Grace Richardson Conservation Area
Location and Access
This open space area of about 87 acres in the Mill River watershed has always been called a “conservation area.” The designation reflects its rugged natural topography and the Conservation Commission’s priority management objective to preserve the area’s environmental features and values. The area is just south of the H. Smith Richardson Golf Course and it’s bounded on the west by Hoyden’s Lane, on the south by Congress Street, and on the east by Morehouse Highway. The Lake Mohegan Open Space area is a short distance to the southeast, across the Merritt Parkway.
Access to the conservation area is from the designated entrance at the corner of Congress Street and Morehouse Highway where several cars can park off the road in an unpaved area. Visitors then enter the area on the old farm road that once extended north through this property to Hoyden’s Hill.
The conservation area contains a prehistoric cultural resource site identified by the State of Connecticut as the “Congress Street Rockshelter” representing an encampment/shelter used by prehistoric Native Americans under a rock outcrop. It’s believed that occupation of this site in the southern part of the area occurred within the last 3,000 years but it’s also possible that use of the encampment dates back to over 8,000 years ago.
The more recent history of the conservation area is much the same as previously described with respect to the Hoyden’s Hill Open Space Area. Both areas were part of the 271-acre tract acquired by the Town of Fairfield from the H. Smith Richardson family in 1966. A farm road extended from the current entrance to the conservation area, through the center of the area and the land that’s now part of the H. Smith Richardson Golf Course and the Hoyden’s Hill Open Space Area, all the way to Beers Road.
Prior to Town acquisition, much of the land now within the boundaries of the conservation area was used for agricultural purposes, dating back to at least the 18th century. Because of its steepness, the land wasn’t suitable for cultivation as the land on Hoyden’s Hill is, but a good part of it was cleared for pasture use. A barn and farmhouse were located in the north-central part of the conservation area near what‘s now known as the Farmstead Field. In addition, two dams were built on the watercourse east of the farmhouse and two small ponds (the “North” and “South” ponds) were create.
As on Hoyden’s Hill, stonewalls indicating historical property divisions and past agricultural uses crisscross the conservation area and are notable landscape features. Several of these walls mark the boundaries of 17th century “Long Lots,” although the actual walls were likely not constructed until the early 1800’s.
In the early 1970’s, the Town built the H. Smith Richardson Golf Course and formally set aside the area to the south of the golf course for conservation purposes and named this natural area the Grace Richardson Conservation Area.
Today, the main uses of the conservation area utilize the area’s network of trails and include hiking, horseback riding, wildlife observation, and some cross-country skiing. Picnicking sometimes takes place on the higher ground east of the North Pond.
In 1992, the Conservation Commission prepared and adopted the Hoyden’s Hill Open Space Area and Grace Richardson Conservation Area Multiple Use Management Plan which includes management provisions to guide the beneficial use and conservation of both areas. This plan establishes the Commission’s priority goal to preserve the natural features and ecological values of the conservation area.
The area is characterized by steep slopes, rugged topography with a number of rock outcrops, and decreasing elevation from north to south. Elevations range from 346 feet above sea level along the northern boundary of the area to 110 feet in the southern part of the area near Congress Street. These topographic features are associated with the location of the area at the southern and down-slope end of the Hoyden’s Hill drumlin.
Prominent features include two ravines, each of which contains a small, unnamed watercourse that drains into Cricker Brook and eventually into the Mill River. The east ravine contains the area’s two man-made ponds. The North Pond’s about a quarter-acre; the South Pond’s smaller. Their old stone dams have deteriorated, but are still functional.
The slopes flanking the ravines are quite steep, ranging from 15% to upwards of 50%, with exposed rock faces in several locations. Elevation changes down the drainage corridor channels in both ravines are relatively gradual and, as a result, narrow bands of wetlands have developed along the stream banks in the ravines.
The ravines are separated by an undulating ridge with steeply sloped areas, several rock outcrops, and areas of more moderate slopes. Steep slopes and exposed rock faces are also found in the southernmost part of the conservation area and are visible from Congress Street.
Vegetation and Wildlife
Due to the conservation area’s rugged topography, much of the area’s once-cleared pasture land was abandoned many years ago. As a result, there’s a relatively advanced stage of woodland succession. Many large tulip poplars, oak, maple, and birch trees are found throughout the area. Vegetation is mostly typical of an advanced northeastern hardwood forest, but many other plant communities are also represented.
The east and west ravines, the wooded ridgetops and hillsides between the ravines, and the meadows in the north-central part of the conservation area all have different vegetation characteristics. In addition, the conservation area also has some riparian/wetland habitat.
One of the largest eastern hop hornbeam trees (Ostrya virginiana) in Connecticut is found near the old springhouse in the east ravine.
Grasses, perennial flowers, red cedars, dogwoods and apple trees are prominent in the several meadows, including the Bluebird Meadow, and represent early stages of secondary succession.
This diversity of vegetation provides significant wildlife habitat values. Many species of mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and birds are found in the conservation area, including deer, raccoon, skunk, fox, opossum, squirrel, chipmunk, songbirds, mice, groundhog, raptors, and upland game birds such as grouse, pheasant and wild turkey. Since there’s a large, unbroken expanse of forested land, the interior-forest bird habitat is very significant.
The conservation area’s trails provide opportunities for hiking, horseback riding, and cross-country skiing as well as opportunities for viewing the area’s diverse topography and environmental features. Because of the steep topography and the narrow and sometimes rocky trail conditions, cross-country skiing is more difficult in the conservation area than on the adjacent golf course. Also, although the trails are sometimes used for horseback riding, there’s only limited space for parking at the main entrance to the conservation area so it’s difficult to park a horse trailer.
The trails generally follow the contours of the land, paralleling the ridges and ravines. The old farm road that once led to the farmhouse and barn in the north-central part of the conservation area now serves as the main access trail. The North Pond is reached after walking about 1,000 feet along the main trail from its beginning near the intersection of Congress Street and Morehouse Highway.
From the pond there are several trail choices. Continuing along the old farm road leads you to the Farmstead Field where the farmhouse and barn once stood. Walking east just before the pond, the trail leads to a small open area on higher ground and then to a trail that follows the eastern drainage corridor to the north and eventually loops around to the other side of the ravine. To the west of the pond is the entry to a more extensive and complicated trail system that covers the southern and western parts of the conservation area.
Trail surfaces are highly variable and include bare mineral soil, wet or moist soil, loose gravelly surfaces, ledge outcrops, and grassy areas. The degree of difficulty depends on topographic conditions, and some areas are quite steep.
The yellow trail (about 1.8 miles long) generally follows the perimeter of the conservation area and the red trail (about a ½-mile long) makes a shorter inner circle. Please stay on the marked trails to help preserve the forest and meadow habitats for the enjoyment of other hikers.
Scroll below to view photographs of the Grace Richardson Conservation Area: