By guest blogger Paul Parulis
I suspect many people in Connecticut are familiar with the approach to Rocky Neck State Park in Niantic. You get off Exit 72 from Interstate 95 and drive to the end of the access road, take a left at the stop light on Rt. 156 and then the first right into the park. If it’s a weekend day in the summer, you probably waited in a long line to pay for entry, then drove to the huge parking areas and walked directly to the beach.
I also suspect that far fewer people are familiar with the hiking and mountain biking trails and hiker parking that is not near the entrance to the beach. There are just over 5 miles of cleared and marked hiking and biking trails in the park, not including the beach boardwalk or the walkways in the camping areas. I’d consider Rocky Neck an “easy” hiking park. Most of the trails are wide, flat and have little elevation gain. The main trails are scenic and meander from Rt. 156 south toward the beach. Most of the trails are heavily wooded with large oak trees and generous stands of mountain laurel.
Now that you’re interested, here’s how to get there – Once you get off Exit 72 and drive to the stop light at Rt. 156, take a right and drive up the hill about a 1/4 mile. Just across from the Camp Niantic RV park you will find a parking area. There is typically enough space for a dozen cars. This is where the trails begin. I wouldn’t recommend this as an alternate for beach parking because you will have to haul all your stuff over a mile to get to the beach! After you park and enter the woods you will see a nice kiosk with a map of the trails.
If you would like to check out the trails ahead of time and print out your own map.
The (3) main trails are the Red, the White and the Blue. How patriotic!
The Red trail is essentially a loop that covers the middle portion of the hiking woods. Of all the trails in the park, this one is the easiest and flattest. During the summer when there are leaves on the trees, this trail has few views of the water, except for the final ¼ mile on the east side. At that point the trail exits the woods and crosses a lovely portion of the marsh. There is a wooden bridge that takes you over the water. From this bridge there are beautiful views of the marsh and some of the Osprey nesting structures erected to attract this magnificent bird.
Another highlight of this trail is a spectacular glacial erratic that is located at the north end of the trail. This multi-ton boulder is perched on top of a rocky outcropping and looks like it’s about to roll off. Not so! This rock has been teetering since the glaciers receded about 20,000 years ago.
The White trail starts at the parking area, follows downhill parallel to Rt. 156 then turns south and continues along the Bride Brook marsh on the east side of the hiking park. It follows near the edge of the marsh for about the next mile, then crosses the Red trail about ¾ of the way down to the beach. Along the way there are periodic views of the marsh and Bride Brook.
Directly across the marsh is the camping area of the State Park. After crossing the Red trail, the White trail then curves up behind the marsh and eventually takes you to the back of the main beach parking area near the Pavilion access road. There are a few slightly steeper sections than the Red trail on this trail at its north and south ends, but neither is very taxing.
The Blue trail takes you to the west side of the park, first down the hill parallel to Rt. 156, then after a sharp left turn, through a large open field. At the end of the field the trail heads back into the woods climbing up the rocky portion of the park along the Four Mile River. This trail joins the western portion of the Red trail for a short distance then branches off and heads due south terminating at the Pavilion access road not far from the beach.
No matter which of the main trails you take, you should eventually find your way to the beach on Long Island Sound.
In addition to the (3) main trails there are a few spur trails and connecting trails that should by no means be avoided. In particular, the Yellow trail and Red/White striped trails are well worth the effort.
The Yellow trail is a spur off the Blue trail that takes you along the cliffs that overlook the Four Mile River. This trail has the best views in the park, but watch out if you have some small children with you. There are some steep drop-offs that are very treacherous if you deviate from the marked trail. This spur is short (1/8 mile) and returns you back on the Blue trail.
The Red/White trail starts on the Pavilion access road near the main beach parking lots. It climbs rather steeply right up the side of the hill. At the top of the hill is a large granite outcropping that is the high point of the entire State Park. It has some nice views of the beach and Long Island Sound when the leaves are off the trees. The Red/White striped trail ends at the footbridge that crosses over the Amtrak railroad leading to the beautiful stone Pavilion perched at the southern end of the park overlooking Long Island Sound.
A round trip hike from the parking area on Rt. 156 to the beach and back will typically cover anywhere from 2 to 2 ½ miles. But I’m pretty sure you are going to want to go that extra few tenths of a mile and spend some quality time sitting on the sandy beach or walking along the shore before you head back to the car.