Hikes abound for every expertise level and length

It's time to get out the hiking boots (or sneakers) and go explore the woods and forests in our area.

You might not think it, but there are many hidden gems of peaceful beauty in Southwestern Connecticut. From the Mianus River Park in Stamford and Greenwich to Tarrwille Park in Danbury and the Lower Paugusset State Forest in Newtown, you will find hikes for all fitness levels.

Above are some hikes to consider. Many of these organizations depend on donations to continue and maintain their fine work and they hold events throughout the year. National Trails Day is June 4 – take a hike or join one of the many statewide events.

Why do you want to hike? Some hikers at Tarrywile Park in Danbury, John and Judy Schriver and their daughter Sheryl Peacock, summed it up: "Fresh air, views, camaraderie and communing with nature."

You don't have to be an athlete to explore the outdoors, take it a step at a time. Just get out and joy the sights and sounds of a walk in the woods. "The time to see birds and wildlife is work to the edges of the day," said Nelson L. North, executive director at Audubon in Fairfield. Morning is especially good at the height of the summer when the temperature can get balmy.

To start, have a sturdy pair of hiking boots, walking shoes, or sneakers. Please, no flip-flops. Also, be sure to have plentiful water, especially at the height of the summer. If it's a longer hike, take a snack. Allergic to bees or yellow jackets? Be sure to have your epi-pen or if not allergic, try to have Benedydryl handy.

To enjoy your hiking experience, try talking less and observing more. Listen for water as it babbles and meanders over some rocks. Listen for various birds and the chirping of chipmunks as they scurry back to their den. Last year while hiking the Saugatuck Trail, we got to see a male turkey courting a possible mate with all of its tail feathers spread out, just like a turkey candle at Thanksgiving. If we had been talking we would have scared them away or just totally just missed them.

"Just stop and sit for a while and the birds will come back and start singing again," said North. Look for red-shouldered hawks and barred owls. It is also the end of the spring bird migration.

Be Safe in the woods

With bears becoming more common in southwestern Connecticut it is wise to follow the suggestions of the CT DEEP.

DO make your presence known by not being totally quiet. If you see a bear, make noise and wave your arms so the bear is aware of your presence.

DO keep your dog on a leash.

DO back away slowly if you surprise a bear.

DON'T try to get closer to take a picture or video.

DON'T run or climb a tree.

DO be offensive if the bear approaches you. Do not play dead. Make noise, wave your arms and if necessary fight back with anything. They rarely attack humans though.

Although you might be walking through heavily forested areas, you'll often see networks of stonewall. They are the remains of the many farms that covered rocky New England between 1750 and 1850. You can also see stone foundations and old roads. On the Lake Zoar trail you can see an old road go down into the lake, where it would have continued before the Stevenson Dam was constructed.

Other evidence of an earlier time can be found at charcoal hearth sites at Kettletown State Park, Oxford and a replica of a charcoal pile can be found at Devil's Den Preserve in Weston.
Another item to carry is a map and or/description of where you will be hiking. There's often a large map at the entrance of a hiking area but its best to carry a map so you have options to shorten your hike, or to lengthen it, depending on how you feel. With the Internet there are no excuses for not a having map.

Yes, even though I have been hiking for more than 20 years, sorry to say– sssh... I got lost last year. Even though I had hiked from the Saugatuck Trail to the Great Ledge in Devils Den Preserve in Redding before, (because we were talking) we missed the right turn to the ledge. With no map of Devils Den, and only numbered intersections, we ended up at the other end of the preserve.

With no cell phone service, what was supposed to be a two-hour hike became a "four-hour tour" as the Gilligan's Island theme song went through my head. (Theirs was three hours.) We did eventually get cell service to show us what roads to take back to the car. You should not depend on cell service.

Be sure to use bug spray and spray your socks with a DEET mixture. A baseball cap helps too. Don't worry; it's not a fashion parade. When you get back, check yourself for ticks. Keep these scenic areas clean, pack out what you bring in.

If allowed, and you feel the need to bring your dog, please keep it on a leash. According to North,

"Many songbirds nest on the ground and loose dogs will chase them away or damage their nests." And be sure to pick up after your dog.

Some hikes might seem far away but take the time to get some exercise, see another area and most importantly – after the hike grab some lunch, and perhaps have a cocktail. You earned it.

"Connecticut Walk Book —the Guide to the Blue-blazed Hiking Trails of Western Connecticut" has more extensive details on hiking preparation as well as trail descriptions, maps and mileage. Be sure to photocopy the original map before setting out. I've lost a few and constant folding has mangled others. Check out ctwoodlands.org for updates on trail conditions and relocations as well as its new interactive map.

Another great source for maps and hikes in our state parks and forests is the Connecticut DEEP site. "50 Hikes in Connecticut" has hikes of all sizes with extensive descriptions and history.

Want to hike, meet new friends and learn more about hiking? Perhaps join the CT Chapter of the Appalachian Mountain Club. In addition, they have bicycling, flatwater and family activities. Visit www.ct-amc.org to learn more.

Many of these trails pass through some privately owned land. Please respect their property so that these trails can continue to be used by all. Again, get out and enjoy the wonder around us. Just be careful and hike within your abilities. No matter what, it will be worth it.