A trail winds up the side of a glacial esker to a high point known as Pigeon Hill – a place where the ghosts of a long-extinct species still seem to haunt the forest.
High on this rise in the woods of Bristol's Harry C. Barnes Nature Preserve, thousands of passenger pigeons once roosted. The species at one time numbered in the billions. But by 1914, they were gone from places like Pigeon Hill and all across the continent. "Martha," the world's last passenger pigeon, died at the Cincinnati Zoological Garden, a victim of — and lesson about – the toll taken by hunting and destruction of habitat.
There are a number of places across the state that pay homage to the North American birds called "feathered lightning" or — as the French referred to them — "pigeons de passage." One of those places is Pigeon Hill, located within the 70-acre Barnes preserve in the northern portion of the city near the border with Burlington.
And although Bristol doesn't appear to be a candidate to host a get-away-from-it-all preserve, the museum and its surrounding three-mile trail system is a great spot for families and hikers of all abilities to do just that. The setting is similar to one of my other Bristol favorites: Hoppers/Birge Pond Nature Preserve in the center of the city.
Altough the Barnes museum and nature center was closed for the holidays on my visit, the trails are open 365 days a year from dawn to dusk. There is a large paved parking area, and the trails are accessed behind the nature center. A trail marked with light blue blazes and dark dots is a connector to the Connecticut Forest & Park Association's 79-mile-long Tunxis Trail, which runs along the western border of the preserve.
The trail passes a large open field and an evergreen forest before reaching the banks of the pristine and robust Negro Hill Brook. A path marked with red blazes and black dots winds around the banks of the brook and a swamp across a number of boardwalks and bridges. Hemlocks and patches of moss line the banks of the stream.
Pigeon Hill is the preserve's "must-see" place, and one can get there by esker — a ridge composed of sand and gravel deposited by a glacial meltwater stream — or by kettle hole, a depression created when large chunks of ice were buried and then melted. And while it is a fairly easily climb, those who want to skip the ascent can travel along the "cardiac bypass" trail that runs along the base of the esker.
The trail along the top of the glacial esker includes a wonderful view out to the north and east to Mine Mountain and across an abandoned gravel pit operation being reclaimed by the New England forest. The trail continues past a deep kettle hole filled with white birches and returns to a swamp and the banks of Negro Hill Brook.
While many may think highly-developed Bristol doesn't have much to offer in the natural world, both Hoppers/Birge Pond and the Barnes nature preserve proves them wrong.
Route 6 to Route 69. Travel north for two miles and take a right on Shrub Road. The nature center is on the left.