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Straddling the Farmington River in Barkhamsted are two forests donated to the state more than 70 years ago. The people of Connecticut express their appreciation for these gifts every day in the most demonstrative way: They use them.
On the west bank is American Legion, 782 acres, bequeathed in 1927 by the American Legion. On the east bank is Peoples, 2,954 acres, acquired through a public subscription campaign in 1924, led by the Connecticut Forest and Park Association, a private group still active.
These two forests, ever more valuable, support a wide range of outdoor activities through the seasons, even in cooler weather. American Legion and Peoples, in fact, are among Connecticut's more popular parks and forests in winter. And as winter quickly melts into summer-like weather this week, those same trails are suitable for hiking and some biking. (But don't dismiss winter completely; the weekend forecast is calling for the possibility of snow in the Connecticut foothills.)
Peoples is one of a small number of state lands open to snowmobiling, laced with a network of 12 miles of snowmobile trails that are sometimes shared by cross-country skiers and snowshoe enthusiasts. In warmer temperatures, the trails are popular with hikers; mountain bikers are allowed to use woods roads, but not the blue-blazed trails.
At American Legion, snowmobiling is not permitted; the snow is left to the snowshoers, cross-country skiers and winter walkers, of which there seem to be plenty. Their tracks and shoeprints were abundant on a late February weekday. In coming weeks, the early spring wildflowers will begin to appear.
There are marked trails in both forests, 10 miles of them, some of them steep and leading to ridgetop overlooks with views of the Farmington River below. They make for a pleasant walk any time of year.
On our February day, the snow was still 8 inches deep, deep enough that snowshoes were helpful in climbing several trails in the two forests, including the Henry Buck Trail, a 2-mile loop that begins and ends along West River Road in American Legion. Snow cover is patchy now with the warm weather in recent days, but a late-season snowstorm could yet restore a mantle of white.
The Buck Trail is a moderately steep climb, steep enough to work up a sweat, leading past the ruins of an old mill to an overlook with views of the valley that reward your effort.
Across the river, Greenwoods Road winds its way from East River Road up and along a ridge. This is part of the snowmobile network, and the road is often packed snow in winter.
Greenwoods Road, fittingly named, passes through forest that is rich with green throughout the year because both of these forests are heavy with evergreens, hemlock, white pine and laurel -- but mostly hemlock. Sadly, the hemlock is doomed. The hemlock wooly adelgid, an insect pest that arrived in the state in 1985 and kills hemlocks, was found here about 18 months ago.
When the adelgids kill the hemlocks here, as seems certain, the impact will be huge. Hemlocks make up about 30 percent of these two forests. Enjoy them now.
Look up at the forest canopy, and check the leafless hardwoods this time of year. The fruits of the tuliptrees -- themselves vaguely tulip-like, though the tree gets its name from its spring flowers -- are displayed, candelabra-like, in the uppermost branches, buff colored against the blue sky.
They are worth noting if only to realize that the combination of khaki and blue oxford cloth has its genesis in the late winter landscape.
Elsewhere in Peoples, a hike up the Jesse Gerard Trail leads to another overlook, this one facing west. But first you must work your way past a waterfall that in winter is a wall of ice, popular with climbers. ``It's OK with us, at your own risk,'' says forest manager Robert Palmer.
In spring, the crowds come. There's a campground in American Legion with 30 campsites. In April it fills up with anglers anxious to fish the Farmington, one of the best trout streams in Connecticut. The river is heavily stocked, and on opening day is literally lined with fishermen elbow to elbow.
In fact, the river ought to be considered the centerpiece of these two forests. The section that flows through them is part of the national Wild and Scenic Rivers system, and its riffles, rapids and pools are hugely popular with canoeists, kayakers and anglers. There are innumerable little spots along the river where you can find a spot for a picnic.
In Peoples, there is the Stone Museum, built in 1934 by the Civilian Conservation Corps. The outside of the building and the fireplace are made from old stone walls, and the inside woodwork is chestnut trees salvaged from trees killed by the chestnut blight early in the 20th century. It offers nature exhibits, including taxidermy specimens of local mammals and birds, and samples of twigs, bark and wood of native tree species. It is open Sundays from Memorial Day until Columbus Day and Saturdays during July and August.
AMERICAN LEGION, PEOPLES STATE FORESTS
Location: Barkhamsted. From Hartford, take Route 44 west to Route 181 to Pleasant Valley.
Size: 3,736 acres combined.
Attendance, 1999: American Legion, 123,150; Peoples, 153,800.
Fees: Parking at Matthies Grove Recreation Area, May 15-Sept. 30, weekends and holidays, is $5 for in-state vehicles and $8 for out-of-state vehicles. Camping at the Austin Hawes Campground is $10 per night. Access to all other areas is free.
Hours: 8 a.m. to sunset.
Facilities: Picnic shelter, nature museum, drinking water, flush toilets and showers in campground.
Activities: Hiking, snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, picnicking, fishing, nature study.
Handicapped Access: Not available but expected in future renovations.
Trail maps: Available at maintenance headquarters map box, East River Road; Matthies Grove trail head map box; campground office map box; Pleasant Valley field office map box, West River Road.
Telephone: Forest, 860-379-2469 ; camp office, 860-379-0922.
Miscellaneous: Campsite reservations highly recommended for weekends and holidays. Beginning March 15, call 877-668-2267. A helpful Web page with information on trails and museum exhibits is maintained by the forest naturalist, Walt Landgraf, and his wife, Linne. The address is www.stonemuseum.org.