Waves whipped up by frigid north winds crashed over some of the Thimble Islands, an archipelago of pink granite islands in Long Island Sound.
Pitch pines and cedar trees swayed on top of a rocky outcropping. A lonely swing hanging from an oak tree waited for a visitor.
Below the outcropping, a whimsical bridge and boardwalk reached across a salt marsh along a gravel bed that once took trolleys from New Haven to Branford's historic Stony Creek.
A visit to the shoreline in winter is a surreal experience, with the smell of the sea heavy in the air and the tide rushing in and out of channels through the marshes. The marsh grass, so vibrant and green in the summer, is matted down and yellow in its winter slumber. Patches of ice and slush fill depressions and float in tidal pools.
The shore is a great place to escape the winter doldrums, and the Pine Orchard section of the 28-mile-long Branford Trail attracts nature lovers, bird-watchers and even train enthusiasts. The trail starts at a huge iron bridge that carried the trolleys over a tidal creek from 1907 to 1937. Visitors can stand in the middle of the bridge and watch the creek flow past, with views of Pleasant Point and Flying Point out to the islands in the sound with names like "Potato," "Governor" and "Frisbie."
After crossing the bridge, visitors should look for a trail blazed with white circles. The blazes mark the entrance to the Branford Land Trust's Jennie Vedder Preserve. The trail snakes through a mountain laurel and oak forest along the tidal creek and past an osprey nest. Freight trains and Amtrak's Acela train often pass by, briefly breaking the peacefulness of the preserve. The trail continues through deep woods before traveling up to a high rocky outcrop with an incredible view of the sound and Thimble Islands, known by the Mattabeseck Indians as "the beautiful sea rocks."
A memorial to Vedder is made of the same pink granite from the nearby Stony Creek Quarry that adorns the base of the Statue of Liberty, Brooklyn Bridge and the Lincoln Memorial. It recognizes Vedder's preservation of much of the heavily wooded Pleasant Point as it juts out into Long Island Sound.
"A person of modest means," the memorial notes, "she used her earnings as a teacher and secretary to buy parcels of this land throughout her long working life. Concern for this land and love of her family were the abiding passions of her life." Through her donation, generations of nature lovers can come to this storied section of Branford and view the Sound and its beautiful sea rocks.
After traveling through a beech forest, the trail links back up with the trolley trail and its spectacular 500-foot-long boardwalk and bridge that takes visitors across Pine Orchard Wildlife Marsh. Visitors can walk through the middle of the marsh without getting their feet wet. The trail ends at an abandoned bridge abutment and railroad that takes gravel from a nearby quarry to the Tilcon Dock.
Although trolleys no longer cross the marsh, visitors to this trail can enjoy the natural world no matter what the season.
•Peter Marteka can be reached by phone at 860-647-5365; by mail at The Courant, 200 Adams St., Manchester, CT 06040; and by e-mail at email@example.com.