I now know what the steel ball feels like when it is being whopped around the bumpers in a pinball machine.
On a recent visit to the wilds of Litchfield County, I was mesmerized by the sunlight flashing through the breaks in the white pine canopy. My head held high, I spun around and bumped from giant tree to neighboring giant trunk. As I made my way through the near-old growth forest, I became dizzy as I was flipped down the trail by the awesomeness of Gold's Pines - a Connecticut version of the west's giant redwood forests.
Welcome to the land of the ancients — or as old as forests are in a state that clearcut itself during settlement and its charcoal-making phase in the Iron Age. Since a tornado destroyed an equally impressive 200-year-old stand of the nearby Nature Conservancy's Cathedral Pines in 1989, Gold's Pines has become one of the oldest pine groves in the state.
An interpretive board at the entrance to the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection's natural area preserve notes that the grove was formed when farmers abandoned the rocky New England fields in the early 1820s. The farmers floated west along the Erie Canal to the fertile fields of the midwest. Seedlings took hold and have been growing untouched ever since. And it's not only home to some of the state's largest white pines, but also one of Connecticut's largest tulip trees.
A short trail takes visitors into the heart of Gold's Pines, but you are going to want to get off the beaten path and silently wander across the bed of pine needles and under the canopy of the ancients. When you visit a lesser pine grove, you often hear the light swishing sounds of the wind blowing through the tops of the trees. Here, even on the brightest of blue sky days, the gentle wind makes a thunderous noise as it passes through.
Equally impressive is the neighboring Day Preserve, which runs up the western side of a rock formation known as "The Cobble." A mile-long trail diverges to the left from Gold's Pine preserve and travels to a large hayfield bounded by stone walls, evergreens and white birch trees. From the top of the field, visitors will find what I like to call a "purple mountain majesties" view, with the mountains of Massachusetts looming in the distance.
A loop trail along an old farm road brings visitors back to the forest and past a beautiful Berkshire farm, where horses frolic uninhibited in a large field. The trail loops back through a young pine forest and across some soggy old farm roads back to the field, where you are going to want to make one more climb to the high point for another look at that beautiful view.
Walk among giants. Take a path to see purple mountain majesties. Explore a cobble. This is no hike. It's a journey.
Follow Route 128 several miles west of its intersection with routes 4 and 43. A small parking lot is located on the left between the Little Guild of St. Francis and the Cornwall Volunteer Fire Department. Visit http://cornwallconservationtrust.org/day.html for a map of the preserves.