Long one of the most industrialized states in America, Connecticut still has a lot of active railroads.
And considering how busy most still are, it’s difficult to appreciate that any could fall out of use to the point of becoming hiking and biking trails.
More amazing still is that towns like:
- And Monroe
Were able to piece together a greenway on abandoned land in the heart of Fairfield County. After all, property values here are among the highest in the country.
But they did indeed, hence the Pequonnock River Trail.
Parkland is always a welcome sight for calming the agitating noise of the city, but a greenway can be far more valuable. Far more people can use and exercise on a greenway even twenty feet wide than on a ball field, for example.
Bike trails connect:
- Neighborhoods to business districts
- People to nature
- And neighbors to one another
And we’re all about connection, which adds to their appeal for us!
Read on for everything you need to know before you head out:
About the Pequonnock River Trail
You will not see the name, “Pequonnock River Trail” anywhere along this trail system in southwest Connecticut.
That said, the Pequonnock River Trail is a system of connecting trails stretching from Bridgeport to Monroe that travel along the former Housatonic Railroad line.
The state pieced together the regional trail, one of the first in New England, from urban Bridgeport to rural Monroe in 2001. It used existing paths that had grown independently along the former Housatonic Railroad line. And they have since opened even more segments.
- Housatonic Railway Rails to Trails
- Or Monroe Housatonic Railbed Trail
Among the various names along the route, reflect the railroad heritage.
History of the Pequonnock River Trail
Before Europeans arrived, the Pequonnock Indians of the Paugussett nation lived on the river’s banks.
Records showed a village of about 600 people in 150 houses was on the west bank of the Pequonnock. The first English settlement, Pequonnock, was established around 1665 on the west bank of the river’s mouth. The village changed its name to Newfield before 1777. Bridgeport’s center, Newfield Village, was founded as the borough of Bridgeport in 1800.
Historians are still not sure as to the exact meaning of the word Pequonnock. Some theories include:
- Clear field, or open ground
- Broken ground
- A place of slaughter or destruction
The Housatonic Railroad served the Pequonnock Valley and local businesses. Founded in 1836, it began operations in 1840. The rail transported goods between the Pequonnock Valley and the harbor, for easier access to New York City markets. It also provided passenger service.
The Railroad also built and managed the Parlor Rock Amusement Park. The amusement park was a ploy to attract more ridership, as the railway was the only way to reach it.
The Housatonic Railroad originally linked Bridgeport and New Milford. It was later extended to the Massachusetts state line and connected to the Berkshire spur, which went to Stockbridge, MA. The Housatonic Railroad served approximately 60 station stops, stopping at local stations in:
- North Bridgeport (Lyons)
- Long Hill
- Pepper (Pepper Crossing)
- And Botsford
The line reached its terminus in New Milford, Connecticut.
Decline of the Rail, and Rise of the Pequonnock River Trail
The last train passed through Trumbull in 1935, and the line was later abandoned south of Botsford, now part of Newtown.
Connecticut Route 8 from Bridgeport to Trumbull replaced that section of the railroad. The section north of that became Pequonnock River Valley State Park.
What to look out for along the Pequonnock River Trail
Like the Norwalk River Valley Trail system, the Pequonnock River Trail is a work in progress.
The vision for the final product is a bike and walking trail stretching from Seaside Park in Bridgeport through Trumbull to Monroe.
Here’s what to look for along each section of the trail, starting at Long Island Sound.
Bridgeport, Fairfield County’s and Connecticut’s most populous city, sits on the Pequonnock River and Long Island Sound.
The most popular starting point for the Pequonnock River Trail is Beardsley Park.
But the ambitious could start at Seaside Park or downtown Bridgeport near the PT Barnum Museum and head north. The first of several disconnected trail sections begins at the Bridgeport Transportation Center in downtown Bridgeport. The trail extends north to North Avenue (US 1), following Housatonic Avenue for its duration. The elevated Berkshire Spur of the Housatonic Railroad once served a few industrial customers to the north and had piers where the paved side path now is. It was completed in 2001. While locals heavily use this section, it’s both visually unappealing and short.
Though it’s getting better, gives this section of trail time to marinate.
Instead, start at the Beardsley Zoo and Beardsley Park, both on the National Register of Historic Places.
Beardsley Park is the third-oldest park in Bridgeport. James W Beardsley donated more than 100 acres along the Pequonnock River in 1878. He stipulated that the city preserve it as a public park.
The City commissioned landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted to create a pastoral park with:
- Naturalistic plantings
- Rustic arrangements of boulders
- Curving roads
- And minimal intrusions
If the name is familiar, that’s because he designed such major parks as Central Park in New York City. He’s also a local, having been born in Hartford, Connecticut.
A dam was built at the park’s southernmost point to enclose the Pequonnock River and create Bunnells Pond, a 33-acre urban reservoir. Fishing along the Pequonnock River and from the shores of Bunnells Pond is permitted, but not swimming or boating.
The eastern edges of the Pequonnock River and Bunnells Pond are both along the PRT’s path through the park.
Bridgeport was the winter home of the Barnum and Bailey circus, which used the park to exercise its animals. In the 1920s, the city decided to build a zoo in the park whose first residents were retired circus animals and exotic bird donations from locals. The number and variety of animals increased with the construction of greenhouses and more enclosures. It is now home to over 300 animals, mostly from North and South America, including several endangered species. And the Beardsley Zoo is Connecticut’s only zoo.
To the north of the park, the trail crosses the Pequonnock River and runs beneath CT 8 and Old Town Road. The state tunneled under the Merritt Parkway’s on- and off-ramps and repurposed a former railroad bridge to continue the trail north.
Beardsley State Park and Preserve
The Beardsley State Park and Preserve, north of Beardsley Park and Zoo in Trumbull, is wooded and undeveloped. In the late 1800s, the Fairchild family donated the land to the City of Bridgeport for use as a public park.
The Pequonnock River forms the park’s northeastern boundary. The river is a prominent feature in the park’s southern section, where it widens and flows over large rocks and boulders.
Trumbull is a thriving community with a strong New England feel. Money Magazine, Relocate America, and Connecticut Magazine have all named it one of the top towns in America.
Trumbull has the most open and recreational space per capita in the state. And the Pequonnock River Trail certainly adds to that total.
The shortest section of the Pequonnock River Trail runs north of the Merritt Parkway and connects Trumbull neighborhoods west of CT 25 with Twin Brooks Park.
Twin Brooks Park
This is a community park with a memorial walkway, hiking trails, and natural ponds. The largest of the ponds provides a natural swimming area. A covered bridge spans the Pequonnock River and serves as a prominent marker for the park’s entrance.
A wooden pedestrian bridge and walkway connect the Vietnam Memorial Park.
The Trumbull section of the Pequonnock River Trail begins paved. But the paving changes to smooth stone dust as it passes through the breathtakingly beautiful river valley. It’s a much more rustic experience compared to the southern three asphalt-surfaced stretches. And yet, the surface is still compact enough for wheelchair use.
Pequonnock Valley Wildlife Area
The Pequonnock River Valley is a picturesque, forested area with a rugged and varied landscape in a steep-walled valley. You’ll see large granite rock outcrops and cliffs in this remote location.
Trumbull purchased the Pequonnock Valley from Aquarian Water Company. It is now a state wildlife area. Once the industrial hub of Trumbull, several mills were located along the river. You’ll find many reminders of Trumbull’s industrial past sprinkled throughout the park to this day.
Today, the park provides:
- Challenging hiking trails
- Waterfowl and small game hunting (October through December)
- And the Pequonnock River Trail, passing along the old rail bed
While the rail bed is broad and flat, the east side of the river has more varied terrain and technical single-track trails.
Parlor Rock Historic Amusement Area
Parlor Rock Park, which is now located north of Whitney Avenue, was named after the large rock outcroppings found there. The original amusement park, only accessible by train, began with a quaint picnic area. It later expanded to include:
- A dance hall
- A roller skating rink
- A carousel
- Croquet grounds
- A man-made lake for boating
- And a toboggan run
It was the first electrified place in Trumbull thanks to a nearby grist mill. The Parlor Rock amusement park was open from 1878 to 1908.
Today, the rocky outcroppings make it one of the prettiest stretches of the Pequonnock River Trail. And the waterfalls along this stretch are worth the trek.
Trumbull’s section of the Pequonnock River Trail is easy for all to navigate, including via wheelchair. That said, the path to the wooden bridge beneath CT 25 requires a climb up a short hill in Parlor Rock Park.
Cross under CT 25’s rite of way through the old railroad to enter the next stop on the trail.
Old Mine Park
The American Tungsten Mining and Milling Company mined tungsten at the site from 1897 to around 1902. The company built a dry processing mill to separate tungsten from its component ore. The operation was North America’s first tungsten mining site.
Due to low yield and difficulties in separating tungsten from pyrite, the mine closed in 1902. The mill sat idle until a fire destroyed it in 1916. The Town purchased the land in 1937 and later turned it into a public park.
If you want to do more than just pass through the park on the Pequonnock River Trail, it has:
- Pathways leading to the former (and now inaccessible) mines
- Two pavilions
- Picnic areas
The town also dammed the river here, forming a small pond.
Monroe, a growing town in Fairfield County, named itself after James Monroe. He was the fifth President of the United States who presided from 1817 to 1825. The Town of Monroe became a legal entity in 1823, hence the name choice.
The trail continues northwest through Old Mine Park, paralleling the park entrance road. Be careful crossing the Monroe Turnpike, as motorists often don’t notice the flashing trail-crossing beacon. The path then briefly leaves the former rail corridor to go around the marshland before climbing uphill again.
Continue north on Maple Drive to Purdy Hill Road to continue on the trail’s final—and oldest—segment. After a short right turn, the route continues on the left via the William E Wolfe Park entrance.
William E Wolfe Park Park
Acquired and built by the town in 1967, William E Wolfe Park has grown significantly since then. The Great Hollow Lake on the park’s western edge offers a sandy beach, non-motorized boating, and fishing.
The Pequonnock River Trail runs along the park’s western edge, with numerous hiking trails snaking through the park.
This section of the trail runs for more than 4 miles through the well-known park and beyond the Newtown boundary. The park, forested and especially beautiful in the fall, makes a beautiful terminus. Great Hollow Lake’s lovely sand beach and swimming area adds to the charm. The 16-acre lake allows nonmotorized boating and has a paved walkway around its perimeter open only to people.
The most notable relic here is a stone-arch bridge on Connecticut’s State Register of Historic Places.
After another quarter mile, you will reach the trail’s official end in the woods on the Newtown town line. Overgrown but still visible railroad tracks mark the end of the trail’s extensive railroading history.
Parking and Trail Access
Access points and parking areas line the entire length of the Pequonnock River Trail.
Some of the places to park along the trail include:
- A small parking lot on Pepper Street in Monroe
- Several parking garages along Housatonic Avenue in Bridgeport
- The Beardsley Zoo
- Twin Books Park in Trumbull
- William E Wolfe Park in Monroe
Many of these need a daily parking fee.
All Trumbull parks require a town parking permit all year. Look for signs to confirm if you need one or not. The parking area on Tait Road and the access on Whitney Avenue (rather than Indian Ledge Park) both provide free access to the rail trail.
More things to do in Bridgeport, CT, and nearby after the Pequonnock River Trail
One of my favorite things to do on a nice Sunday is enjoying a few of my favorite things to do in Bridgeport, Connecticut:
- First, poke around Mongers Market in downtown Bridgeport. It’s one of the best flea markets in all Connecticut.
- Have lunch at one of the best restaurants in the Bridgeport area, and one of the best places for Mexican food in Connecticut, Trumbull Cafe and Grill.
- Spend the afternoon walking or biking a section of the Pequonnock River Trail
- Finish the day by enjoying a locally crafted brew or two at one of the best Connecticut breweries in the Bridgeport area.
But there’s plenty more to keep you entertained here. A few ideas include:
- The Centennial Watershed State Forest some of the best hiking trails in Connecticut here.
- Norwalk and its hinterlands also have a fantastic biking and walking trail, the Norwalk River Valley Trail
- History buffs should visit some of the best Connecticut museums that call the Pequonnock River Valley home
Be sure to read the full guide to the best attractions, activities, and things to do in Bridgeport, Connecticut, for the complete list!