We Can All Be Ethel Walkers
Ethel Walker Woods and Town Forest, Simsbury
This is a weird one for me. I took the boys here several years ago and only have vague recollections of what happened. We didn’t get too far, but I don’t know if that was because of Damian, Calvin, me, or a combination thereof.
I do know that we happened upon some of the odd concrete structures in the woods because I recall my sons asking me what they heck they were and I was at a loss. And I recall wandering on some trails without blazes that I couldn’t quite sort out on the map and, well… five or so years later I finally made it back over here to finish the hiking job.
I parked at the large lot on Town Forest Road and immediately headed south and east. And I immediately wondered where, exactly, I was. The trails that veer off south seem to be “locals only” paths and I eventually wound up at a baseball field and circled around and then a swamp and then… the main blue-blazed trunk trail. Don’t do this. Just park and cross the bridge and follow one of the blazed paths. The unblazed side trails – and there are several here – aren’t worth your time.
The blazed main trails here are big, wide trails, popular with mountain bikers. And horses. And, as I learned, hikers! I saw at least half a dozen people walking these trails and that’s always nice.
And we should all thank Simsbury for continuing to protect huge swaths of woods and farms for passive recreation and wildlife. So much of the town is ripe for development, but Simsbury keeps purchasing woods like these and keeping them undeveloped. It’s hugely impressive. In this particular case, much of these woods were owned by The Ethel Walker School. In fact, almost all of it was I think.
And these woods are beautiful. Massive stands of white pine, hemlock, and oak, some open fields, and many valuable wetlands. The school maintains a number of trails for its horseback riding program. At one point, there were publicly accessible trails nearer the campus buildings, but I think they are now off limits to the general population.
Which makes sense. Ethel Walker’s is an all-girl private boarding school and I know I wouldn’t feel comfortable skulking around behind trees avoiding the glare of teenage girls on horseback.
If you’re not familiar with the school, you may be confused as to why I keep mentioning horses so much. And if you walk the trails here, you’ll see plenty of evidence that these trails are shared by horses – watch your step!
Horse riding has been part of life at Walker’s since its founding in 1911. (Keep in mind the school also excels in academics… and tuition. It’s another of Connecticut’s $70,000 a year boarding schools.)
Walker’s is one of only a small number of boarding high schools that offers an equestrian sport on campus. Many of Walker’s most supportive alumnae have been riders at the School and a number continue to compete at the highest levels regionally and nationally. The Equestrian Center is located on campus, and the two main blue-blazed trails will take you to the west side of the school’s “horsey stuff” land.
I’ll get to that in a minute. All along the trail you’ll pass weird man-made concrete… things. Cisterns? Old wells? Found art? I don’t really know, but there are a lot of them. I think I’ve found some clues while reading about Simsbury’s fight to preserve the woods, beginning in 2004 or so.
Back then, a developer proposed building 122 giant (I’m sure) houses here. And the people started a 10 year effort to stop it from happening. The main “hook” for preservation was this:
The Ethel Walker property recharges the invaluable Stratton Brook Aquifer, which supplies 73% of town drinking water. It is also the sole source for numerous private wells. Development of the land above the aquifer poses a risk to the town’s water quality. The CT Department of Public Health has strongly recommended that the town support the acquisition of open space in this area to protect its water supply.
All these concrete pieces with shapes cut into them must be related to the wells here. Right?
So Simsbury voted to tax themselves a bit more to purchase these woods. Money was secured from various organizations and here I am, enjoying a walk through the woods rather than down a street of McMansions.
I wonder if any of Walker’s alumnae kicked in any cash. After all, there are DuPonts, Rockefellers, and Trumps among them. (Yes, Mary Trump went here. The least Trumpy of all the Trumps.) Sigourney Weaver is an alumnus too.
Both blue trails more or less travel west to east to the back western edge of the school’s property. Large signs tell hikers that to continue onto school property is disallowed. Maps suggest otherwise, as there’s a ring road that connects the two trails.
To obey those signs will deny you a very pretty view of the campus framed by Talcott Mountain and the Heublein Tower. I couldn’t deny myself that opportunity and as I walked towards the top of the hill, I came upon a couple of dog-walkers. I greeted them with, “Hello fellow trespassers” and we shared an uncomfortable laugh.
There are two blazed (red and purple) trails that connect the two main blue trails west of the school’s property. I urge you to use them, and not the ring road as I did. I was there on a Saturday and didn’t see a single student or school employee. I walked the property for… research purposes. I suppose if you decide to write 1,200 words about your walk through these woods, you can justify your mild trespassing too.
I found the end of the other blue trail and began heading back to my car. I watched a couple other walkers continue towards the school’s property and felt better about myself, but quickly forgot about all that because these woods are just so darn pretty. The stands of white pine here are as impressive as anywhere in the state and the soft footfalls on the trails here just make you feel good.
Even the doofy mountain biker who did this loop three times during my walk didn’t phase me.
Towards the end, I veered off on the orange-blazed trail which I recommend. It’s more of the same, but a bit less-traveled and “wild” feeling. This will also take you to the green trail which travels the “Town Forest” portion of the property.
It’s all pretty. It’s all protected. And now, after five years, it’s all done.
There are many options for longer hikes and bikes here. Continuing across Town Forest Road, a trail continues to Tulmeadow Farm and the Farmington River Loop of the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail will take you to Stratton Brook State Park and beyond. This is a great part of the state.