WESTON, Conn. -- According to local legend, Devil's Den Preserve got its name from a hoof-like mark on a boulder that some said resembled the sign of Satan.
Not that the ominous moniker keeps people away. Neither does low-key signage that marks the preserve, which can easily be missed while driving at 30 miles per hour. After making a sharp turn onto the narrow dirt road that leads to the preserve, however, we found ourselves staring at a four-foot cascade tumbling near the trail head. It was just a preview of what was to come.
Formally the Lucius Pond Ordway/Devil's Den Preserve, it draws 40,000 visitors a year, according to the Nature Conservancy, the nonprofit agency that maintains it. The property is part of the 70-mile Saugatuck Valley Trails System, which aims to protect forest and watershed lands from rapid development in southwestern Connecticut. Visitors to Devil's Den are surrounded by 1,756 acres of contiguous wilderness that seems worlds away from densely populated Fairfield County.
The preserve has 20 miles of trails that cut through forest and swampland, a granite gorge, and dramatic ridgetop views of the Saugatuck Reservoir. The trails also criss cross numerous brooks and cascades; I stopped counting after a mile of hiking. Circling the preserve to the Great Ledge at the northeastern tip means hiking a minimum of eight miles, although there are also shorter, round-trip hikes of three or four miles. Biking, rock climbing, and swimming are prohibited to help preserve plant and animal habitats. Hikers will find plenty of varied trails and even a little history to keep them occupied until sundown.
The Laurel Trail, lined with red oaks and birch, leads to Godfrey Pond, which was created as a millpond in the 1700s. Large boulders frame its western side , and a quick scramble up the rock walls allowed us to see the pond in its entirety. We continued on the trail, hugging the northern edge of the pond. We stopped whenever we came across a bridge that laced a north-south flowing brook, which seemed to be often. Two people balancing simultaneously on a foot-wide plank proved challenging, but we were able to snap good close-up photos of miniature cascades and the water surging over moss-covered rocks.
Along the Godfrey Trail farther north is an intersection of ancient and recent history. Toward the west are scattered overhanging rock formations, which the trail map suggests were used by nomadic Native Americans as protective shelters as far back as 5,000 years.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the forest was home to about 30 charcoal-production sites. Charcoal colliers would stay in the woods in huts and tend to giant log piles as they burned, which took about a month at a time. On both sides of the trail, and sometimes right in the middle, are tumbled stone walls, remnants of the fireplaces used in coal production. There is a replica of a charcoal pile, with the the logs piled wigwam-style about 20 feet high, near the trail head.
Also on the Godfrey Trail is a portable sawmill, which sits haphazardly to the side. The steam-powered machine was used to process hardwood logs, but was abandoned in the early 1920s along with the charcoal sites. Now it lies as a rusted memorial to Saugatuck Valley's industrial past.
The northern edge of the preserve crosses into the town of Redding. Here, the Great Ledge rises 60 to 80 feet and offers good views of the reservoir. The vistas are a bit off the main trail, but a cluster of trail markers makes finding them easy.
Bedford Trail, the route we took back, is studded with small streams and swamp areas. The trails alternated every few yards between packed dirt and fist-sized rocks. In warmer weather, this section of the preserve fills with mountain laurel and other wildflowers. In early spring, however, the unadorned swamps give the landscape an austere tranquillity. The fallen moss-covered tree limbs and a thick uprooted trunk add a primeval feel as the trail lowers to Ambler Gorge.
We circled the gorge on short, steep descents both on and off man-made earthen steps, across more bridges, and up granite outcroppings. Trail markers point to two vistas, one of the gorge from higher up, and the other of the Saugatuck River. We had continued climbing out of sheer momentum, but the vistas turned out to be just higher, more obstructed versions of what we had already seen.
Over a half mile of downhill later, we reached Deer Knoll, where a log ladder with simple carved notches provides access to the vista point on top of the rocks. It offered one last brief rest stop to view the tree-lined ridges before completing the return trip.
We descended and bounded back toward the trailhead to beat nightfall. We knew it would not be long before the sounds of footsteps on rocky trails were replaced by the sound of tires on asphalt.
Diana Kuan, a freelance writer in New York, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.