The Willimantic River begins in Stafford Springs at the confluence of Middle River and Furnace Brook and flows south through northeastern Connecticut to the historic mill town of the waterway's namesake. One of the first public places where you can see this river in action is the Nye-Holman State Forest in Tolland.
Although the forest spans more than 800 acres in Tolland, Willington and Ellington, this portion right off I-84 is the most easily accessible section. For those looking to get out for a scenic drive, a gravel road off Route 74 cuts through the forest along Plantation Road to Pero Road and back to Route 74. Visitors can get a good sense of the forest without getting out of their cars.
But the road isn't plowed in the winter, so your best bet is to park near some picnic tables at the start of Plantation Road and walk the route. The beginning of Plantation Road gives visitors the best views of the river as it flows through some lowland woodlands and a swamp. There are plenty of scenic vistas along the route.
According to the state Department of Environmental Protection, the forest is named after Samuel Nye who received 500 acres in 1719 when Tolland broke off from Windsor the first permanent settlement in Connecticut in a deal with Uncas, a Pequot sachem. Approximately 186 acres of this original grant is incorporated in the forest.
The forest came into existence in 1931, a gift from Alice Henry Hall the great-granddaughter of Nye and daughter of William Holman. The forest was once the headquarters of the Connecticut State Forests eastern district located in a 1840 home. Today the headquarters is located in Marlborough.
Soon after the state accepted the land, a transplant nursery was created with as many as 225,000 young trees planted. Although the operation ended 16 years later, the trees from the plantation including white pine and other evergreens thrive throughout the forest.
A stone dedicated to the memory of forester William C. Shepard who, according to the Forest History Society, helped create several programs including one that generated charcoal from timber obtained through forest thinning, converted fallen timber from a hurricane into salable lumber and helped provide lumber from state forests to build homes.
An unmarked trail leads from the stone down to a boardwalk along the river and then north along the banks of the Willimantic before looping back to the gravel road. There are a number of old fishing trails along the river, so explore at your own risk.With a busy I-84 always off in the distance, there's really no chance of getting lost.
I-84 East to Exit 69 (Route 74). Take a right at the end of the ramp and turn left on Plantation Road prior to crossing over the Willimantic and into Willington. Visit www.willimanticriver.org/
html for more information on this section of the Willimantic. For more Way To Go columns go to www.courant.com/waytogo..Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun