General Assembly in 1929 to provide water and sewerage services for a number of towns and cities near Hartford.

    Much to its credit, the MDC opens up some 3,000 of acres of its reservoir properties to the public. More than 30 miles of paved and gravel roads are available for hiking, running, biking, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. Their use is regulated by the Connecticut Department of Public Health and enforced by MDC police.

    The City of Groton, which has been evaluating plans to allow hikers through its reservoir property in Ledyard as part of a 14-mile Tri-Town Trail from Preston to Bluff Point in Groton, should follow the MDC’s example. I plan to visit the MDC trails soon.

    The woods were quiet when our group walked along the Tunxis Trail last week, but the forest has attracted a variety of wildlife. The DEEP reports that near the end of the 20th century, the area was one of the earliest in the state to see moose and black bear.

    The Tunxis Trail, managed by the Connecticut Forest & Park Association, is part of a larger network system that contains 19 interconnected footpaths measuring 83 miles. Had we ventured to other sections, we could have taken in other distinctive features: Mile of Ledges, historic Tory Den, the Sessions Woods Wildlife Management Area and Nassahegon State Forest.

    So, it looks like we have other territory to explore. That’s the great part about living in Connecticut – for such a small state, there are plenty of places to stretch your legs.

    The closest access to Indian Council Caves is from the Tunxis Trail, where it crosses Route 219 in Barkhamsted, just west of the intersection with Hillcrest Drive.

    The round-trip distance from the trailhead to the caves measures 4.6 miles; we tacked on a short section beyond the caves, rounding out our hike to five miles.

    Parking is available in a small clearing area across the street from the trailhead. The Connecticut Forest & Park Association has an interactive map of the Tunxis Trail and more than 800 miles of other trails in the state on the website http://www.ctwoodlands.org/BlueTrailsMap.

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