Since childhood, my love of the outdoors has always been a part of me. And as an adult, I hope to share that passion with my own children.
So, I offered this challenge to my family, to join me in exploring the hidden treasures and more popular gems Connecticut and the surrounding region have to offer. From hiking to biking to kayaking, I hope my window into the outside world inspires you to explore as well.
MCKINNEY NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE
The promise of summer warmth and the draw of the shore has led me to yet another Connecticut treasure – that of the Stewart McKinney National Wildlife Refuge.
The state’s first national wildlife refuge serves as a bright light that stands out as a beacon for wildlife along the coast. The refuge stretches more than 70 miles of coastline and is made up of 10 units. But, it’s the unique 316-acre parcel in Westbrook that I wanted to check out.
It’s a beautiful property filled with historic homes from some of Westbrook’s earliest settlers - the Murdock family, and, years later, that of Esther Lape and Elizabeth Read and their reimagined estate of ‘Salt Meadow’. Now, they punctuate a picturesque setting flush with flowering dogwood trees and a buttercup-filled meadow.
The trails lie just yards away in the shelter of the woods beyond the field. But, before heading out, it’s worth taking the time to orient yourself with the map in the sheltered kiosk adjacent to the property’s longest path. Marked in green, it cuts through the woods onto a coastal trek that takes you to the outer edge of the refuge.
To get there, hikers will follow a winding, well-kept path through a thicket of trees. On this particular morning, I could tell foot traffic was light by all the garter snakes I startled – slithering to the closest cover they could find. Several chipmunks sounded the alarm as well ‘chirping’ and dashing over downed logs in their panicked escapes.
I left well enough alone and made my way closer to the marsh. The stone path turns rockier here and the smell of salt already alerted me to the water before my eyes ever set upon it.
Appearing briefly from the woods, the landscape has an enchanted air about it. The lazy tendrils of the water offers a reverie for fish, birds and boaters alike – evidenced by the pair of fishermen I glimpsed trying their hand at the catch of the day.
The historical imprint of this property is evident here too where the break between the woods and marsh lie. On the path, sits a stone box where one-time residents Read and Lape stored blocks of ice to keep food and drink cold. While, a round structure – still intact - once served as a picnic table for the pair and their friends.
Taking a seat at the table myself, I can see why this was one of their favorite spots. The setting here is quite peaceful and only punctuated periodically by the sound of trains along the nearby tracks.
That route holds a bit of history too. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt would often visit the homestead. But, instead of being dropped off at the station just two miles away, Roosevelt was allowed to get off near the trail where she was greeted by her friends.
And what an enchanting walk it must have been. This part of the refuge has some of the oldest remaining maritime forest left in the state. Walking through it, you’ll find much of it made up of oak and hickory. But, it also contains species of maple, cherry, and birch.
With the forest left behind, hikers close the loop in their trek through the last of the refuge’s dedicated resources. Once common, the scrub and shrub habitat is now a rare one in Connecticut. But, here the small trees and shrubs provide essential safe havens for animals like rabbits and turtles to thrive in. And, its importance, which I find true for the entire refuge, is easy to see for animal and human alike.
Directions: Take CT-9 S to Exit 5 for CT-80 toward Deep River/Killingworth. Turn right onto CT-80 W/Elm St. Turn right onto CT-80 W. Turn left onto CT-145 S. Turn left onto Old Clinton Rd. Turn right onto Steward McKinney Access Road.
Trail Difficulty: Easy
Trail Distance: 1.5 miles