Pine Creek Open Space Areas
x Open Space Trail Guide
Location and Access
The Pine Creek marshes occupy much of the central part of Fairfield's coastal area, south of the Post Road. While the Conservation Commission has designated a number of open space areas in the Pine Creek watershed and estuary, for the purpose of the Trails Guide we’ve grouped two of them together (encompassing about 110 acres), and we’re calling them the “Pine Creek Open Space Areas.” We’ve done so because the two areas provide the best opportunities for walking and hiking on the Salt Marsh Trail that winds through the estuary.
The principal point of access to the open space areas is through the Town’s Pine Creek Recreation Area on Old Dam Road. Driving east on Old Dam Road, turn left just before the Kiwanis baseball field and proceed straight ahead to the gated entrance to the open space areas. There’s plenty of parking here.
Another access point is behind the Fairfield Senior Center which is located on Mona Terrace, south of Old Field Road. There’s parking at the Senior Center.
There are also pedestrian access points from Oldfield Road, the cul-de-sac at the end of Salt Meadow Road, and two points along Old Dam Road. No designated parking is available at these locations.
Historical maps and descriptions of Colonial Fairfield indicate that few significant changes occurred in the Pine Creek area for about 300 years after the Town was settled. In 1914 there were an estimated 640 acres of tidal wetlands in the estuary. By that time, however, human activities were beginning to have a profound environmental impact on the creek and its tidal wetlands. Drainage ditches were being cut in many of the marshes to control mosquitoes and the Town started to acquire land that would be used for the development of municipal facilities, including a landfill.
As the Town developed following the end of World War II, more and more homes were built in low-lying areas and those homes experienced severe flooding from time to time. As a result, the Town built flood control dikes in the 1950’s that provided a sense of security and allowed development to continue. Also at that time, which was during the height of the “cold war,” the U.S. Government constructed a Nike missile launching site adjoining the estuary.
By 1972, almost all of the tidal wetlands in the estuary had been diked or filled for development, and the loss of wetlands was so extensive that only about 17 acres of unfilled, undiked wetlands remained-a loss of about 98% of the estimated wetland acreage that existed in 1914. The tidal wetland vegetation behind the flood control dikes had died. As a result, conditions became especially favorable for mosquitoes; fish and wildlife habitat was degraded; the mono-culture of Phragmites created a significant fire hazard; and the remaining wetlands lost much of their ability to filter pollutants.
In response to the environmental damage and other problems caused by the flood dikes, the Conservation Commission started the Town’s marsh restoration program in 1971. This program--described in the Conservation Commission’s 1996 “Research Report Concerning the Multiple Use Management Plan for Coastal Open Space” and 1997 pamphlet “Marsh Restoration: Opportunities and Benefits from a Local Perspective”--has had remarkable success and the restored wetlands have been incorporated into the Town’s open space system.
Today, the Pine Creek open space areas provide opportunities for walking and hiking, wildlife observation, enjoyment of marsh views, and canoeing and kayaking when the tide is high.
“Tidal wetlands provide vital ecological functions and have much beneficial value; they are environmental, economic, recreational, and scenic resources of great importance.” These are some standard words from textbooks, heard many times, that can be used to sum up the significance of Pine Creek’s tidal wetlands-called salt marshes because their salinity is now high.
The open space areas provide the opportunity for close-up views of tidal wetlands, including areas where the ecological functions and values of the salt marsh were restored after years of degradation. From the Salt Marsh Trail you can also see the self-regulating tide gates (SRTs) in action. The SRTs helped accomplish the marsh restoration by replacing the conventional “flapper” tide gates in the flood dikes across Pine Creek. Float systems on the SRTs are adjusted so the gates allow enough tidal flow for marsh restoration but automatically close at a predetermined tide elevation, before the flood-causing high tide peak is reached.
There are many good references on Connecticut's tidal wetlands. You can start with the website of the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection (www.dep.state.ct.us) and search for “wetlands” and “wetland restoration.” You’ll find a link to the excellent book Tidal Wetlands of Long Island Sound by the Connecticut College Arboretum and other helpful information.
To summarize, the Pine Creek marshes, along with all of Connecticut’s tidal wetlands, function as living filters where pollutants are contained, diluted, or stabilized as tide water and storm water flow through marsh grass and over mudflats. Earlier in the Trails Guide, we talked about the relationship between Fairfield’s watersheds and Long Island Sound and how the ecological health of the Sound depends on the environmental quality of its watersheds, tributaries, and marshes.
The marshes are ecological systems with high biological productivity; nutrients stored and recycled within them provide the foundation of the estuarine food chain. The dead leaves and stems of marsh plants enter the water, are broken down by micro-organisms, and become food for fiddler crabs, worms, snails, finfish, and shellfish. The marshes provide nesting, feeding, and refuge areas for shorebirds and wildlife communities; they store floodwater, stabilize the shoreline, and act as buffers against wave energy.
The Pine Creek estuary today contains one of the largest tidal wetland areas in the state. Saltwater cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora) and salt-meadow cordgrass (Spartina patens) have recolonized much of the restored areas; large populations of marsh fiddler crabs and ribbed mussels have returned; and there are new populations of juvenile shellfish. The original populations of breeding fish, birds, and diamondback terrapins have not been completely restored, however, because the habitat requirements of these wildlife populations included not only wetlands but also adjacent upland areas that have since been filled, graded, dredged, or otherwise altered.
Visitors entering the open space areas from the main entrance off Old Dam Road (where the missile launching site used to be) can cross an old railroad bridge section. The bridge section was once part of a bridge across the Connecticut River in the 1800’s and was moved to the Mill Hill Road railroad crossing in Fairfield later in the 19th century. This structure is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Nearby the bridge are the self-regulating tide-gates that allow Pine Creek to now flow through the flood control dike. The area near the bridge and the SRTs can be used for launching canoes and kayaks to explore and fish the creek.
After you cross the bridge, turn left to follow the Salt Marsh Trail along the southwest edge of the now-closed landfill. The trail leads to another SRT area near the Meadows Condominium and then continues to the Fairfield Senior Center and to Oldfield Road. The trail near the Senior Center has been designated as a wheelchair accessible trail and is currently being renovated.
If you enter the open space areas from the Old Dam Road entrance, you can also turn right before the railroad bridge and walk the length of the Pine Creek dike behind the baseball field.
It’s about 1.4 miles on the Salt Marsh Trail from Oldfield Road to the end of the dike at Pine Creek.
Scroll below to view photographs of the Pine Creek Open Space Areas: