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    Saturday, July 13, 2024

    Trails, trails and more trails at Westwoods in Guilford

    A trail at the Westwoods preserve in Guilford passes enormous rock formations. (Steve Fagin)

    A barking dog, droning lawnmower, highway din and other sounds of civilization penetrated the air as friends and I set out for a hike last week through a sprawling expanse in Guilford known as Westwoods.

    Soon after we descended into a wetland, though, a pileated woodpecker’s rat-tat-tat drumbeat and Louisiana waterthrush’s melodic call replaced the jarring clatter. Moments later, cinnamon, royal and lady ferns lined the trail as it rose through an oak forest, leading to a ridge littered with jumbled boulders and lined with sheer ledges. A carpet of Canada mayflowers spread out over the forest floor.

    “It’s as though we’ve been transported to a wilderness,” remarked Maggie Jones, who joined Andy Lynn and me on a glorious spring morning. Over the next couple hours, we scrambled up and down 500 feet of hills, and rambled for more than six miles. That distance barely scratched the surface of Westwood’s trail network, which extends for 39 miles in a 1,200-acre swath of land protected by the Guilford Land Conservation Trust (GLCT).

    Long before local conservationists founded GLCT in 1965, Guilford settlers dug quarries, cleared land for farms and livestock, made charcoal, and cut trees to feed a brick manufacturer’s kilns. Today, Westwoods, along with 2,000 acres of other Guilford preserves, are permanently protected from development.

    I’m grateful for the land trust’s efforts to provide an abundance of publicly accessible open space, but to be honest, would be even happier with fewer trails.

    Keeping track of all the different colors and shapes of blazes that mark overlapping footpaths would have made Meriwether Lewis weep. There are white, green, blue, yellow, orange, violet and red blazes, shaped either like circles, squares, triangles or Xs. Circle blazes connect north-south trails; Xs connect paths of the same color; triangle and square blazes mark trails that spread out in other directions.

    Got it? We didn’t at first, missed a turn, and wound up far afield before recalibrating our route. No matter, we hadn’t planned a specific itinerary, but simply sought to enjoy a walk in the woods. But if you’re fixated on time, distance and destination, make sure you carry a map, download a backup smartphone app, and pay close attention at every trail crossing.

    Maggie, Andy and I encountered a similar excess of trails not long ago when we set out on a hike to Carr Pond in Coventry, R.I. Finding our way there was even more challenging because almost none of the trails were blazed or offered a single sign.

    At least all Westwoods’ trails are blazed. And blazed. And blazed.

    The Guilford preserve also offers multiple parking areas and trailheads off Granite, Moose Hill, Peddler's, Dunk Rock. and Sam Hill Road roads; we decided to park at the Peddler’s lot and start hiking on the White Circle Trail. After switching to the Green Circle Trail, we somehow strayed onto a Green X Trail. I’ll spare you details of all our twists and turns, but eventually, we got back on track.

    Along the way, Maggie kept up a running commentary on the avian species that flitted by or called from hidden places: scarlet tanager, ovenbird, wood-pewee, wood thrush, American redstart, common yellowthroat.

    “The dense understory supports a good diversity of migrant forest interior birds,” she noted.

    At one point, a plant with a strange spike, covered with tiny yellowish flowers, caught her eye: Conopholis americana, commonly called squawroot, cancer-root or bear corn.

    Maggie pointed out that the plant isn’t known to cure cancer, isn’t a type of corn and isn’t eaten by bears. It is, however, quite rare.

    “It takes years for the plant to develop underground before the strange cone-shaped stems emerge in late spring. We timed it just right to see dozens of clumps,” she said.

    Andy was captivated by impressive rock formations that required tight squeezes and slippery scrambles. I like rocks, too, but one giant boulder, wedged insecurely directly overhead, gave me pause.

    “Looks pretty precarious,” I said.

    “Don’t worry, it’s been like that for thousands of years,” Maggie assured me.

    I let them go first, and eventually we worked our way back to the parking lot.

    For more information about hiking at Westwoods and other preserves, visit guilfordlandtrust.org.

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