The final leg of our thru-hike stretched the length of the 215-mile New England Trail from the New Hampshire/Massachusetts border to the Connecticut Sound in Guilford.
Traveling though diverse ecosystems and classic New England landscapes- long vistas, agrarian lands, river valleys, dense forests - this relatively new National Scenic Trail (est. 2009) is comprised mainly of the historic Monadnock, Metacomet, and Mattabesett trail systems.
Not typically walked as a thru-hike because of private lands and camping restrictions, the NET lead us through some stunning Public State Lands and Municipal Lands. Contrary to what many people believe, we were able to thru-hike the entire trail without camping on private property or marked State Parks that prohibited camping.
The trail begins at Royalston Falls and travels eastward through the Warwick, Mt. Grace and Northfield State Forests. A late afternoon start at the Northern Terminus pushed us 10 miles to the first shelter, where we arrived to find a family already fully set up there. Instead we camped at the top of Mt. Grace and would meet up with our friend Andy, “Mean Spaghetti” the following morning. Andy was part of the other duo that braved the NFCT late in the season, except unlike us, he was an experienced canoeist. He thru-hiked the AT earlier this year and wanted to meet us to hike this portion of our trip.
Northern MA was quiet, smooth walking through the trees, with the occasional vista or road miles, where we may stumble upon a farm stand or “Free Shed.” The trail was relatively well-marked, but we were fighting the shortening daylight and were forced to hike by headlamps most nights. Viewpoints gave us glimpses of Mt. Monadnock, which stands alone in New Hampshire.
For the Massachusetts portion, the Mt. Holyoke Range just East of the Connecticut River (again, we started our hike at the source of the river up in Pittsburg, NH) was the highlight. The 12-mile long ridge walk was a series of short but steep ups and downs and sweeping vistas of the river valley. The trail eventually drops down to the river and from this spot there is no water crossing provided by the NET, so hikers need to shuttle, hitch, or walk an additional 11 miles around to where the trail resumes on the west side of the river.
Chilly temperatures and more physically demanding terrain led to vigorous appetites that would subside thanks to a trip into Northampton. Here we met up with Dingo’s brother, Mike to indulge in yummy food, beers and a motel stay nearby before he moved to New Zealand for the year.
From Northampton, the trail parallels the Connecticut River along the East and Provin Mountain ridges. Throughout the entire NET, we stumbled upon historical colonial landmarks like old foundations, wood stoves, and cemeteries. And, not surprisingly, a lot of very old junk.
At one point, we came to the Westfield River and found no bridge, rope, or any kind of indicator that offered a way across the water. We had no choice but to ford it, and while the first half of the wide river was shallow enough, the current strengthened and rose chest-high, the cold knocking the wind out of me. Luna swam across quickly and waited while I struggled to the other side with Dingo’s assistance. We were left cold and wet, but the tragic fatality was in my ignorance I did not anticipate the river would get so deep, my new camera was submerged. I am still sad I have nothing but iPhone pictures of the trail from this point on.
That night, where the trail crossed just North of the Connecticut border my cousin Colton picked us up and brought us back to his place in Southwick, MA. Night temperatures were dropping into the 20’s and we managed to escape the cold spell by spending a few nights in a row under a roof by slack-packing a day and returning to Southwick for an extended visit and more luxuries.
Entering Connecticut, we enjoyed Sunrise Peak, Penwood State Park, and Talcott Mountain State Park. We saw hardly any hikers and quickly the trail changed from tobacco farmlands to ridge lines overlooking urban areas. Atop Rattlesnake Mountain, there is a spectacular view of Hartford and tons of trad climbing and bouldering nearby.
Somewhere near New Britain, we saw a band of nasty sleet and rain rolling in for the weekend and since we were only 25 minutes from Dingo’s parents, they picked us up from the trailhead to go back for the night. I’ve learned (and suffered through) enough bone-chilling rain storms to know that they are much scarier than snowstorms. When you push a thru-hike deeper into the shoulder seasons snow is the clear threat, but rain poses a much more dangerous scenario for hikers. Rainy weather gets us wet, regardless of waterproof clothing. Even if we wear waterproof jackets and pants, the humidity paired with low breathability causes us to sweat inside our hotbox of layers. Either way, we are in a state of wetness when the temperatures flirt with freezing (32 deg) making it difficult to ever dry off, especially once we stop producing body heat by moving. This is often when hypothermia becomes an threat.
Lounging through the stormy weekend came and went. I noticed a cut between Luna’s pads which had become infected. She’d shown no signs of discomfort on the trail, but knowing we’d passed through a number of party sites with shattered glass, I wanted to grab some antibiotics from the vet so I didn’t have to worry about keeping it clean on the trail or an infection spreading. We’d take an extra day off to visit the vet and let the antibiotics kick in while the guys continued on. Since my car was in Connecticut, I was able to drive down to Rhode Island to see my friend Maria which was a much-needed spontaneous visit.
Luna and I would miss a 30-mile stretch through Ragged Mountain, which Dingo and Mean Spaghetti really enjoyed and got great weather. By the time we met back up with them, Luna had a spring in her step and I was equally anxious to continue hiking.
The final leg of the NET bounced between urban areas, bringing us unexpectedly across roads with diners, convenient stores, and bars. Fair to say we all carried too much food and didn’t loose any weight towards the end of this walk. The trail traced along some fantastic ridges and reservoirs, particularly Trimountain State Park.
Cockaponset State Forest and Timberland Preserve filled our last day with open forests, deep fall colors and notes on the trees (describing the species we’d been speculating about for days) until the trail culminated with a nice easy road walk in the dark through Guilford down to the Connecticut Shore. There, we’d touch our feet to the Atlantic Ocean after 700 miles of authentic New England trails.
In reflection, the inability to emerse in the woods entirely, with the distraction of creature comforts and family visits during the NET, was a unique end to our C to Sound walk. It was tough to make longer miles in the shortening daylight; we averaged 18-20 not including those days off at the end, with our shortest town day being 10 miles, and longest days somewhere around 25 miles. We did not do the additional 25 mile out-and-back portion of the NET because it wasn’t a part of our original route and we were into November. It’s worth noting, the ticks were vicious this fall. I think the NET is entirely hikeable in a thru-fashion if you are physically able to do some larger mile days and are flexible in towns, or by camping illegally. I appreciate the originality of the New England Trail- the history of it’s woods and townships, the ease of logistics, and the varied terrain. It was a different shake up from the remote places I’ve been hiking in the past few years.
I was really happy with all my gear choices on this hike; you can find my full gear list here.
*A few photos are courtesy of Dave Moore