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    Thursday, July 25, 2024

    Going to great heights in Guilford

    The Mattabesett Trail, en route to Bluff Head in Guilford, hugs a 500-foot traprock cliff that offers sprawling views of the surrounding countryside. (Steve Fagin)

    Mist swirled amid low clouds as friends and I clambered up a steep, rocky trail in Guilford the other day. Near the ridge crest, it sounded as if light drizzle had become heavy rain, so I pulled on the hood of my nylon jacket.

    But the “downpour” turned out to be a huge flock of mixed blackbirds, fluttering en masse through the forest in search of acorns.

    “There they go! Look at them all!” exclaimed Maggie Jones. She, Phil Plouffe and I were hiking north on the Mattabesett Trail, approaching the summit of Totoket Mountain; the birds were flying south.

    “Quite a view,” Phil remarked, as we strolled along the edge of Bluff Head, gazing at wooded hills, meadows, and a glimpse of Long Island Sound, more than 10 miles south. The sheer, 500-foot traprock cliff was formed by molten rock that cooled after oozing from faults in the earth some 200 million years ago.

    Mattabesett Trail is part of the Northwoods Trail System and the New England National Scenic Trail. Had we continued north along a basalt ridge that forms the so-called Spine of Connecticut, we eventually could have reached the New Hampshire border, more than 200 miles distant. The New England National Scenic Trail, which begins at the sound in Guilford, is sometimes called the Triple-M Trail, because it includes sections of the Mattabesett, Metacomet and Monadnock Trail.

    You don’t need to travel the entire length, for a lofty experience – we enjoyed several breathtaking vistas during a five-mile ramble. Our route followed corrugated terrain that rose and fell hundreds of feet, passing balcony-like viewpoints, 720 feet above sea level, overlooking Mica Ledge and a series of bluffs called Broomstick Ledges.

    On this midweek morning, the only company we encountered were white-tailed deer, gray squirrels, and an avian array that included hairy and downy woodpeckers, golden crowned kinglets, white-throated sparrows, blue jays and, much to our surprise, an American woodcock that twice flew right in front of us.

    “You don’t see them too often,” Maggie said.

    Most deciduous trees are now shedding their leaves – we passed beneath thinned canopies of oak, maple, hickory, beech and hornbeam – but a few splashes of crimson, golden and vermilion foliage remained, especially among sassafras, the only tree with three differently shaped leaves, and witch hazel, which produces delicate, pale yellow blossoms of witch hazel in fall.

    Evergreen junipers, loaded with dark blue berries, offset this palette of hues. Birds will feast on these berries all winter; humans use them to flavor gin.

    Our hike started at a trailhead off Route 77, 4.4 miles north of Route 80, on property protected and managed by the Guilford Land Conservation Trust. There are four separate routes to the Bluff Head summit; we set out on the Mattabesett Loop Trail, located immediately to the west of the parking lot. This trail, marked with light blue blazes and an orange dot in the center, is the most direct path to the Bluff Head summit. As we soon learned, it also is the steepest.

    The first quarter-mile was a bit of a scramble, but then the trail leveled off at the first overlook, where it joined with the blue-blazed Mattabesett Trail.

    We continued on this well-trod path for about an hour, and then, instead of retracing our steps down the steep trail, decided to rely on a smartphone to find our way back to the parking lot via an unpaved road that once led to a fire tower.

    We missed a leaf-covered, unmarked side trail, so wound up bushwhacking a quarter mile or so before locating Fire Tower Road. We descended this meandering road for more than a mile, before it reconnected with the southern end of the Mattabesett Trail.

    Along the way we passed Bluff Head Cemetery, where a farmer named Conrad Meyerhuber (1869-1946) is buried. Meyerhuber was said to have used a team of oxen to dig the pond that bears his name, which we had viewed from the summit.

    The Guilford Land Conservation Trust bought his property and surrounding parcels totaling 870 acres in 2002, and considers the Bluff Head Preserve as the “crown jewel” of its 3,200-acre portfolio of protected land.

    It indeed is a hidden gem.

    “I wonder how many people drive by every day (on Route 79) and have no idea this is up here,” Phil said.

    More information about the preserve, and alternative hiking routes, are available on the land trust’s website, guilfordlandtrust.org.

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