Exploring a new state park in Groton

One particularly appealing aspect of our corner of the state is the rich variety of so many natural attractions, all in relatively close proximity.

Within a 20-mile radius, we have Bluff Point Coastal Reserve in Groton, where a hiking/biking trail leads to an overlook with a stunning view of Fishers Island Sound; Waterford’s Harkness Memorial State Park, with elegant gardens, Renaissance revival mansion and sprawling lawn at the edge of Long Island Sound; East Lyme’s Rocky Neck, offering scenic paths, camping and saltwater swimming; and Pachaug State Forest in Voluntown, which contains secluded ponds, dense evergreen forests, tumbling streams and towering ledges.

These familiar parks attract visitors from throughout the state; lesser-known destinations farther off the beaten path remind us that southeastern Connecticut also contains delightful surprises.

Butting up against the Groton town landfill and close enough to Interstate 95 that the hiss of traffic mingles with rustling leaves, the 201-acre Candlewood Hill Wildlife Management Area would seem to be an unlikely wonderland.

But this hilly, wooded parcel, which once had been earmarked for industrial development, contains extensive trails that wind into ravines with overhanging ledges, alongside lush expanses of mountain laurel, past sphagnum bogs, and through the largest pitch pine forest in Connecticut. Candlewood is the colonial term for pitch pine, which has high levels of resin. Settlers extracted turpentine from these trees and burned the knots as candles.

“It’s an amazing place,” Maggie Jones of the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center in Mystic remarked the other day while we tramped along on a five-mile hike.

Encouraged by Maggie, the Groton Open Space Association and other environmental advocates, the state bought the property in 2017 over the objections of the Groton Town Council. Some local officials were miffed because the deal had been arranged behind their backs and because the land, formerly owned by Tilcon, an asphalt and concrete paving materials supplier with divisions throughout the Northeast, would be taken off the tax rolls.

Candlewood Hill is so new it doesn’t appear on any maps of state parks or preserves. The Department of Energy and Environmental Protection also has yet to install official trailhead entrance signs.

Some of the trails also are works in progress. Maggie and I had to wade through ankle-deep water for a hundred yards or so after entering the park via a narrow path off Flanders Road.

Soon, though, after clambering up a ridge, we were rewarded with views stretching to Long Island Sound.

Equally impressive is a 44-acre pitch pine grove that spreads over a granite rise with an understory of scrub oak and wild blueberry bushes. There also are several glacial erratics — large boulders left behind at the end of the last ice age more than 10,000 years ago.

“I call this area ‘Monadnock’ (because of its resemblance to the New Hampshire mountain),” she said.

The park includes vestiges of the past: old granite quarries, now filled with water. There are several other wet areas, including swamps, the headwaters of Fort Hill Brook and Eccleston Brook. My boots soon were soaked, but no matter — it was a glorious, sunny day.

Hiking with Maggie is always an education as well as an adventure. Every so often she stopped to peer through binoculars or cock an ear.

“There goes a chipping sparrow,” she noted. Then some pine warblers flitted by. A few minutes later: “Hear that! A broad-winged hawk!” Maggie gazed skyward, and sure enough, a raptor pair circled.

We also viewed mourning cloak butterflies, whose black wings enable it to absorb heat on sunny winter days (not to be confused with spring azure butterflies), as well as so many other avian and insect species I quickly lost track.

One creature we didn’t observe until the very end of our hike was another human.

While circling back to our cars, we encountered a man walking his dog.

“I come here all the time. It’s a great place to hike, so close to home,” Ken Wetmore of Groton said. He was pleased to learn that the property will be protected in perpetuity.

In addition to the access north of the landfill on Flanders Road, there is a trail off Route 184 just west of Rogers Road. Additional information is available on the open space association’s website, gosaonline.org.

GOSA is one of more than a dozen land conservation organizations in the region that own or maintain preserves open to the public for hiking and passive recreation.

Among them are the Avalonia Land Conservancy, East Lyme & Niantic Land Conservation Trust, Friends of Oswegatchie Nature Preserve in East Lyme, Lyme Land Conservation Trust, Lynde Point (Old Saybrook) Land Trust, The Nature Conservancy, North Stonington Citizens Land Alliance, Old Lyme Land Trust, Old Saybrook Land Trust, Salem Land Trust, Stonington Land Trust and Waterford Land Trust.

Most have websites with directions to their properties, so hikers looking to cover fresh ground can venture into new territory every weekend for a year and still not hit every trail.

Happy exploring!

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