It was the strangest trailhead I've seen in my travels across the state: On one side, a dilapidated iron truss bridge with more air than wood for its walkway and on the other side an unwelcoming fence for the Blue Stone Quarry.
But then I saw it. A little blue square blaze noting the start of the Hancock Brook Trail at the end of an iron gate, leading to a path through some high grass at the edge of the quarry. After walking straight along the dusty edge of the quarry and wondering if someone was going to tell me I was trespassing, I passed a huge woodpile, a broken-down, rusted machine, a series of concrete Jersey barriers and finally was swallowed up by a forest.
And then the ugly duckling turned into a beautiful swan, a frog transformed into a prince. A scratch-your-head trailhead turned into easily one of my favorite hikes in the state. And all just a mile from the hustle and bustle of the industrial area of Waterbury that earned it its nickname of "Brass City."
As you leave the quarry and enter the Mattatuck State Forest, you also leave any signs of civilization. In its place is a trail that follows the tranquil banks of Hancock Brook. An energetic waterway in the winter and spring, during this visit it flowed an interesting milky-white color due to some heavy thunderstorms that passed through the area the night before.
The 2.8-mile loop trail is split into three sections: a high path, a low path and a brook path. Counter-clockwise is the best route to take here. Shortly after entering the forest, the trail splits off to the left where visitors can reach the overlooks the fastest. But you want to stay right and enjoy the bottom of the ravine first.
An old forest road, shored up by huge stone embankments, is easily navigated and will give you a nice view of the forest brook. For those in an adventurous mood, take an unmarked trail that travels right along the brook. There you will climb over rocks, use huge roots for stairs and marvel at the work of the builders who constructed the railroad running along the opposite side of the brook. They created 40- to 50-foot-high walls of stone to keep the ravine from eroding and destroying the tracks that took trains from Waterbury to Hartford.
The trail along the brook is stunning —a forest filled with hemlocks, mountain laurel and huge boulders and jagged cliffs and outcroppings along the northwestern portion of the trail. The low path offers a preview of where you will be going as the trail ends and makes a quick turn nearly straight up to the summit of a 660-foot-high rock formation known as Lion Head.
The journey to Lion Head is a bit difficult, with the trail following pine needle-covered paths through a deep evergreen forest and up narrow ruts to the top of the cliff. The trail opens up views of the Hancock Brook valley, the railroad snaking through the trees and miles of forests.
There are several scenic overlooks on top of the craggy cliffs filled with blotches of quartz that sparkle brightly in the afternoon sun. My favorite spot is an overlook under a sprawling pitch pine whose needles create a natural carpet – a sort of picnic blanket to peacefully pass away a lazy summer day.
Take Route 8 north to exit 36, then right on Huntingdon Avenue across the Naugatuck River. Take a left on Thomaston Avenue and right on Sheffield Street. Route 8 south to exit 37. Follow Route 262 east across the Naugatuck River and take a right on Waterbury Road and follow 2 miles to Sheffield Street. Travel to the end of the street and use the parking area to the right of the quarry entrance.