This is one of the stranger sights you will ever see traveling through the state's inland landscape.
One moment you're walking along a path among towering oaks, past dried-up vernal pools and across a forest floor filled with ferns. And then you pass through a sandy patch of forest filled with huge pitch pines before you arrive at a beach.
In Windsor. Only a half mile from the Hartford city limits.
It's the Matianuck Sand Dunes Natural Area Preserve. The 270-acre preserve contains ancient sand dunes lying on the bed of what once was the glacial Lake Hitchcock, a huge body of water that, 15,000 years ago, reached from Rocky Hill north to Vermont.
The Matianuck preserve came into existence almost by default because no one seemed to want it. It was acquired by the state for the I-291 project and then deemed surplus land. The state Department of Corrections wanted to build a prison on the site, until the discovery of the rare trap-door spider derailed those plans.
So the preserve remained in its relatively untouched natural state for years, except for the remains of an old go-kart track. Now a 1.5-mile trail takes visitors from a commuter lot along busy Route 218 into one of those places that immediately swallows you up and transports you into the wilderness. Just check out a satellite photo of the area.
The trailhead, located to the left of a bus shelter, is a bit of a bushwhack to get in, but visitors will quickly find the white blazes of the trail. The trail snakes across old, broken bridges over wet areas and past some large oaks. Let's just say the trail is a bit rustic with lots of broken limbs, so you will need to be careful to keep an eye on the blazes.
The trail ends at a sandy grove of huge pitch pines that will remind you of being in a Cape Cod forest. An unmarked trail leads south from the grove to the first dune area. According to the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, the land lies in the north-central lowlands ecoregion and is home to rare insects like the big sand tiger beetle and ghost dune tiger beetle. And, no, I didn't see either one of them.
A second, larger dune area is located directly to the west and is littered with clam shells and clumps of grass that make it seem like you are at the beach although you are miles from Long Island Sound or the Atlantic Ocean. Here white pines line the edges of the dunes and a swath of grasses blows in the wind and — if you use your imagination — look like undulating waves.
According to Vincent Messino of the DEEP, who oversees the preserve, the dunes are a sort of "diamond in the rough." While some call the property Matianuck State Park, the area is undeveloped except for the lone trail. And it will remain that way until more studies are done to detemine the environmental sensitivity of the land and a management plan is developed, Messino noted.
A diamond in the rough is a good description. The trails are a bit hard to follow and there are wayward limbs and treefalls blocking access here and there. But a hike to ancient dunes just outside Hartford's city limits is something that you can't miss.
Take I-91 to Route 218 (Putnam Highway), in Windsor. Park at the commuter lot along the southern side of the highway next to Mount St. Benedict Cemetery. Peter Marteka may be reached at 860-647-5365 or at firstname.lastname@example.org or The Courant, 200 Adams St., Manchester, CT 06040.
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