November 21, 2020 – Watertown, Connecticut
Difficulty: Moderate – strenuous (steep ascents, steep descents)
Length: Approximately 4 miles
Max elevation: 780 ft.– total elevation gain approximately 719 ft.
Route type: Circuit
Free Web Map: Mattatuck State Forest Trail Map (DEEP)
Avenza App Map (FREE): Mattatuck State Forest Trail Map
Trailhead parking: Black Rock State Park 2065 Thomaston Rd, Watertown, CT 06795
There is a $15.00 daily parking fee in season for non-residents on weekends and holidays. $10.00 on weekdays.
Hunting is permitted in State Forests intersected by this trail. Please use caution and wear orange during hunting season.
Mattatuck State Forest is a Connecticut state forest spread over twenty parcels in the towns of Waterbury, Plymouth, Thomaston, Watertown, Litchfield, and Harwinton. The Naugatuck River runs through a portion of the forest. Of the many land parcels that make up this forest, the largest, 1,327 acres, adjoins Black Rock State Park and is accessible from the park’s trails. Additionally, the well-marked, 42-mile long Mattatuck Trail passes through several portions of the forest. The forest is managed by the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP).
Originally, the area that is now Mattatuck State Forest was inhabited by the Paugasuck (a sub-nation of the Paugussett) Indians. The Paugassett roamed the entire Naugatuck Valley and had a vibrant society. They lived in wigwams and hunted, fished, and raised crops for food. The Algonquin name for the area was “Matetacoke” meaning “place without trees.” It appeared as “Mattatock” in 1673, and “Mattatuck” in the General Court record of May 18, 1674. In 1684, Thomas Judd and 35 prospective landowners purchased the land from the natives.
With the arrival of European pioneers came the onset of farming. That meant clear-cutting huge sections of land, cutting down trees that had never before felt an ax or a saw. In the 1880’s, when the farming boom subsided, industries took charge. Mattatuck State Forest and Black Rock State Park were deforested; the wood being used as fuel for foundries and brass milling in the nearby Naugatuck Valley.
By the time Harley F. Roberts had the idea to conserve some of his local area for a state forest, the land was in rough shape. Probably no one man accomplished more for Connecticut state forests than Mr. Harley F. Roberts, Master of the Taft School in Watertown. It was through him that in 1925 the Black Rock Forest, Inc. was organized for the sole purpose of acquiring and giving to the State, Black Rock park and Mattatuck forest. Mattatuck’s initial 723 acres were gifted to the state in 1926. By 1930, through a combination of continued land donations by the Black Rock Association and purchases by the state, the forest had grown to 2,578 acres. Mr. Roberts’s vision of land conservation has been well respected, for in the years since his original gift, Mattatuck has grown to encompass 4,510 acres in 20 different parcels within the towns of Waterbury, Plymouth, Thomaston, Watertown, Litchfield, and Harwinton.
Mr. Roberts died in the spring of 1930. His friends appreciative of his service to the State, presented a tablet which was dedicated June 7, 1930 by Mr. Horace Taft.
The tablet was placed upon a remarkable boulder, a natural monolith in the forest, not far from Bidwell Hill Road. This grove was partially thinned and was supposed to be maintained as the Roberts Memorial Grove. It now sits forgotten in the woods.
The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) Camp Roberts, which housed Company #175, was stationed at Black Rock State Park in Thomaston, Connecticut. The camp was established May 30, 1933 and was discontinued Sept. 28, 1937. The camp’s main projects were: building miles of truck trails, survey and boundary work, gypsy moth removal and tree planting. The CCC embarked on a massive reforestation project, planting tens of thousands of trees and instituting erosion control. The forest began to improve under the practices of the CCC, which turned the abused landscape into productive woodlands.
Signs of the region’s industrial history and resource exploitation abound on the landscape, but today’s forest hides much of the evidence. Remains of quarries, lime kilns, house foundations, agricultural fields, and charcoal mounds can still be found.
The Leatherman: The complete story of this legendary vagabond will never be known, but the Connecticut Legend of the Leatherman is alive and well in Mattatuck State Forest. This renowned tramp wore a 60 pound, leather patchwork suit and carried two bags in one hand and a walking stick in the other. Among his belongings were an ax, pail, hatchet, jack-knife, awl and scraps of leather.
The Leatherman had a 34 day, 365 mile, clockwise loop through western Connecticut and eastern New York. He faithfully followed this loop for roughly three decades until his death in 1889. He completed the circuit 11 times each year.
Each day ended 10-11 miles from the last, and his long series of evening rest areas included many cave shelters and rock overhangs. One of his rest stops was in Mattatuck State Forest, that today is known as the Leatherman’s Cave. Although it’s not a true cave, it’s more of a fissure cave. Fissure caves are formed by movements of the earth – earthquakes and other shifts – as opposed to erosion, which forms most caves. This jumble of massive rocks under a ledge known as Crane’s Lookout, is probably the most well known and spectacular of all the Leatherman’s Caves.
He survived the blizzard of 1888, but the next winter was found dead in his cave in Briarcliff, NY. His bag contained heavy leather equipment as well as a crucifix and a small French prayer book from 1840. He was buried at the Sparta Cemetery in Ossining, New York.
The grave site was situated right next to Route 9 and so many people visited his grave that concerns arose that someone could get hurt. So the local historical society decided to exhume the remains of the Old Leatherman and move his grave farther away from the road. The historians thought that while they were at it, they could also take the opportunity to do forensic tests on the remains, to learn more about him. In late May 2011, when the grave was dug up, they did not find any remains, just dirt and some iron nails. They re-buried the dirt and iron nails in a plain pine box, on higher ground in the middle of the cemetery. Visitors can see the boulder, which is his gravesite with a plaque that reads: The Leatherman.
The band Pearl Jam recorded a song about him, “Leatherman.” His leather bag is on exhibit at the Connecticut Historical Society in Hartford.
- Mattatuck Trail – The 42 mile-long Mattatuck Trail, is part of the Blue-Blazed Hiking Trail system. It travels across Black Rock State Park from west to east, crossing Bidwell Hill Road and entering Mattatuck State Forest. The trail then crosses US-6 and climbs steeply to Crane’s Lookout and descends steeply, passing through the Leatherman’s Cave.
- Branch Brook Trail – Most of the 0.8-mile Branch Brook Trail is located in the forest, south of Reynolds Bridge Road in the town of Watertown. It is used to form a loop hike to return back to Black Rock State Park. An almost level woods road that makes a nice finish to this challenging hike.
These trails can be combined with the trails in Black Rock State Park to form a longer loop hike.
This is one of those “must do” hikes in Connecticut. If the history and the lore is not enough, the sheer beauty of the area makes it a worthwhile trek. The Leatherman’s Cave itself is massive and the Mattatuck Trail goes right through it. The area around the cave is also quite impressive with all the overhanging ledges and rock formations. One of the most resplendent sections of trail that I have hiked.
This loop begins and ends in Black Rock State Park, where there is plenty of parking. There is no out-of-state parking fee after Labor Day or before Memorial Day weekend.
A lot of people do this hike in reverse of how it is described here, but by doing the hike counterclockwise, the last mile of the hike is on an almost entirely level woods road. It is preferable to this writer, to do the more strenuous sections early on and finish with an easy stroll along the brook.
The Mattatuck trail has varying easy-to-difficult sections. Starting in Black Rock State Park, it’s an easy walk through the woods. As the trail climbs the ridge towards Crane’s Lookout, it becomes steep and rocky. Most of the elevation is gained in under a mile, from US-6 (Thomaston Road) to Crane’s Lookout. From there, the descent is rather steep in sections, sometimes over open rock slabs. The last mile on the Branch Brook Trail is an almost level woods road.
There is some light rock scrambling along steep sections of the Mattatuck Trail, where you may have to use both your hands and feet while ascending and descending.
Please Note: This hike should not be attempted if there is rain, ice or snow. The Mattatuck Trail travels up and over steep sections of open rock slabs and ledges with steep dropoffs. Poor weather conditions and/or wet leaves resulting in poor traction, could be dangerous.
After entering Black Rock State Park, park just past the ticket booth, by the paved park road that leads to the beach (Black Rock Pond). If the gate is open, there is parking closer to the pond.
Walk past the gate and proceeded up the paved park road towards Black Rock Pond. Just before the restrooms, turn right, leaving the park road, walk across the field and cross the steel footbridge.
After crossing the bridge, turn left by the large park map, on a woods road, crossing a small wooden footbridge and proceed uphill.
In just under 300 feet, the woods road joins the blue-blazed Mattatuck Trail, which continues uphill towards Black Rock. This turn is easy to miss as you have to make a hard left, almost making a U-turn. Follow the blue blazes as they immediately turn right and begin heading in a southeasterly direction on another woods road.
The Mattatuck Trail travels along the southern end of Black Rock State Park, near Black Rock Pond. It crosses a series of small wooden footbridges over outlet streams of Black Rock Pond.
In about 0.75 mile, from the start of the hike, the Mattatuck Trail crosses Bidwell Hill Road, leaving Black Rock State Park. The trail crosses the road diagonally to the right and reenters the woods, entering Mattatuck State Forest.
The trail heads uphill on a woods road and in another 540 feet, turns left leaving the woods road and weaves its way through the woods, crossing a small stream, turning left (heading north) then turning right and crossing US-6 (Thomaston Rd). Care should be taken while crossing this road
The trail reenters the woods and now begins a steady climb. At times the trail climbs steeply over rock slabs which could be slick, if wet or covered with leaves.
The trail levels off briefly then resumes its steep ascent over a large rock formation. Once at the top of the rock formation, looking back, some partial views can be had. The trail levels off a little, traveling along slanted rock slabs with steep drop offs to the left.
The trail descends a little, climbs slightly then descends steeply into the valley, intersecting several woods roads as it passes through a wet area on wooden planks.
The trail turns left and begins to climb more steeply on rock slabs, then through a section of trail that is extremely rutted. At the top of the rise, the trail turns left as it reaches a junction with an unmarked trail.
The Mattatuck Trail comes out on open rock at Crane’s Lookout. From here, you can see the countryside about 270 degrees all around you. You are now standing above the Leatherman’s Cave.
A memorial for a 24 year old man that was killed in 2015, in a tragic automobile accident.
At an elevation of 780 feet, views of Thomaston and Watertown’s hills and valleys
You have now hiked almost 2 miles. This makes for a good spot to remove your pack and rest up from the climb, while you take in the views.
The next part can be confusing. There is a forked arrow painted on the rock that points down the side of the Crane’s Lookout, to the left. The blue blazes will soon appear as you descend. When you come to a Y-intersection with the Jericho Trail (also blue blazed), which begins on the right, bear left to stay on the Mattatuck Trail.
The trail hugs the side of the rock formation that you just descended and in a short distance, reaches the Leatherman’s Cave. The Mattatuck Trail passes through the cave and exits the other end. You may want to take some time to explore this area.
Looking back at the Leatherman’s Cave after exiting the other end.
After exiting the cave, the trail passes through another interesting area of high overhanging ledges and rock formations. You may have to climb over some small boulders as you make your way through this section of trail.
The trail descends steeply, losing about 350 feet of elevation in about 500 yards. The trail climbs again, gaining about another 100 feet of elevation in the next 500 yards or so. The trail descends again, losing another 150 feet of elevation before the grade lessens.
Near the base of the final descent, the trail passes an old quarry.
After about a mile from the Leatherman’s Cave, the Mattatuck Trail reaches a junction with the Branch Brook Trail, which begins on the left.
Turn left and follow this almost level woods road in a westerly direction as it heads towards US-6.
I read that this trail was once a trolley track from Waterbury to Black Rock at the turn of the century. By the looks of the amount of effort it took to construct it, by blasting the rock and raising the road bed, I tend to believe it.
In about 0.7 mile, the trail turns right, crossing the Branch Brook on a wooden footbridge, and a short distance later, reaches US-6.
Cross the road carefully and walk down the entrance road of Black Rock State Park, past the ticket booth, to the parking lot, where the hike began.
A somewhat challenging hike at times with the steep climbs and descents, but very rewarding and a good workout. The area around the Leatherman’s Cave is awe-inspiring and has a prehistoric feel to it. The Mattatuck Trail passes underneath massive overhanging ledges and climbs around rock formations. The Leatherman’s Cave is most impressive of all and exceeded my expectations. I have been to the Leatherman’s Cave In Ward Pound Ridge and this is by far on a much grander scale.
Historical features, Leatherman’s Cave, Crane’s Lookout, scenic views, well marked trails, rock formations.
Road crossings, some road noise can be heard.
Take a hike!