By Gregory Naigles
Location: Salisbury, Connecticut
I wanted to find the perfect day for a hike. All last week was insanely hot, and over the weekend and in the first part of this week, it rained. However, I could see that June 3rd would be both sunny and not too hot, so it was the clear choice for my hike. I then had to figure out where to go. After thinking about this only briefly, the logical decision seemed to involve visiting the place where, only 14 months ago, I almost fell off an ice cliff. This hike also involved ascending the highest peak in Connecticut, Bear Mountain, located in the extreme northwest corner of the state. Driving up from home, I passed through Spencer’s old stomping grounds in Barkhamsted, and briefly wondered what he did in his spare time when skiing wasn’t possible.
(Just FYI – interesting fact. Bear Mountain is the highest peak in Connecticut, but it is not the highest point. Just northwest of Bear Mountain is Mount Frissell, whose summit is in Massachusetts, but whose south slope extends into Connecticut. The point at which the south slope of Mount Frissell hits the border with Connecticut is at an elevation of 2,380 feet, while the summit of Bear Mountain is only 2,316 feet. Thus, the south slope of Mount Frissell is the highest point in Connecticut, while Bear Mountain is the highest peak in Connecticut.)
There were three other cars at the trailhead on Undermountain Road (Route 41) in Salisbury when I arrived. I set off just before 11. The last time I had done this trail was that time 14 months ago, during Spring Break 2014. The trees and shrubs hadn’t bloomed yet, so I could see the countours of the area around me. Not this time. Everything was green and in bloom, and it pressed in against me, so that I could barely see off the trail. But I had hiked this trail, the Undermountain Trail, several times before (this was actually my sixth ascent of Bear Mountain), so I knew what to expect. I made good time up the first part of the trail, and made it to the junction with the Paradise Lane trail, a 1.1-mile distance, in almost exactly a half hour. This is pretty fast by my standards, although I’m sure Owens would have left me in her dust if she had been there.
At the junction, I knew that the Paradise Lane trail would be a right turn, so I took the first right turn that I saw. In not too long of a distance, I found myself in a camping area. This was unexpected, since I had used the Paradise Lane trail at least twice in the past, and neither time did I encounter a camping area. I assumed the trail must have been rerouted. But then the trail just seemed to end at the camping area. There were a few side trails there, but they were just to the wash area and the privy. The woods road that the trail had followed to get to the camping area quickly became overgrown and unblazed past the camping area. I was briefly confused, since I had never had this problem before, but then I saw a sign that said ‘Trail’, and a trail that went up the steep hill just west of the woods road. My confusion was only slightly allayed, since I did not recall this steep ascent on this trail either, but I followed the trail up the hill.
The short ascent took me up to the Riga Plateau, where the trail quickly ended at a T-junction. There were no signs at all, and only the trail to the left had blazes. However, I knew that I wanted to go to the right instead, so I took a right, and followed the unblazed but well-maintained trail for at least a mile. I suspected that this was the Paradise Lane trail, but I couldn’t be sure. However, gradually my suspicions were confirmed. The east side of Bear Mountain became visible from the trail, something that I remembered from past uses of this trail. In addition, the trail gradually became more blazed, and ultimately I arrived at the junction with the AT north of Bear Mountain, 2.1 miles from the junction with the Undermountain Trail.
I turned left and started the ascent of Bear Mountain. Just before the mountain reared up ahead of me, I passed through a flat area, where the trail to the cabin on the northwest slope of Bear Mountain meets the AT. The trail goes sideways up the mountain a bit, but then turns and goes straight up. The rock ledges were everything that I remembered them to be – big, tough, and fun. About halfway up, I saw a particularly high ledge, and a tree right at the edge of it, and recognized it as the place where I had almost fallen off an ice cliff 14 months ago. I remembered what happened – I had lost my balance on the ledge (not hard when the trail is icy and you’re wearing a backpacking backpack), and ended up sitting right at the brink of the ledge, straddling the tree, with it being the only thing preventing me from falling off the ice cliff. I couldn’t move because my backpack was heavy and my snowshoes couldn’t get any traction. If I had fallen off the ice cliff, I could easily have broken some bones. So instead, I took my backpack off and let it fall down the mountain, and without that weight I was able to get up and find a safe way around the cliff. Luckily, this time there was no ice or snow, so I was able to ascend the ledges without much trouble.
I always enjoy the summit approach on Bear Mountain. Finally the open sky comes into view, and gradually the monument as well. From the top of the monument, the views are amazing in all directions, but particularly north and east. Two people were there when I arrived, and I learned that their plan was to go back down the way I came up, and take the Paradise Lane trail back around to the Undermountain trail. They left about five minutes after I arrived.
While enjoying the views, I ate lunch, which was, as usual, a peanut butter and Nutella sandwich. I encountered a bunch of people at the summit – one thru-hiker, two people who looked like section-hikers, and a few others who were waiting for the rest of their group to show up (they never showed up – at least not while I was there). After spending a half-hour at the summit, I went down the much-more-gradual north slope of the mountain. I encountered a bunch of people on that section of trail as well, and they were all asking how far it was to the summit; this is the kind of trail where you always think that you’re almost there but never are. I made good time to the junction with the Undermountain Trail, which I took back down.
Just as I was approaching the junction with the Paradise Lane trail, I saw a pair of hikers on the Paradise Lane trail also approaching the junction. Sure enough, it was the two people who had left the summit five minutes after I arrived. We exchanged pleasantries, and as they continued down the mountain, I looked around briefly at the junction. It was not the same junction where I had joined the Paradise Lane trail going up.
I suddenly realized what had happened. On the way up, the first right turn that I saw, which I took, wasn’t actually the Paradise Lane trail; it was just the trail to the camping area. The actual Paradise Lane trail junction was a few hundred feet up the trail from that first junction, at the place where those two people had come out from. The trail that I had taken up the hill from the camping area was clearly just a connector trail. And the trail at that T-junction clearly was, in fact, the Paradise Lane trail, which explained why it went in both directions.
Now that I understood all of this, I was content to continue my descent. I hiked down the rest of the trail about 500 feet behind those two hikers. I made excellent time going down, taking only 80 minutes to descend from the summit to the trailhead. Thus, I spent a total of 3 hours and 20 minutes hiking (not including the half-hour I spent at the summit eating lunch), which isn’t bad for a 6.4-mile hike that ascends 1,600 vertical feet.
At the end, I felt satisfied, which is always the right feeling to have at the end of a hike. Bear Mountain had never failed me in the past, and it certainly didn’t fail me now.