A Sanctuary For Native Rhododendrons

Peter Marteka
Contact ReporterThe Hartford Courant

"Connecticut residents with a passion for native rhododendrons, quite rare in this state, were advised Monday by State Forester Austin F. Hawes that such showy shrubs are now blooming in the Pachaug Forest."

That sage advice came from an article in The Hartford Courant that could have been printed yesterday, or five years ago. But this article was from July 18, 1939. "They are right in their prime now and will be good for about a week," Hawes said then.

The Rhododendron Sanctuary in Pachaug Forest is one of those rare, unique places that must be on the to-see list of anyone who loves the outdoors. It is one of the state's eight National Natural Landmarks. It is set in the middle of Connecticut's largest state forest. And the shrubs grow in the heart of a rare Atlantic white cedar swamp.

I have two huge rhododendrons in my yard. They are kind of my pride and joy, with their beautiful display of huge blossoms in early June every year. I had always thought they were Connecticut natives, right up there with the state flower – the mountain laurel. And then I ventured to Pachaug and met the Great Laurel – Rhododendron maximum – in the sanctuary, tucked into Voluntown's section of the 27,000-acre forest.

These are definitely not the rhododendrons that grace people's yards. Those blooms are a distant memory. The natives are just starting to blossom deep inside the swamp. And it's a slow process. Some of the flowers are in full bloom. Some blossoms are just starting to peek out, showing little shards of color. Others are still in the bud stage.

The setting for the sanctuary is absolutely breathtaking, with a flat, handicapped-accessible trail running through the heart of the swamp for about a half-mile to a boardwalk and overlook. Huge ferns border the trail and the cedar trees and rhododendrons hang over the trail, creating a kind of jungle effect.

For those looking for a little extra adventure, a visit to the top of Mount Misery is far from miserable and only about a mile away. From the sanctuary, walk west along the forest road to the Connecticut Forest and Park Association's Nehantic blue-blazed trail. Although the first ascent can be a bit difficult, the path levels out until a final climb to the top of the 441-foot-high hill.

The view from the rocky outcrop under the pitch pines and white pines and alongside highbush blueberries is spectacular, looking out across the forest into Rhode Island with only a few hints of civilization. According to local legend, the name of the mountain comes from the miserable farming conditions settlers encountered in the area.

Although the native rhododendrons are slow bloomers, you might want to plan a trip to the sanctuary soon. It's a place that is far from miserable, with a view from bog to mountain top.

Interstate 395 to exit 86. Take Route 201 and a left on "Trail 2" of the Pachaug State Forest. Take a right on Cutoff Road and park along a large field. The entrance to the sanctuary is across the road from the parking area.

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