March 14, 2020 – Morris, Connecticut
Length: Approximately 1 mile
Max elevation: 1,052 ft.– total elevation gain approximately 60 ft.
Route type: Out and back
Maps: Camp Columbia State Park Trail Map
Trailhead parking: CT-109 (West St.), Morris, CT 06763
Camp Columbia State Park/State Forest is a public recreation area and state forest located in the town of Morris in Litchfield County, Connecticut. The 600-acre site was once the rural campus of Columbia University’s Engineering Department. The majority of the property has been designated as a state forest; the acreage designated as a state historic park includes the frontage on Bantam Lake and the site of the former university buildings.
It is managed by the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. The first DEEP trail system was established in October 2008, and is used for hiking, mountain biking, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, dog walking, and horseback riding. There are 3.2 miles of recreational trails currently open to the public.
Camp Columbia State Forest and State Historic Park were purchased from Columbia University in 2000 and dedicated as Camp Columbia State Forest (CCSF) and State Historic Park (SHP) in 2004.
Although Columbia University purchased much of the property in 1903, the University had maintained a summer field camp to teach surveying in nearby Litchfield since 1884. Known as Camp Columbia to generations of engineering students, it is the earliest field camp in a permanent location established for the purpose of providing practical experience to engineering students, primarily in surveying techniques. It operated on this site from 1891 to 1965 in that capacity.
Columbia began the lease of 120 acres of land, south of Bantam Lake. The property included a farmhouse, two barns, several farm support buildings, and large fields previously used for agriculture. Students who used the camp in these early years lived in thirty-five tents surrounding the main farmhouse.
During World War I, Camp Columbia served a temporary war-time purpose. The property was used in 1917 and 1918 for combat training of college students that planned to apply for commissions as officers. Students were trained to march, drill, dig trenches, and fight in simulated warfare that included real gunfire and explosives. Even today, eroded remnants of trenches dug during the training are still evident on the property.
After the war, in the years between 1930 and 1950, the now 591-acre Camp continued to develop. In 1935, on the 51st anniversary of the founding of the Camp, a spacious fieldstone Dining Hall was built. The existing wooden water tower was replaced with a stone tower in 1942 as a gift from the Class of 1906.
In 1948, Dwight D. Eisenhower became president of Columbia University. A great football enthusiast, he encouraged the creation of a miniature football field and sports program at Camp Columbia. The university football team also practiced here, and Eisenhower is one of the dignitaries who reportedly hunted on the property.
By the 1950’s, summer class attendance at Camp Columbia was mandatory for students of the Engineering Department. But the 1960’s and 1970’s brought both declining interest in the “camp” environment and changes to the School of Engineering curriculum. The facility lost attendance dramatically, and while the Camp was populated by students until 1983, Columbia University decided at last to close it and attempt to sell the land.
Following the camp closure in the 1983, the University pursued forest management on the property, which included commercial timber harvests and planting Christmas trees. Spruce trees were planted where the football field once was.
In 1989, with the land still unsold, the Morris Fire Department declared some of the buildings had fallen into such disrepair that they had become a public hazard. The Morris Fire Department used several buildings as training structures in controlled fire management drills. The 1914 boathouse on Bantam Lake, instrument house and the unique stone water tower that now serves as an observation tower, were left as a result of recommendations at a site review by The State Historic Preservation Office.
Finally in 2000, the State of Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection was able to acquire the 591 acre Camp property through a Recreation and Natural Heritage Trust Fund Grant. It was dedicated as an historic state park in 2004. A public parking area was constructed on Route 109 in 2007 for public access to a developing trail system on the large main parcel of the property. The first DEEP trail system was established in October 2008.
Today Camp Columbia State Historic Park is one of Connecticut DEEP’s most recent park acquisitions. As such its public access and recreational opportunities are still being developed.
We had just completed a short hike at Mount Tom State Park a short distance away. We hiked to the stone observation tower at the summit and decided to visit the tower at Camp Columbia as well. Although there are 3 miles of trails in Camp Columbia State Park, we only hiked to the tower and back. It’s a short easy hike on a woods road with minimal elevation gain, but definitely worth a visit. The dirt lot along CT-109 is easy to miss. Be alert for the shield shaped sign on a wooden post along the road. The parking area is almost directly across the road from Camp Awosting.
Walk past the wooden barriers at the rear of the parking lot. Follow the woods road as it heads into the forest. The road soon dips and traverses a culvert, ascends and then levels off.
In a short distance, the tower may be visible through the trees straight ahead. To the right of the woods road is a stone building.
The instrument house is one of only 3 remaining buildings at Camp Columbia. The tower and the 1914 Boathouse (located across CT-109) being the others.
It’s a short walk, past the ruined stone building to the site of the tower
In 1942, the central feature of the camp, a 60 foot cylindrical water tower with an observation platform made of local stone, was presented to the camp by the Class of 1906. A 1952 Columbia University press release describes the tower as a “land-locked lighthouse, or the battlement of a feudal castle.”
The tower was repaired in 2017 and reopened to the public for the first time in years.
There are concrete steps that circle the outside of the tower which lead to the observation deck.
This gorgeous stone tower overlooks the former campus of Camp Columbia.
The hollow circle near the top of the tower, was where the Columbia University seal was located.
The tower is accessible and one can walk the wooden steps up to the next level. Then step outside and walk along the outer staircase to the observation deck.
When you are done, you can explore the rest of the trails on the property or retrace your steps back to the parking area.
Although the trails are not much to speak of, mostly woods roads, it is totally worth a visit. The tower is spectacular and fun to explore on its own. This is a good place to visit in conjunction with Mount Tom State Park, which is 6.5 miles (11 minute drive) away. If you happen to be in the area or on a day trip, stop by and check it out.
Class of 1906 Tower, historical features, decent view from the tower, quiet area, ample parking.
Trails are nondescript.
Take a hike!
- Camp Columbia State Park
- Columbia University News
- Hidden Nearby: Camp Columbia State Park
- Camp Columbia Historical Documentation