Preserve-Hopping In Essex Land Trust's Fern Ledge, Heron Pond

One of the questions I find myself answering all the time from readers of this column is: "Where do you find these places?"

Most of the time the answer is websites, land trust trail guides, or just looking on maps. But in the case of the Essex Land Trust's Farm Ledge Preserve, I discovered it last fall after my daughter severely sprained her ankle at recess and I had to bring her to Middlesex Hospital's Shoreline Medical Center. While she was getting X-rays, I walked out to the car for something and a sign for Farm Ledge at the side of the center caught my eye. I explored it briefly and vowed to return one day.

That return date was last week, while the New England winter still held its firm grip on the area. The deep snowpack remained, but was much easier to navigate since you can now hike on top of the frozen landscape instead of through it. And since Farm Ledge is only 10 acres, I decided to do a little preserve-hopping in this beautiful Connecticut River town and explored the nearby 25-acre Heron Pond Preserve as well.

Farm Ledge packs a lot into the acreage that straddles the Essex/Westbrook line, with trails weaving in and out of the two towns. It's one of those places where you can brag that you explored a preserve in two towns in the span of a few minutes.

A long access trail leads from the parking lot and along the southwestern banks of Birch Mill Pond – a vital habitat for turtles, salamanders and frogs, according to the trust's guide. The path passes an old foundation and visitors can walk counter-clockwise or clockwise along a loop trail up steep embankments that make for a pretty strenuous climb to the top of the ledge.

But the seasonal views from the top of the ledge give to pastoral scenes of snow-covered farm fields and red barns in the distance. The frozen Birch Mill Pond can be seen in one direction with the distant hills looming over it. The ledges themselves are worthy of exploration too, looming high over the trail in places.

On the return trip down, I passed several North American beech trees, their ghostly ashen bark and golden leaves still rattling on their branches in the winter wind. The usual initials – some dating back to 1982 — were carved into the trunks by past visitors and couples pledging their love. But other hieroglyphs of the forest were different – a stunningly beautiful deer was carved into the bark of one tree. The sight was a first for me in my years exploring Connecticut's woodlands.

A few miles away as the crow flies is the 25-acre Heron Pond Preserve, where visitors can follow several picturesque streams through the forest near busy Route 9. Despite its noise, the highway blends into the background as you walk past the babbling streams and high along rocky ledges.

The entrance to the trail passes through a deep pine grove past Heron Pond with myriad trails crisscrossing the property. The frozen streams are fascinating to look at, with autumn leaves preserved by the grains of sand attached to the veins of the leaves, as if in a cryogenic state.

Fern Ledge is located at 260 Westbrook Road (Route 153) with the trail entrance on the southern side of the medical center. Heron Pond is located on Heron Pond Road off Route 154 just north of the Old Saybrook line. Visit http://www.essexlandtrust.org/04_guide.html for a downloadable trail guide.

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