CROMWELL - Long-time Connecticut resident and former world heavyweight boxing champion Gene Tunney once said that “to enjoy good health, you must exercise.”
Tunney was right and Cromwell residents know this first-hand. The town is home to a half dozen indoor workout facilities and there are more options in neighboring towns. However, the real question is, where can Cromwellians go if they want to exercise while enjoying the abundant sunshine that our solar deity bestows on us each summer?
Luckily the town offers a few beautifully landscaped parks for residents to visit. Pierson Park is centrally located and gives locals a place to work out those winter kinks with a variety of activities. Park-goers can be seen walking the paved path around the park or playing basketball, softball, football and the occasional game of cricket.
Watrous Park offers the same, as well as tennis courts, volleyball, and a wider variety of walking trails. It also features a skate park for those looking to emulate Marty McFly. Both parks are kid-friendly and have options for the whole family.
The town’s parks are a great way to get in a quick workout or spend an afternoon watching the kids work off that sugar high. But if you’re looking for a higher elevation and a more relaxing atmosphere, the place to visit is River Highland State Park.
The park is nicely tucked away from the hustle and bustle of the city and offers hiking, breathtaking views and a lot of history. The park is relatively new, becoming a state park in 2001, but the historical significance of the land dates back hundreds of years when steamboats would patrol the Connecticut River, which is the backdrop to this great park.
The modest park is 172 acres and approximately five miles in distance if you walk, run, or crawl all of the well-manicured trails. There are routes for all fitness levels and a map at the park’s entrance indicates the length and direction of each trail. All of the trails are well marked and the paths are maintained better than some state roads.
Getting to the park is a bit of a chore, but it’s worth the difficulty due to the charm and beauty that awaits you. The easiest route to the park is to turn on Golf Club Road off of Route 99. Take a right onto Field Road at the end of Gold Club Road and you’ll pass the TPC River Highlands golf course, which hosts the Travelers Championship each year. Field Road will turn right in another mile and the park entrance is located just beyond the railroad tracks. The park’s sign cannot be seen from the road so, if you’re like me, you may pass this hidden gem a handful of times before arriving at your destination. There is plenty of room for parking and, even though it’s a state park, there is no fee, which is great for those on an exercising budget.
Once at the park, you will see a color-coded map of the area. Keep in mind that this is the only map available, but no need to worry--it’s nearly impossible to get lost. I find it useful to take a photo of the trail map on my phone before beginning the hike, this way you can refer back to the picture if you get lost in the woods. But remember, don’t text and hike. It not against the law, but Mother Earth frowns upon it.
The park has several trails to choose from, each offering its own uniqueness. The white trail will take you to the ridgeline and give you the best views. There are several spots along this trail to stop and snap spectacular photos of the river from a bird’s eye view. From these lookout points you can see the sandy shoreline below, but don’t be fooled into thinking you can scale down the side of the crevasse to reach the sand. The decline is deceptively steep and there is a safer, more direct route to reach the water.
The yellow trail is the most direct to the river’s edge and follows a quaint stream through the woods. The trail branches off of the white trail and, after a series of narrow wooden bridges, will lead you to the camping area located directly in front of the river. The campsite features picnic tables, fire pits, and an outhouse filled with spiders the size of silver dollars. Kayakers and canoers are permitted to camp in this area for a nominal fee.
This area of the trail is also rich in history and surrounded by controversy. The high bluffs and sudden descent down to the shoreline create a geological phenomenon called a blowhole. On certain days, a whistling sound can be heard that is either the act of good or evil, depending on who you ask. Tradition is that the Native Americans would visit this location to hear the “wind being caught by the spirt of the earth.” However, original colonists called this spot the Devil’s Blowhole, believing that it was an act of Satan. Who’s right? Who knows? It might be best to Ask Jeeves to settle this long-standing debate.
The other trails, the red and green, will take you deep into the woods. They are nice hikes as well, but the bugs during the summer will eat you alive if you’re not protected by repellent. A few of the bugs are so big you’d swear they were SyFy original’s “Mansquito” himself.
The worst of the bugs are the hippelates, also known as eye flies, whose sole purpose seem to be landing on corneas. These little pests travel in packs and the only way to avoid them is by wearing swimming/skiing goggles or by closing your eyes. The latter is not recommended.
Bugs aside, all of the trails have their own challenges. A few offer steep ascents that will get your heart pumping. One particular section of the white trail will take you up a vertical incline until you are on the backside of the TPC golf course. Here you can watch golfers hack their way out of sand traps. Golf claps are allowed, but not required.
Now that you’re equipped with the necessary information, it’s time to go outside and experience this great local land by exploring River Highland Park. Bring your kids, bring your dog, but don’t forget to also bring a Costco-sized bottle of bug repellent for the whole family to share. Whether you’re an exercise enthusiast or avid bird watcher this is the best location to experience and climb Cromwell.