Exploring The Last Green Valley: Exploring Old Furnace State Park worth the trip
Old Furnace State Park in Danielson is only 12 miles from my house, so we frequently visit on those spur-of-the-moment mornings when someone says, “hey let’s go for a hike somewhere.”
Winter is a great time of year to hike in our state forests and parks, especially following a snow storm. The freshly fallen snow provides perfect conditions for tracking the various wild animals who inhabit our region. I recently hiked Old Furnace State Park after a fresh snowfall in preparation for a program with members of The Last Green Valley Inc. and want to share my experiences there.
I arrived at 9 a.m. and found a few cars in the parking lot. Others clearly had the same idea as me because it was a perfect morning for a hike. From the parking area on South Frontage Road there are two trails to consider – the blue trail or the orange trail. The trails are well-marked with paint blazes on trees of orange or blue about every 40 feet or so, and both trails go south towards the cliffs on Half Hill that overlook Furnace Pond (also called Upper Ross Pond). I decided to take the orange trail first and return on the blue trail. A couple had arrived before me on the orange trail, and I followed their tracks – smaller prints of a woman and larger prints of a man, through a deep stand of Eastern hemlock trees and uphill into a thick tangle of mountain laurel.
The one thing that jumps right out as you start hiking from the main park entrance is the number of standing dead Eastern hemlock trees surrounding both the orange and blue trails. The tree mortality is from the invasive insect hemlock woolly adelgid that infected this large stand several years ago. I spoke with Matt Quinn, state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection park manager for several locations in Eastern Connecticut, including Old Furnace. This spring he plans on cutting down the dead hemlocks near the trails. The good news is underneath the dead hemlocks are hundreds of young conifer saplings, indicating excellent hemlock and pine regeneration.
The orange trail swings to the southwest and up a gradual incline before joining the blue trail for the shorter, steeper climb to the overlook area of Half Hill Cliffs. I came across the tracks of a fisher as it walked through the mountain laurel, crossed the trail and then went downhill into the stand of hemlocks. Each track was at least five inches long with the telltale five toes and the long claw clearly visible in the snow. When walking, the fisher’s hind foot lands on top of the front footprint, making the large impression. Fishers are very nimble and able climbers aided by their long claws.
I came across the tracks of the fisher several times on both the orange and blue trails. As I was finishing my hike and neared the park entrance, I discovered another set of tracks from a fisher, which were smaller in size and probably of a female, who can be almost half the size of the male. I did not see the tracks of the male and female together, but it is breeding season. My guess is the male was seeking a mate, and from the tracks I saw, he was clearly heading in her direction.
I discovered the tracks of several other animals, including white-tailed deer, squirrel, rabbit and coyote. Coyote tracks are close in appearance to domestic dog tracks but are easily identified with the two front toe nails close together. Dogs tend to wander about and not follow a direct line as the coyote does. Dog prints are also more rounded in appearance with the toes splayed outwards, with coyote tracks being narrow in shape. The coyote tracks I discovered were near deer tracks, so, clearly, it was following a trail.
Near the top of the hill the blue trail joins the orange, and from there, several small side trails lead to four excellent viewing areas with spectacular, uninterrupted vistas to the east toward Rhode Island. Be very careful not to venture too close to the edge of the cliffs. It is a deadly 200-foot drop and treacherous in winter with ice and snow creating slippery conditions. Too often I hear about someone who has fallen from the cliffs, so, please, keep your footing. And in any conditions, please be mindful of children at the top of the hill if you take them on this hike.
The orange and blue trails continue southward and split below Half Hill, with the blue trail continuing south through beautiful forest habitat of pine and oak ending at a parking area on Squaw Rock Road. The orange trail turns east toward the second and larger pond in the park – Ross Pond. You can also follow the orange trail across Half Hill Brook and then around the eastern side of Furnace Pond back to the parking area.
Ross Pond is larger than Furnace Pond and there is a parking area and boat launch used by paddlers and fishermen. The launch is accessed by Ross Road located just east of the main entrance to the park on South Frontage Road.
I spent about 20 minutes at the top of Half Hill taking in the spectacular view. I could see other hikers traversing the loop trail around Furnace Pond and was soon accompanied by a few other hikers who were also taking advantage of a beautiful day.
I followed the blue trail down from the top of the hill (it is a steeper descent than the orange trail, but it is a more direct route to the entrance where I parked). The blue trail passes the location of the old furnace that gives the park its name. From the trail, I looked over the deep cut in the hillside and discovered a beautiful waterfall fed by aptly-named Fall Brook. I am not sure if this is where the original water wheel was located, though parts of an old stone foundation and dam structure can also still be seen on the north end of the waterfall. Due to the snow and wet winter weather the water was pouring over the falls, making for a beautiful sight on a sunny winter day.
The park was once the location of an iron forge. Water from Furnace Pond was channeled to a water wheel that powered the large bellows of a blast furnace and forge trip hammer. The furnace heated peat harvested from nearby bogs to a high temperature, burning off the organic material and leaving the molten iron that naturally occurs in the soils and bogs of our region. The iron was then formed and cast into various items.
Information on the history of Old Furnace State Park can be found on the Killingly Conservation Commission website at:
The CT Department of Energy and Environmental Protection maintains the park, and its website also has helpful information on the history of the area, as well as a very handy trail map. Information can be found at:
The hiking trail map is at:
I highly recommend Old Furnace State Park as a place to explore. It has it all, from beautiful forest trails to ponds for paddling, exceptional vistas, easy access off Interstate 395 and Route 6 and, even, a waterfall.
We live in a beautiful place called The Last Green Valley. We are blessed to have many exceptional state forests and parks. I hope you’ll join me as we explore our region and take the time to care for it, enjoy it and pass it on.
Bill Reid is the chief ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and has lived in the region for more than 35 years. He can be reached at
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