If you are an avid hiker, you probably have a hiking destination close to home that is your favorite. It’s that kind of place that is like your favorite flannel shirt or those excessively broken in hiking boots. It’s the place you go to train when you are preparing for an upcoming epic hike in the White Mountains or the Adirondacks.
We are blessed with numerous hiking preserves and parks within a short drive of Niantic, but there is one place that I will go back to, time and again, that I never get sick of hiking. My numero uno hiking spot is the Oswegatchie Hills Preserve, just a mile from my home. This destination is a 400+ acre preserve located about a mile north of Niantic Bay. The main entrance is located at the Veterans Field baseball complex off Pennsylvania Ave (Rt. 161). Stop by the kiosk next to the softball field and pick up a map and read the informative articles that are posted. Or prepare for your hike ahead of time by visiting the web site of The Friends of The Oswegatchie Hills at http://www.oswhills.org/.
The Hills, as the locals call this place, are comprised of a dozen parcels of land owned by either the Friends of the Oswegatchie Hills or the East Lyme Land Conservation Trust. In addition to the main entrance at Veterans Field, you can also access The Hills from Quarry Dock Rd, Damon Heights Rd or Stone Cliff Rd. all in Niantic. The Hills are predominantly long and narrow running north-south. At the south end (Veterans Field) there is a small pond (Clark Pond), in the middle are some impressive granite slabs that sometime dive down a steep grade and disappear back into surrounding forest. At the north end there is an old abandoned granite rock quarry. And running straight down the middle is a stream that feeds Clark Pond.
What makes The Hills special for me is the variety of terrain and the numerous granite slabs that are featured along the hiking trails. As you hike the trails you will also pass by some impressive glacial erratics, some six feet in diameter and some sixteen to twenty feet in diameter. The Blue trail is the longest in the preserve and runs from the east side of Clark Pond all the way to the north end (about 2 ½ miles) then loops around and comes back via the west side of the preserve until it makes a crossing over the valley brook and comes back on the east side of the pond. There is a shorter Red Trail loop that starts on the west side of the pond that either loops back to the entrance in about a mile or continues north to meet the Blue Trail. The one trail that travels east-west is the Yellow Trail. It starts at Damon Heights Rd. on the west side and bisects the preserve, ending just beyond the old granite quarry. At times the trails run along old carriage paths that are wide and gravely, sometimes they snake through the woods, zig-zaging among the 15 foot tall Mountain Laurel. The one constant in The Hills is the ever changing elevation and trail bed. The trails go up, then down, then over rocks, then on smooth surface, then along grate slabs – the entire length and width of the preserve. For the enthusiastic hiker or mountain biker, this is just what we like.
If you aren’t as much into the hiking as the nature aspects of a land preserve, this is also a gem. There are numerous birds and a variety of wild animals, such as deer, fox, turkey and fisher cat that make The Hills their home. In the early spring the vernal pools come alive with the sound of frogs ending their winter hibernation with a sound that I can only describe as eerie. Last spring for a period of about a month there appeared a variety of colored mushrooms throughout the preserve, some blue, others purple, yellow, green and red.
For me, The Hills are never boring. I probably hike the trails more than a hundred times each year and I always enjoy the journey whether alone, with my faithful hiking dog, Cinnamon or with a couple friends looking to pound down 4-5 miles before sunset. The Hills are my favorite hiking spot, what is yours?