I once believed the Connecticut shoreline had nothing to offer except for the "bigs" - state parks like Hammonasset, Harkness Memorial and Bluff Point. And then I discovered places like East Haven's Farm River State Park, Guilford's Chittenden Park and the Branford Trolley Trail.
But perhaps my favorite discovery came recently when I traced what remains of the Shore Line Electric Railway on a satellite map. There I discovered the Washburn Preserve, a 20-acre parcel along the waters of a tidal creek and Long Island Sound with views out to the Thimble Islands.
The journey to Washburn begins at the Weil Preserve in the quaint and picturesque Stony Creek section of Branford. An anonymous donor helped the Branford Land Trust acquire the piece that, according to Branford first selectman and Stony Creek native Anthony DaRos, "every thoughtful Creeker had worried about, coveted or developed a scheme to protect."
A mix of trails marked with blue blazes and the white/red dot Branford Trail take visitors from the hustle and bustle of Stony Creek deep into the woods past stone walls and under huge trees. The briny scent of Long Island Sound hits your senses first and then a view of marsh grass peeks through as the forest opens up.
Take a moment to get your bearings and look to the north, where a seemingly endless marsh – making its annual change from green to golden brown – meets an old railroad bridge. A view to the south showcases the "Bear Island" Thimble, the sparkling waters of Long Island Sound and a trail bridge spanning the horizon.
The bridge takes visitors across the marsh to several islands of pitch pine and scrub oak. Those million-dollar views of Long Island Sound that you don't think you have access to? They are here, as each view showcases the beauty of the rocky shoreline. The path continues over another, more rustic bridge and snakes past beautiful rock formations to a tunnel underneath the railroad where Amtrak's Acela and passenger trains fly past mere feet away.
The Washburn Preserve has the ghostly ruins of the Branford Granite Company, an old quarry that had its heyday in the 1800s, and the old trolley bed. A swath of old quarry tailings acts as a path to the old railway that once took trolleys along a 50-mile route from from Stony Creek west to New Haven and east to Chester.
The rails are gone, but remnants of the old line can still be seen from the bridge posts across Hoadley Creek to old railroad ties turned ghostly white from the waters of Long Island Sound. The trolley bed provides a good walking trail to explore the marsh.
The remainder of the preserve is the old quarry hole with water lilies and fallen leaves decorating its surface. Unmarked trails take visitors to the top of the quarry with stunning views of the Sound and some of the best sounding Thimbles – Cut-In-Two Island East and Cut-In-Two Island West.
Coastal preserve are perhaps the two most important words in the protection of our sensitve and at times very inaccessible shoreline. The Weil and Washburn preserves are two of the best examples of a town and land trust saving their piece of the shoreline.
To get there, take Route 146 to Thimble Islands Road. Follow through the center of Stony Creek and take a left on Buena Vista Road. With only a small parking area at the trailhead, visitors can park on the road or in the center of Stony Creek.