"Don't judge a book by its cover." "First impressions can be deceiving." "Things aren't always as they appear." "It was the best of trails and the worst of trails." "Parts of this place do actually include good singletrack and no smell of horse droppings." All of these are phrases that reflect the reality of Pachaug State Forest.
Pachaug is in the northeastern corner of Connecticut, easily accessible for local riders as well as many from Rhode Island and central or eastern Massachusetts. It is Connecticut's largest state park and its proximity to us in Boston's western 'burbs made it an appealing place to try. It's actually comprised of two sections: Green Falls to the south, which we skipped, and Chapman to the north, which was our focus.
When we first arrived, we used the main entrance and shortly found the headquarters. No one was around, but a box had a cache of maps. They weren't topographical, a detail that would come back to haunt us, but they had more trails than the maps we found online. We drove up the road a bit farther and parked near a main camping area in the middle of the park and once we had our bearings, we set out.
We'll spare the details, but here's the short version of the next several hours of riding around the central part of the park: lots of horses and the pervasive smell to prove it; Mount Misery is aptly named and doesn't have good single track to and from it to be worth seeing; everything seemed to be uphill or, when downhill, involved handing bikes to each other across impassable streams and swamps; people riding up from the southern section reported, with great irritation, a lot of trees down due to winter storms or Dutch Elm Disease which rendered those trails useless to mountain bikers.
By mid-afternoon, as we found ourselves back near where we started and knowing we needed to once again go up the same long hill on a well-groomed main road in order to get to new singletrack, we were struggling to maintain our sunny disposition. So we took a timeout. As we downed protein bars, Cliff shots, and water, we took stock of our situation. We didn't have much time left but had not begun to explore the northern part of the park. We mapped out a route that at least seemed to offer singletrack with potentially fewer swamps.
This is when our day began to stop stinking, figuratively and literally. We had some tough singletrack initially, with some intimidating rocks, washouts, and scree, forcing us to ride lighter and faster despite the fatigue. Shortly after passing a field of curious cows on a trail at the edge of the park, we came to a long, tricky downhill that was a blast to navigate.
As our day came to an end and we processed it over the post ride beer and drive back (no, not at the same time), we felt much better about the late-day biking than the earlier experiences. Unless someone wanted to focus on their uphill skills in the midst of a hundred year drought, we didn't believe we could recommend riding Pachaug. But we weren't ready to give up on it, either. We decided to more fully explore the northern part the following weekend.
Things started off beautifully on the second day, what with a cool, sunny morning, a pickup with a couple of bikes, happy riders, and a supply of Dunkin' Donuts coffee. We'd done some research and tracked down a topographical map that revealed we'd previously spent much of our ride stuck in a ravine, which explained the never-ending uphill slogs. The northern section had more variety and we sought out a parking space at Hell Hollow Pond, which was in the middle of that part of the park and a lot of promising trails.
Once our ride was underway, we began to feel as if our incessant optimism would be rewarded. Oh, sure, there was uphill right from the beginning, but it was singletrack this time. And it had small "moguls" which were fun. After this and a couple of more trails, we came to a clearing and stopped for a snack. We happily realized there were a series of trails to choose from. Better yet, no smell of horse poo hung heavy in the air. We mapped out the next leg and were off again. We found a couple of the best stretches of downhill so far. Big rocks, little rocks, scree fields, washouts, tight corners, roller coaster terrain, we found it all and loved it. Our next break was at Locke's Meadow Pond. Not as scenic as Hell Hollow Pond, but still nice and completely isolated and a good spot to rehydrate. We thought we'd be plodding along a boring gravel road in order to get to the next set of trails but found it was much rougher than it appeared on the map. This made for a more enjoyable transition to the next set of trails.
These next trails continued to be good rides, although we did have some challenges. Some of it was too hard to ride, some had downed trees, and some had trails that were tough to see. Still, there's no crying in mountain biking so we dealt with it and eventually looped back to the truck to refuel and resupply.
Our last legs included a set of trails just north of where we'd left off the previous weekend, giving us a better feel for how we might best string together some trails. We found some variety to the landscape with more tall pines and deeper forests, but still with plenty of scree to navigate. After several trails, with the day getting late and the constant uphill getting tedious, we had a blast by riding in reverse, enjoying a lot of long downhill. None of it was too steep but all of it required paying attention and picking out good lines or fighting to salvage bad ones without bailing. They were great to ride and reluctantly we found ourselves collapsing on the grass by the pond.
We reflected on Pachaug and realized it has its challenges: parts can't be ridden; the amount of horses or dirt bikes hauling down trails can be a challenge; the park isn't in great shape: some trails seem to disappear and others are getting overgrown; the central section isn't much fun. But once we figured it out, we realized it also has a lot going for it: Hell Hollow Pond is an excellent parking spot for the northern part of the park. There is a lot of good singletrack, even if you occasionally have to scout to find the trail or backtrack if you can't. And there's variety to the landscape and some pretty spots. Most importantly, there are some great riding features to this place, allowing it to offer something for every type of rider. It has plenty of dirt and gravel roads for the beginner; it has a lot of technical, scree-filled trails for the intermediate rider. Some of those same trails can have tougher lines and sections for the advanced rider. It rewards technique over power, but endurance is definitely required - its maximum elevation of 441 feet is deceptive as it manages to generate a lot of longer ups and downs. It's great for riding light, working on your line selection and endurance, and when you're on singletrack, you're pretty isolated. There are also camping facilities, so if you did an overnight you could explore on the first day, map out your second day over some cold beers, and ride the best parts on day two. Ultimately, we'd just really recommend giving this place more than one try.
Last but not least, any day-long ride isn't complete until your post-ride "rehydration". If you're staying local, there's the Olde Town Pub in town, and Foxwoods is only about ten miles away. If you're heading back up interstate 395 then just over the border in Massachusetts and just off the highway is Point Breeze, a restaurant on Lake Webster with outdoor dining, cold beer, and great cocktails. You may need to change out of your riding gear but it's a fantastic view to admire as you sit and compare your first impressions with your final ones.
From the South: take I-395 north, Exit 85. Go through the 1st light at the next stop light. Take a right onto Route 138 east. Follow for 9 miles to Voluntown then take a left onto Route 49 north. Forest entrance will be 1 mile ahead on the left.
From the North: take I-395 south, Exit 85. At the end of the exit ramp, take a left onto Route 138 east. Follow for 9 miles then take a left onto Route 49 north. Forest entrance will be 1 mile on the left.
By Jason Bell & Sarah Ahearn Read more about Pachaug State Forest, Voluntown