Matianuck Sand Dunes Natural Area Preserve
“Instead of the gym tomorrow morning, I’m going to the beach.”
“Yeah, I’ll be home usual time, don’t worry about it.”
“I just want to hit the sand in the early morning light. It invigorates me.”
I made up that conversation, but that’s exactly how it would have gone had I told my wife my Matianuck plans. Because who thinks of “sand dunes and sea shells” when you think of Windsor, Connecticut?
Wait. Who thinks about the extreme southeastern Windsor right near the I-91/I-291 interchange just above Keney Park and the north end of Hartford?
Well you should. For one, I happen to work in Windsor and there are a bunch of cool places and things to do in Windsor. Hiking in Matianuck Sand Dunes Natural Area Preserve is but one of them.
Yup. Sand dunes. In Windsor. Just northeast of the highest violent crime area of Hartford. (In fact, on the morning I checked this place out, a man was murdered just south of Keney Park at Jumoke Academy. And knowing the half factual, half urban legendy stories of murder victims turning up in Keney Park over the years, this isn’t really the ideal place to go for a hike I suppose. However, I’m not really concerned about murderers hiking into the wilds of this place too often.)
Are you sold yet? No? Well, I’m not sure the first part of my adventure will convince you, but read on…
There are several ways to get to the sand dunes. I took the generally accepted way in from the back of the commuter lot on Cottage Grove Road (route 218). It is not an inviting trail head to say the least:
Once past the initial mess, the trail is cleared better than you’d think it would be here. Sure, you have to climb over a few blowdowns and trudge through several streams and swamps and muck, but the trail is actually blazed (white) and I only lost it a couple times.
Hey, we’re looking for sand dunes in Windsor people, you can’t expect this to be an easy trip.
If you are mosquito bait, you’ll want to avoid this place at all costs during the summer. With the wet June and July we’ve had this year, and this trail’s penchant for skirting and/or slogging through every fetid Dagobah swamp in extreme southern Windsor, the swarms of skeeters here are positively Evergladian. I have never seen so many mosquitoes alight on my arm all at once in my life.
Fortunately, they don’t bother me at all. I know, weird.
But what does bother me, on some level, is noticing a cross memorial planted about 50 feet off the trail in the middle of a swamp. I can only imagine one of the aforementioned dead bodies was perhaps found here at some point. I mean, what else could it be?
After the swamps, you’ll notice a clearing to the right. That’s the St. Benedict’s Cemetery. You’ll also notice a nice wide clear path to the back lawn of the cemetery. At that point, you’ll say, “hey, I could have just parked at the back of the cemetery and walked in here and avoided the bushwhacking and the muddy feet and the murder memorials and the mosquitoes” - and you’d be right. But where’s the ADVENTURE in that?!
Back to the trail, which at this point is fairly “normal” and takes you through oaks and pines and such for a quarter mile.
Then the ground beneath your feet suddenly turns sandy:
And the trail officially ends in a small patch of beach with a few towering pitch pines. However, though it’s not blazed, the trail continues south to the dunes. (Ironically, the trail is easiest to follow at this point.)
It really is a bit startling to happen upon the dunes. There are two dunes beyond the first one you encounter, so continue southwest to the much larger one. For geology geeks like me, this place is fascinating. I loved it. In case you missed it, there are ancient sand dunes in Windsor, CT!
I spent some time on my hands and knees looking for any of the three rare insects that live here: the big sand tiger beetle, the ghost dune tiger beetle and a rare species of trap-door spider.
Stupidly, I didn’t bother looking up with these guys looked like before my little hike, so when a fairly boring looking beetle alighted on my sweat-covered forearm while I was looking for the trap-door’s trap doors, I brushed it off and didn’t think about it.
Until right now, when I looked up what the ghost dune tiger beetle looks like and, HOLY CRAP! I HAD A GHOST DUNE TIGER BEETLE* ON MY ARM!
*Maybe. I can’t be sure. But I swear, it sure looked like it.
I poked around in the sand for a good 15 minutes before the absurd humidity and mosquito clouds did me in. I found no trap doors, but I really enjoyed finding all sorts of antediluvian clam shells and other assorted ancient artifacts.
I also found a few Star Fungi. I picked one up, remarked to myself that it seemed weird, threw it on the ground and walked away. I’m getting the feeling I should return to the dunes soon.
So how did this place come to be? 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. I’ve heard and read about other tiny little dunes in the state – Enfield to be exact – but the Windsor ones get all the glory.
These dunes are just cool. Period. The unique (to central Connecticut anyway) vegetation, the shells, the rare species potentiality, the clarity of bobcat tracks in sand:
I really enjoyed it. You can access the dunes via Keney Park from the south as well, via an unmarked trail. If you come that way, you’ll pass through a not-so-ancient abandoned go-kart track which is interesting in its own right. In 2013, an Eagle Scout project got underway removing the hundreds of tires leftover from the old track.
My return trip was uneventful. No matter which entrance you choose, the out-and-back walk is never much more than a mile.
CTMQ’s Natural Area Preserves
CTMQ’s Cool Geology
Monica Swanson saysJanuary 30, 2018 at 3:50 pm
I think the bobcat track could be coyote. It looks like it has nails in it to me. Bobcats have retractable claws and therefore they usually aren’t visible in tracks. Just a thought….
Monica Swanson saysJanuary 30, 2018 at 4:07 pm
As always, very helpful information and links!
I read somewhere else that the clam shells and coal could have been remnants of people using the dune area for clambakes in years past, which is also an interesting theory…
Who knows? It’s all cool.
Qsusi saysApril 7, 2022 at 4:58 pm
I read about this place and googled it and found this podcast type thing. I really appreciate that it was written. I also don’t know what CTMQ really means. I think I stumbled upon that one other time. Much appreciated the way you wrote it as if I was there and I might try it sometime before it gets too warm
Steve saysApril 8, 2022 at 9:18 am
All you questions (CTMQ related) are answered here.
Dan saysJuly 31, 2022 at 8:30 pm
I went there today! After a very disappointing (to me and my particular cares at least) prior hike in Simsbury. I needed something to cheer me up. I recalled your website, this page, about the super sketchy entrance from the commuter lot to the sand dunes and that felt like just what I needed. I went down a road I hope to never drive down, it was terrible mc-sh**y pothole land I think actually called “Gun Hill” rd or something to try and follow the GPS from my former hike, ended up at a private golf course that some nice lady opened up so I didn’t have to go down the one lane width road from hell to get back, and eventually made it to the park and ride lot. It was much as you described. I did not notice the cemetary or cross. I was worried about ticks or if my car would still be there when we got back (seems like we were lucky on both counts). Sure enough following someone’s proto-trail, (not all detailed) on All-Trails and your info got us to dune spot 1. There were clam pieces and charred wood with lots of sand. I almost gave up, but then I spied through some thick brush of an unidentifiable plant(s) a second sand dune area and we went there. That was worth it. We found more of the star fungi. I kept in mind the rare Ghost Tiger Beatle but I don’t think I saw any seeing as the images make them look white and spotted (I guess that’s the ghost part) and the insect I saw was dark black. I didn’t want to get to close to investigate and it was very hot. Hot enough to the point my camera was not behaving fully well for photo taking. We did get plenty of photos of the bits and pieces and plotted the course (backwards I guess) on Alltrails from the Sand Dune to the entrance in case that helps future explorers. Glad I saw your site. Thank you for writing about this. My personal favorite is still Rocky Hill’s Mustard bowl for the immense size and being able to run up and down huge ares and have some with less silt but serious soft sand dune (like what you found) while doing rock collecting. That said Rocky Hill’s leftover area didn’t seem to have any seashells or charred wood or star fungi (I spent many hours over numerous days over a year or two searching damn near every inch and never found any there). So they definitely have their unique charms.
Dan saysAugust 1, 2022 at 1:10 am
I recall when I was at the Rocky Hill mustard bowl a local gentleman told me he lived in the area for a long while and recalls it was used as a quarry so perhaps once it had the clam shells and star fungi and other detritis but it was lost a decades of uses a quarry.
I also read they did this year a controlled burn in the Windsor Sand dunes to help maintain the rare plants there.
Rick saysDecember 8, 2022 at 7:14 pm
I grew up in the 60s and the 70s and as a kid my father belong to a gun club in Keney Park it was called the Hartford Schutzen Park it was a target shooting club and I would go down in back of the park and ride the gocarts a man named Mr.Farnsworth had a small track there there was also a very large pavilion was also there and you could go bowling and they would hold dance’s I have a picture of the pavilion, it was great memories.
Jennifer & Marcel saysJanuary 8, 2023 at 9:37 am
What a cool place!!! We looked for the cross but didn’t have any luck! We did however find numerous old cars, an old pavilion, some foundations and oddly enough a motorcycle helmet right next to the swamp!!! Beautiful woods in that area! We saw a bunch of what we thought were dog tracks at the dunes but Jen pointed out that there were no human prints so they were probably coyotes. We also saw tons of deer while in that patch of woods!!! We just love this area!!! We parked near the golf course at Keney Park and walked through the old Hartford Zoo first and then continued on to the dunes!!