The mountain bikers I know love beer and pizza almost as much as they love to ride. When possible, the combination is divine! We don’t fret too much over calories from that juicy burger, dripping ice cream cone or frosty beer, knowing we just burned them all off in advance. (Or we are just in deep denial?) If you also love to eat and drink and ride bikes in the woods, here’s a few off-road itineraries in northeast Connecticut that allow you to indulge and imbibe after a fun workout.
Except for the Airline Rail Trail, these venues are best for intermediate and up riders or novice riders with some trail experience. In general, northeast Connecticut trails tends to be challenging, with lots of roots and rocks. Each of these parks/forests have no admission or parking fees.
Consult online maps made by other bikers (strava.com, www.mtbproject.com or ridewithgps.com) to help with your routes. Or hook up with a local NEMBA (New England Mountain Bike Association) chapter, which hosts group rides. They offer good advice and possibly a guided tour if you reach out and ask nicely. Search for Quiet Corner NEMBA (Forum) on Facebook to “chat” with members.
Ride at Goodwin State Forest in Hampton or Mansfield Hollow State Park in Mansfield. Eat in nearby Willimantic.
Goodwin State Forest has a series of blazed multi-use trails with several kiosks at intersections with maps. Trails range from very easy (the flat, gravel Airline Rail Trail runs through the park) to very challenging if you make your way to the abutting Natchaug State Forest (where trails are mostly unmarked). In total there are about 17 miles of trails you can explore within the woods and ferny glades of Goodwin plus many more in Natchaug. Wildlife you might see includes deer, beaver, ducks and herons, huge pileated woodpeckers (plus lots of other birds) and somewhat grumpy owls you might wake up in the treetops. Don’t forget insect repellent! There is plenty of parking at the Goodwin Conservation Center at 23 Potter Road, Hampton.
For a good warm-up, start on the east side of Pine Acres Lake and ride the yellow and red blazed trails. Take the white trail (which is not on the map since it is on neighboring conservancy land but accessible from the red trail). Ride around the north side of Pine Acres Lake (a few rock gardens here to challenge you!) and you can exit on the Airline Trail or continue on several other trails (blue/white, blue/yellow, and orange) to add more miles and bring you back to Potter Road.
Mansfield Hollow State Park is a popular place for hiking, biking, and dog walking. You can also take small boats out on the scenic lake to fish or kayak/canoe but swimming is not allowed. There is a large parking lot at the boat launch on Bassets Bridge Road. Trails consist of mostly wooded single track on the east side of the lake plus both single and double track on the west side. The Fenton River is cool and pretty, with some nice rocky water holes – a good place to dip your toes on a hot day. Many trails are blazed but there are some nice unmarked options that are easy to follow. It’s hard to get lost if you keep the water on one side of you at all times. These are mostly flowy trails with some rooty sections. Mansfield is not as rocky as Goodwin.
Just a 15-minute drive from Goodwin and 10 minutes from Mansfield, the city of Willimantic has a wealth of good restaurants and plenty of diverse options. The Willimantic Brewing Company (aka Willi Brew, 967 Main St.) located in a 1909 former post office building offers massive loaded nachos; great burgers, salads, wings, and sandwiches; and LOTS of beer. One of the first craft breweries in the state, Willi Brew serves their own beer plus many other craft brews on tap and in bottles.
The following dining options are all on Main Street in Willimantic. Craving healthy smoothies and vegan/vegetarian options? Not Only Juice is fresh and amazing (and there’s A Cupcake for Later shop right next door!). Need a caffeine fix? Grounded Coffee Company is a funky little coffee shop with thoughtfully brewed java. Award-winning Cafemantic serves delicious, small plate meals using fresh locally sourced ingredients. You can also get authentic Caribbean food at Jamaican Me Crazy and try the latest trendy meal and glass of wine at The Fermented Crêpe. If you like authentic Mexican, Tacos la Rosa is the real deal (located across from Willimantic’s beautifully restored granite thread mills).
There are also dining options in Mansfield, easy to access off Route 6 from Goodwin or Mansfield Hollow parks. The closest interesting option to Mansfield Hollow’s boat launch is Maharaja (466 Storrs Road) for Indian cuisine. Oriental Café in the East Brook Mall serves quality sushi, hibachi and other Asian dishes. Across the street from the mall, The Farmer’s Cow Calfé & Creamery (that’s not a typo!) features Connecticut grown Farmer’s Cow Ice Cream plus light fare in a fast food style setting. New this spring, the Fenton River Grill (135A Storrs Road, in the Big Y plaza) is a casual bistro and sister restaurant to Pomfret’s famed Vanilla Bean Café.
Ride at West Thompson Lake. Eat in nearby Putnam.
West Thompson Lake recreation area is about 1,800 acres managed by the Army Corps of Engineers. There are scenic vistas from the dam and numerous multi-use trails visited by hikers, bikers, snowshoers and dog walkers year round. Fishing and boating are welcome but not swimming. There is also a 24-site seasonal campground and a popular disc golf course. Rolling, green grass fields on three sides of the lake, corn fields along the river and the surrounding deciduous forest offer a photo-worthy setting any time of year. Bald eagles can sometimes be spotted roosting or flying above the north end of the lake near the river.
Three well marked trail systems with yellow, orange and blue blazes encompass about 17 miles of trails around the lake and the Quinebaug River. Single track trails range from novice to advanced in some areas, but there are plenty of cart roads and double track sections appropriate for beginners, kids, and casual riders. The riding level is easy to intermediate, with a couple of challenging rock gardens that can quickly be hike-a-biked. There are also some unmarked trails but, like at Mansfield Hollow, it is hard to get lost if you circumnavigate the lake and river. Take paved Red Bridge Road to cross over the river and reach trails on the other side.
There is a large parking lot at the boat launch on the east side of the lake off Reardon Road. There is a smaller parking lot on top of the dam at the ranger garage near Overlook Shelter on West Thompson Road. Both locations are good places to start a ride.
Dining in Putnam (10-minute drive from the lake) is almost as eclectic as Willimantic. Choices range from traditional Vietnamese cuisine at Pho Real on Grove Street to upscale dining and raw bar at 85 Main. Most options cluster around Main Street, which has patio dining at several locations. At the north end of Main Street, the Stomping Ground features good beer on tap, tasty snacks and live music. Across the street is the popular Courthouse for typical pub food. Local hangout Victoria Station Café has great coffee drinks plus sandwiches, ice cream and a drool-worthy pastry case. Jessica Tuesdays (awesome outdoor bar) and the Crossings restaurant anchor the south end of Main Street. The new Italian restaurant Basilico and Someplace Special (pizza, sandwiches) across the street both also offer outdoor dining.
Maps and other information on West Thompson Lake can be found at www.nae.usace.army.mil/Missions/Recreation/West-Thompson-Lake. For more on dining and other attractions in Putnam, visit discoverputnam.com.
Ride the Airline Trail. Eat in Pomfret or Willimantic
Do you like off-road riding but are not into roots, rocks and “singletrack?” You can enjoy a nice long ride on the North Section of the Airline Trail. This linear state park was a historic railroad bed and is part of the East Coast Greenway, which will one day stretch from Florida to Maine. Most bikes can handle the gravel surface, which varies from fairly smooth stone dust to chunkier gravel, and occasionally a muddy patch after rain. However, mountain, hybrid, and gravel bikes will be most comfortable on this terrain.
This gravel grind is about 20 miles one way from Pomfret to Willimantic. It is flat for the most part, but don’t underestimate the distance. Bring snacks and water. You can go either direction and enjoy a fun ride, rural scenery and sustenance at either end. Don’t forget to arrange how to get back to your car (unless you are up for a 40-mile round trip!).
If you start in Pomfret, park at the lot at Pomfret Station, 13 Railroad Avenue (off of Route 169). Follow the trail the entire way to Willimantic, where it terminates at Union Street in an urban environment. You can easily ride your bike through downtown to any of the places to eat listed above. Bring a bike lock if you plan a round trip. Willi Brew is always a satisfying place to end the ride. After riding for a few hours among woods and fields, the streets of Willimantic will feel like culture shock. But it is a safe and friendly place if you pay attention and enjoy yourself.
If you start at the southern end of the Airline Trail, I recommend parking at Goodwin State Forest (which will take a few miles off your ride). You can hop on the Airline Trail where it crosses Potter Road just ¼ mile from the parking lot. If you want to start closer to Willimantic, there is a dirt pull-off for a few cars at the intersection of Beaver Hill Road and Windham Road (Route 203) in northeast Windham or a parking area at Milk Street in downtown Willimantic.
When you cross RT 97 in Pomfret, it’s ice cream time! Hop off the Airline Trail here, travel north for about one mile (ride on the shoulder of this well-traveled road!) to taste the best farm-fresh, homemade ice cream in the Quiet Corner. We-Lik-It Ice Cream stand will be on your righthand side. When the wind is right, you will smell the freshly made waffle cones first. Look for the farm animals, barns, and line of hungry visitors. After your delicious snack, return the way you came (You can also turn left at Brooklyn Road to get back on the rail trail.)
If you dislike backtracking and don’t mind a short off-road adventure (you can always walk the rough spots) continue from We-Lik-It on 97 heading north for about half a mile. Turn right into the Pomfret Recreation fields (just ride around the gate if it is closed). Ride the gravel road to the back of this park and look for the blue blazed trail past the soccer field by the disc golf course. Both the blue and orange trails will lead you through the woods to the Airline Trail, but blue is most direct. Then continue north on the rail trail for 2.5 more miles to finish at Pomfret Station.
If you are still hungry or prefer something more substantial than ice cream, get off the Airline Trail at the Osgood Road crossing (this paved road is ½ mile past the Pomfret Town Hall trail entrance). Turn right onto Osgood Road, then right again onto Route 44 for a very short distance on the main road to the Airline Grill. Enjoy seafood, hamburgers, fries, chowder, great clam cakes, smoothies (and ice cream) at this open air restaurant. Rest a while at their picnic tables, then return to the Airline Trail for another two miles to finish your epic ride at Pomfret Station.
More information on the Airline Rail Trail, including maps, a little history, and sites along the way can be found at www.ct.gov/deep.
www.ct.gov/deep for maps and info on Mansfield Hollow and Goodwin State Parks
www.nemba.org for local mountain bike info
Downtown Putnam Cyclery: downtownputnamcyclery.com
Scott’s Cyclery, Willimantic: scottscyclery.com
Storrs Center Cycle: storrscentercycle.com