Mountain laurel, Connecticut’s state flower, grows in profusion along the Naugatuck Trail. I can’t recall ever seeing a trail with so much mountain laurel. Some of the laurels had healthy-looking leaves and should be lovely when they bloom in early June. But, on a hike here a few months ago, I found even the old, dead shrubs, with their gnarly branches, fascinating.
So, too, were several boulders that had been split in two as if a giant had cleaved them with an enormous ax. What force of nature could have caused such a clean break? The answer, I later discovered, is ice repeatedly forming and thawing over the eons, slowly widening a crack until the two halves fall apart.
The Naugatuck Trail extends 5.5 miles through the eastern block of Naugatuck State Forest in the New Haven County towns of Bethany and Beacon Falls. My husband and I wanted to take one car, and we wouldn’t have enough time to do the entire round-trip trail. Looking at the trail map in the Connecticut Walk Book: West, I noticed it was possible to do a loop hike by starting at the Naugatuck Trail’s eastern trailhead, on Route 42 in Bethany, hiking 2 miles to the intersection with the Whittemore Trail, and following that trail 0.8 mile back to Route 42. A short (0.2 mile) walk on the road would take us back to our car. We also decided to take the 0.4-mile side trail, the Beacon Cap Trail, out and back to a high point with views and a huge glacial erratic. In all, we hiked 3.8 miles.
Both the Naugatuck and the Whittemore trails are moderately easy, with mostly gentle ups and downs. The Naugatuck Trail meanders through the forest, at times twisting through narrow gaps between mountain laurel thickets or over bald rock outcroppings. With a short, somewhat steep, rocky climb, the Beacon Cap Trail is more challenging but worth the effort.
You can begin the hike at either trailhead on Route 42. We started at the one for the Naugatuck Trail and hiked in a counterclockwise direction. To follow our route, walk downhill on the graveled woods road that parallels Route 42, then turn left to follow the blue blazes northward. You will be in a narrow valley, with a small ravine to your left and rock outcrops on your right. In about 100 feet, you will reach what looks like a very old utility right of way. (The Walk Book describes this as a utility line, but no wires or poles are visible today.) Turn left here, then right to cross the small brook. Follow the blue blazes, passing a large boulder. The trail climbs gradually through a mostly deciduous forest, levels off, then climbs a ridge.
In 0.7 mile, you will come to the intersection with the blue-and-yellow-blazed Beacon Cap Trail. This trail climbs over a rocky knob, descends, and then ascends again to the 770-foot summit called Beacon Cap, which marks the boundary of Bethany and the town of Naugatuck. A pile of rocks provides a stairway of sorts for those brave enough to climb onto the huge glacial boulder. On our hike, a young couple and several boys enjoyed the views from atop the boulder, but my husband and I were content with what we saw from terra firma.
From Beacon Cap, retrace your steps to the Naugatuck Trail. At the intersection, head west along a ridge. The trail follows, then passes through, a large stonewall and weaves gently up and down through the forest. About a mile from the intersection with the Beacon Cap Trail, you will come to a section of bare-rock ledge with limited views. Bear slightly left here and continue another 0.4 mile to a four-way intersection, where you pick up the blue-and white- blazed Whittemore Trail. This easy trail, named for former Connecticut State Forest & Park Commissioner Harris Whittemore, who once owned the land here, heads southward through a deciduous forest with almost no understory. The openness gives you a good look at the undulating terrain but does not bode well for the future forest. (There will be no young trees to replace the old ones as they die off.) Along the Whittemore Trail, you will walk uphill and down, cross the old utility right-of-way, and go over two small brooks.
When you reach the trailhead at Route 42, turn left to return to the Naugatuck Trail trailhead (if that’s where you left your car; you can park at either trailhead).
The trailhead for the Naugatuck Trail is located on the north side of Route 42 (Beacon Road) 1.2 mile west of Route 63 in Bethany and 3.2 miles east of South Main Street in Beacon Falls. Parking here is limited; we parked on the south side of Route 42 opposite the trailhead. The trailhead for the Whittemore Trail is 0.2 mile farther to the west. The parking area here has room for more cars, but the approach to it is rocky. If your car has low ground clearance, park along the paved road. Visit CFPA’s interactive trails map at ctwoodlands.org for Google directions from your house to the trailhead.
Diane Friend Edwards is a writer, photographer, and lifelong lover of the outdoors. She lives in Harwinton with her husband, Paul.