Dennis Hill State Park
There are other CTMQ pages about Dennis Hill (a subsequent visit with the family and one about the former observation deck.) And someday, I’ll beef this one up with the trails around the park.
I’ve written before that I have much love for Norfolk. I can’t put my finger on exactly why I love the town, but I do. One reason is Infinity Music Hall and another is that they proudly call themselves the “Icebox of Connecticut.” They also list their highest elevation on the “Welcome to Norfolk” sign – an endearing trait that I think is unique to the town. Yet another huge reason is the three state parks within Norfolk – Campbell Falls, Haystack Mountain, and Dennis Hill.
Oh yeah, and we went curling there too. That was pretty rad.
Both Haystack Mountain and Dennis Hill are limited access parks with a few trails from the entrance gates but are open to car traffic on October weekends. That’s a pretty cool policy and while I’m certainly all for hiking, sometimes taking the lazy man’s route has its benefits (like when you have a sleeping child in the backseat who wouldn’t hike up the hill anyway). So it was, on a partly cloudy Halloween day when I drove the family west for one last foliage hurrah from the top of Dennis Hill.
As I often do, I scouted out some backroads rather than taking the usual busier roards. I drove us through northern Torrington, across the decidedly remote southwest section of Winchester and then up into Norfolk. It was all very exciting, especially when passing the site of the first condensed milk factory in the world (CTMQ report here). How can you not click on that link? I was more happy about this than you can imagine, because I had searched for it in vain a couple years ago while hiking in Burr Pond State Park (CTMQ hike here). Another piece of the puzzle put into its place.
The sign for Dennis Hill State Park on route 272 is missing – and it appears it has been for quite a while, as I can’t find any pictures of it online. I missed the turn initially, but quicky realized my error (though you must be vigilant, as they don’t believe in road signs much out here) and righted the car. There is a teeny tiny lot at the entrance, so this place really doesn’t get much traffic any time of year, unless they let cars into the lot just inside the gate. At any rate, since it was an October weekend day, we drove the mile or so to the tippy top.
The road is only one car-width wide and actually skirts the hillside pretty tenuously. It’s like a mini (VERY mini) sketchy mountainside road! I loved it – in appropriately small-scale of course. There is a very large open-air pavilion on top of the hill and maybe 270-degrees worth of viewshed. It’s really quite lovely. I knew it would be nice, but for some reason I was still a bit surprised by the sort of uniqueness Dennis Hill brings.
Since this hilltop (at 1627 feet) was cleared of trees at one point – and continues to be maintained by the state today, there must be a story here. And amazingly, that story isn’t online anywhere… Until now, that is. Inside the pavilion, there are a bunch of laminated sheets of paper that tell the tale of Dennis Hill. Enjoy, the abbreviated version with the abundant typos edited as well – clearly not written by me, as evidence in the first sentence:
In 1934, shortly after the death of Dr. Frederick Shepard Dennis, noted New York surgeon, his summer estate of 300 of the loveliest mountainside acres, in the town of Norfolk, was offered to the state of Connecticut for use as a public park. The estate comprises beautiful grounds, and a unique summit bungalow that stands at an elevation of 1620 feet above sea level from which high points of three neighboring states are visible.
Here’s another example sentence… I’m merely pointing out that they could have done a better job:
Looking to the north, one many (sic) see the town of Norfolk back (sic) of which rises Haystack Mountain with its tower. Mt. Graylock (sic), the largest elevation in Massachusetts (“largest?”), is clearly visible. The green Mountains in Vermont may also be seen. Mt. Everett rises plainly in the distance to the west.
I think this may be a bit of an exaggeration. Greylock is certainly not “clearly” visible, nor is Mt. Everett. Visible? Yes, on a very low humidity clear day. Clearly? Not at all. The next paragraph of the sign is a hugely interesting sentence. Something about how if you pour a bucket of water on the true summit, the water will trickle into three distinct watersheds: Blackberry River, Housatonic River and Farmington River. (Boringly, the Blackberry flows into the Housatonic not too far south.)
Some guy named Joshua Miller, Jr built a log house on the top of Dennis Hill (before it was Dennis Hill) and years went by before he sold it to the White family. The Whites moved and then Dr. Dennis bought the property. In 1908, the magnificent stone bungalow was built. It’s an octagonal building built with native stone. Dr. Dennis used to love having his friends up in the bungalow to party and whatnot. Back then, there were large panes of glass and everything else was pretty much the same.
Dennis Hill is actually an ancient volcano and the rocks contained within it, used to build the house are Becket gneiss – pretty much the oldest rocks in Connecticut.
Dr. Dennis was friends with some rather impressive folks. Like William Howard Taft who visited here with his wife (Okay, so “Taft slept here” doesn’t have the cache of “Washington slept here.” The famous German-born American composer/conductor Walter Damrosch (misspelled Damroach, perhaps slyly, on the sign), the Mayo brothers of the clinic fame and one Mr. Andrew Carnegie were guests and friends of Dennis.
According to the sign, it was Dr. Dennis who convinced Carnegie to establish the Carnegie Laboratory of Medical Research. Dr. Dennis also collected a ton of ferns and exotic trees from around the world. He planted a bunch of these trees on the hill and people from Yale and Harvard used to come down to study their growth. He replanted the whole hill with white pines at one point too, which were then sold for tons of money. He hosted a huge steak dinner each year for all the Connecticut state parks and forest employees.
There is a paragraph about a ghost story here that I’ll ignore and then it goes into Dr. Dennis’s “famous love of horses.” Dennis became tight with some Serb named Michael Pupin who was a “famous inventor.” Here’s why. This thing is written so poorly I can’t really make too much sense from it, but it goes on to say that Dr. Dennis was head of Saint Vincent’s Hospital in New York city in that same paragraph about horses and Dr. Pupin, which directly followed the 18th century ghost story and preceded a sentence about hos Dr. Dennis was the White House physician.
Also crazy, is that I didn’t photograph all 6 panels, but only 5. I’m sorry – perhaps that’s incentive for you to get out there yourselves. You really should. That way, you can learn about the other stuff I’ve left out; like how this place was used as a WWII lookout and how in WWI the bungalow was used as a fund-raising party joint and how in the 1980’s it mostly burnt down but the state stepped in and replaced the roof and…
Go check it out yourownlazyselves.
After Dennis Hill, we drove south down an excellent road (Goshen St/East St North) through Goshen to Litchfield center for lunch. We passed this lovely scene by Hoover Pond:
But then we noticed a cow in the pond. He seemed okay, but I’d never seen a cow in a pond before. So I zoomed in and took a picture.
The geology of Dennis Hill
Hiking map (pdf)
Two old journal pages about Dr. Dennis
Jack saysJune 1, 2012 at 4:32 pm
I’m not sure when you wrote this but the building on top of the hill has changed since the sign was first written.
Years ago the roof was clay tile and there was an observation deck on top where you could see over the trees and had a much better view of the land than you get now. The stairs started on the left side of the building (if you’re looking at the rock with the plaque on it).
At some point what was left of the building caught fire and the roof needed to be replaced. It was rebuild as you see in your photos. The inside didn’t change much except where new wood was put in to replace the burned stuff and new posts were put in the overhang in the front.
I have been there on very clear autumn days and from the roof top platform I have seen much farther than what is visible now.
I also agree that the signs are of poor quality and could use a redo.
Harry Lawrence Sr saysJanuary 15, 2014 at 10:33 pm
1/15/2014 On my walk to the top of Dennis Hill today, the temp hit 46 degrees. The flock of red robins at the entrance greeted me with a spring song even though it was still winter!! As you walk up the hill, the surrounding mountain laurels embrace the edges of the road, and the first glimpse of the sky at the top makes you feel like your in a surrealistic place! Rounding the corner at the top, on the right, you get your first look of the Majestic Rock House on the Hill!! Tastefully redone by the State of Connecticut, Dennis Hill boasts a 360 degree view of Connecticut to the South and East, Massachusetts to the North and New York to the West! Your visit will leave you feeling powerful, a feeling of accomplishment, peaceful serenity, excitement, and relaxing calm! Breezes blow through your hair and cool your brow. The sun shines right in your eyes and somehow it feels like a blessing. You contemplate flying with your arms outstretched! Now I know how some people say they got a natural high! It will last the whole day till the last glimpse of sun!
Lisa Hall saysNovember 19, 2016 at 3:55 pm
In approximately 1965 – 1967 when I was a child my family and friends of my parents used to always picnic up there in the shell of the home. I clearly remember seeing someone on the second level by a window spinning yarn. I was seeing this from the inside of the house. I am not crazy, I remember as a child this frightened me and I don’t think anyone else saw what I saw but I don’t remember talking to my parents about it.
It had been probably 20 – 25 later that I returned and never saw again what I saw when I was a child