Hiking the Connecticut segment of the Appalachian Trail
"Are you guys thru-hikers?" That was a question we heard a lot. A day hiker, out for a weekend excursion, could be forgiven for seeing our heavy packs and assuming we were in the middle of the 2,180-mile trek from Georgia to Maine on the Appalachian Trail.
"No," we had to answer repeatedly, "we're just hiking the Connecticut section." Our four-day, 52-mile trip, one that had seemed so impressive to our friends back home, now felt embarrassingly insignificant when compared to the four-month journey that many of our fellow hikers had undertaken.
When my former Day colleague Jenna Cho and I planned this trip, we hadn't considered that we would be essentially dropping in two-thirds of the way into so many backpackers' trips of a lifetime. It felt a little like going for a weekend jog and finding yourself in the middle of the Boston Marathon. It wasn't long after we set out from the New York border in Sherman that we met our first day hiker, who looked a little disappointed to find out we hadn't set out from Georgia three months earlier.
Rounding out our foursome were Steve Brown and his son Aidan, who had last summer climbed all 48 4,000-foot peaks in New Hampshire. The Browns set a brisk pace, and we had covered the 11.2 miles to our first campsite, the Mt. Algo Shelter, by 3 p.m. There was some discussion about whether to push on seven miles to the next shelter, but we instead opted for a nap with the sound of church bells drifting up from the town of Kent.
As the sun disappeared behind the trees, seven thru-hikers trickled into camp and set up their tents and hammocks with practiced efficiency. None of the group mistook us for one of their kind, asking, "Are you guys just out for the weekend?" I wondered what gave us away? Was it the melted hole that Steve had acquired in his synthetic shirt when he leaned too close to the stove? Maybe it was the fact that we had clearly spent the afternoon lazing in a shelter instead of knocking off a few extra miles.
Over dinner, we discovered that thru-hikers are a different breed. They call each other by trail names like Multitool and Young Giraffe, eschew heavy hiking boots for lightweight trail shoes, and visit towns along the trail every three or four days. While our intention was to unplug from civilization for a few days, Dancing Bear was happy to report that he had eaten ice cream each of the last seven days.
Our second day started with a steep, rocky descent into a valley, with an equally steep and rocky climb on the other side. While or new thru-hiker friends headed into Kent for breakfast, we forged on northward, stopping to eat lunch near the Silver Hill Campsite. Fatigue compelled us to drop our packs and eat right alongside the trail.
After lunch, a short walk to the campsite for water revealed a sweeping vista with picnic tables and a front porch-style swing that would have made for much more comfortable dining. The 14 campsites along the Appalachian Trail in Connecticut are mostly well-outfitted and maintained, with convenient water sources and composting privies. Seven sites have lean-to shelters that can accommodate six people, and many have metal bear boxes for food storage, hauled in by burly trail crews.
A long, 17-mile day ended at Pine Swamp Brook shelter, but we opted to sleep in tents to get away from the mosquitos. Laying awake in the tent, we heard a coyote howl in the darkness to the east, followed by answering howls farther off to the north and west. A drip of rain on my forehead woke me up at 3:30 a.m. Our gamble to sleep without a rain fly, for better air circulation, had been a bad one. I scrambled out of the tent to put up the fly, only to find that the brief shower had passed.
Our nighttime coyote serenade was replaced on day three by the drone of engines from the race track at Lime Rock Park in Lakeville. It was a reminder that even in this sparsely populated corner of the state, you are never far from civilization. We had crossed paths with many hikers, but there was one in particular whom we had been anticipating. Over dinner the night before, we had told Young Giraffe and Dancing Bear that they might cross paths with Steve Brown's nephew, Steve Kurczy, who was planning to run the trail in the opposite direction carrying only a fanny pack with minimal supplies. We would exchange car keys ensuring everyone would have a ride home. Kurczy met us during a mid-morning water break and told us how he was surprised to discover that he already had his own trail name. "I ran into two guys who said, 'Hey, are you Fanny Pack Steve?'"
Our home for night three was the Limestone Spring Shelter, situated at the bottom of a half-mile side trail that descends into a deep ravine. We dined around 3:30 and then attempted a nap, but we hadn't learned our lesson about sleeping with no rain fly. Rumbling thunder roused us just in time to get everything covered before a brief downpour. With nothing to do until sunset and a surplus of food weighing down our packs, we cooked five more bags of dehydrated camp food and settled in with full stomachs.
From the tent of a pair of thru-hikers, we could hear the sound of a sitcom playing on someone's phone. I was struck with how technology has changed backpacking in the last 15 years. Mobile phones were once an emergency item seen rarely on the trail. During our four days in the woods, we passed a hiker walking while having a phone conversation and another listening to a podcast over his phone's speakers. Many thru-hikers pulled into camp and then whipped out their phones to check Facebook messages or get trail conditions from a mobile app. It was odd, and a little unexpected, to have technology intruding like this into our wilderness getaway, but not everyone is on the trail for the same reason. I was pleased when the sitcom laugh track faded away, replaced by the calls of two great horned owls in the trees nearby.
By the fourth and final day of our trip, we barely paused at the scenic areas indicated in our guide book by a camera icon. We passed Rands View and Giants Thumb with little of the fanfare afforded to Indian Rocks and St. Johns Ledges three days earlier. More sore feet appreciated the portions of the trail on the paved roads through Salisbury. Even the climb up Bear Mountain, though steep, was tolerable due to the well-worn dirt path. We stopped for the obligatory group photo at the summit, learning that Bear Mountain is the state's highest peak, but not its highest point. That honor belongs to the slope of Mt. Frissel, whose peak is just over the Massachusetts border.
The guide book indicated that a sign welcoming hikers to Massachusetts was a half mile downhill beyond the actual border. Rather than add unnecessary mileage, we stopped when the map on my phone showed that we had crossed the state line, and turned back for the side trail to Fanny Pack Steve's car.
If you go
Towns: Sherman, Kent, Sharon and Salisbury
Where to park: At the southern end, a parking area can be found on Hoyt Road in Dover, N.Y., just over the border from Sherman, Conn. At the northern end of the Connecticut section, parking is located at the trailhead for the Undermountain Trail on Route 41 or the trailhead for the AMC Northwest Cabin on Mt. Washington Road.
Description: The Appalachian Trail stretches about 2,200 miles from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine. 51 miles of the trail are located in Connecticut. The trail ranges from a smooth dirt path to jagged rocky climbs, with several sections on paved roads. Several day hikes are possible, or one could hike the entire section in a multi-day backpacking trip.
Regulations: Campfires are prohibited, and camping is permitted only at designated campsites.
Amenities: There are 14 campsites along the trail with water sources and composting privies. Seven of the sites have lean-to shelters.
Natural Features: Bear Mountain is the highest peak in Connecticut (though not the highest point, which lies on the slope of nearby Mt. Frissel, whose peak is in Massachusetts).
Things to note: There are many reliable water sources on the trail, but flow may be lower depending on the time of year and the recent weather.