Connecticut State Forests - Seedling Letterbox Series - Clues for Camp Columbia State Forest
Camp Columbia State Forest -
the 31st State Forest
Camp Columbia State Forest and State Historic Park is one of Connecticut DEEP’s most recent land acquisitions. This is the first DEEP letterbox at Camp Columbia. Located by Bantam Lake in Morris and Bethlehem, this “small” 600-acre property was acquired from Columbia University in 2000 and dedicated in 2004.
In 1903, Columbia University purchased farmland to serve as a summer camp for Columbia University’s surveying and engineering students. Ironically for a future “state forest”, there were practically no trees on the property in those days! For 80 years, students used the grounds of Camp Columbia to put their classroom skills to practical use, sometimes even resulting in engineering breakthroughs. A demonstration of a new method of construction using a pre-stressed concrete roof with no interior supports was later tested on a much larger scale with the construction of Madison Square Garden in New York City! The university football team also practiced here, and Dwight D. Eisenhower is one of the dignitaries who reportedly hunted on the property during the 20th Century.
During World War I, the Camp was used for combat training for college students that planned to apply for commissions as officers. Captain Ralph Williams of the Canadian Light Infantry, a decorated veteran of the French and Belgian fronts, was in charge of the program. Students were forced to march, drill, dig trenches, and fight in simulated warfare that included real as well as dummy gunfire and explosives. Even today, subtle remnants of trenches dug in 1917 and 1918 are still evident in various parts of the property. Camp Columbia closed in 1983, and has since remained relatively quiet.
Every new state property must undergo a period of scrutiny to determine the best public use based on location, past use, resources present, access, and other factors. Based on this scrutiny, the majority of this parcel was designated as “State Forest”. This is consistent with the property’s history of active forest management and hunting – as trees re-grew following Columbia’s acquisition of the property, forest management became a part of the care of the land. A State Forest is managed for such multiple uses as the growth and harvest of forest products, wildlife habitat enhancement, research, hiking, hunting and trapping.
A small portion of the acreage was designated as a “State Historic Park”, including the frontage on Bantam Lake and the immediate site of the Columbia University buildings. State Parks are usually areas meant for preservation and recreation. Although there are exceptions, there are usually no active resource management programs such as timber harvesting and hunting on State Parks.
Camp Columbia is still a very new property, with limited opportunities for public access. Although a public parking area on Route 109 and a trail system will eventually be constructed, these improvements are not complete as of this writing.
Description: The letterbox lies in a stone wall about 800 feet into the hardwood forest off of Munger Lane, a town road in Morris.
Since the letterbox is in the State Forest portion of the property, where regulated hunting is permitted, you are advised to wear bright orange during fall hunting season. Parking is limited, and there may be no simple place to park when there is snow on the ground. Even without snow, turning your vehicle around on Munger Lane may be a challenge.
Ticks are in abundance at Camp Columbia most of the year, but most notably in spring, early summer and mid to late fall. You should wear light-colored clothing sprayed with repellent and check yourself frequently. Remember that the ticks can be very tiny! Also, it is always wise to avoid being in forests on very windy days, as limbs and other material can dislodge from the trees above you.
You may notice ATV or dirt bike tracks in the mud or snow. These motorized vehicles are not allowed on State Forests and State Parks. Irresponsible use of these vehicles damages trails and streams, disturbs wildlife and other users of DEEP land, and creates hazards to many. If you spot any such unauthorized activity at Camp Columbia during your visit, you are welcome to call the 24-hour DEEP Emergency Dispatch number, 860-424-3333.
Clues: Using a map, find the junction of Route 109 and Route 63 in the small village of East Morris. You can follow 63 North from Middlebury and Watertown, or 109 West from Route 6 in Thomaston. There will be an “Xtra Mart” Citgo at this 4-way stop. Go west on 109 1.1 miles to the center of Morris. At the junction of Routes 109 and 61, continue on 109 West. After another 1.5 miles, you will pass Camp Awosting for Boys on the right, immediately followed by the junction with Route 209. Go another half-mile past 209 and take a left onto Todd Hill Road. There will also be a green street sign for “Town Garage” at that turn.
On Todd Hill, you will immediately pass an old cemetery on the right. Follow Todd Hill Road a total of 4/10-mile and take a left onto Munger Lane. Drive slowly, the turn comes up quickly. If it is winter, go 1/10 of a mile up Munger Lane – you will find that the snowplow stops at about that point. If it is warmer weather, drive a total of a quarter-mile down Munger Lane. You are advised not to attempt driving the unmaintained portion of the road in winter. Also, you should also not block the road when you park your vehicle.
Your entry to the woods will be a total of a quarter-mile down Munger Lane, on the left or east side of the road. This is about 75 feet from where the pavement ends. As a landmark, there is a maple tree that forks about 5-6 feet up with a yellow “Connecticut State Land” tag and a metal wire wrapped around it 2-3 feet from the ground. Look at the woods road going steeply up into the woods by this tree. Follow this road on foot!
You will be going easterly, up hill on this steep road. There will be decaying stumps on both sides of the trail. This area was harvested over 10 years ago as part of DEEP’s suspended fuelwood program. Through this program, the Forestry Division previously issued permits annually utilizing a lottery 2-cord lots. Firewood trees were usually smaller trees close to the road that have been selected for removal to thin the woods and create more growing space. Healthier and higher quality young trees will fill this growing space. Most of the area you are walking through was previously marked and cut through the firewood program.
From Munger Lane, you will follow this trail about 225 feet as it winds around easterly, then southerly. Eventually, this trail “T”s at another woods trail. Go left. Follow this trail and after about 100 feet, notice the beech on the right with carved names and initials. Healthy American beech has smooth, gray bark that is often a temptation for carving messages, but you should not do it! Beech has very thin outer bark and little protection for the living cambium layer underneath. Carving on beech damages the trees and makes them more susceptible to insect and disease attack, as well as disfigures a beautiful tree.
Continue down this trail for a total of 500 feet (from the “T”) as it heads downhill. Look around and notice some of the large and impressive living oak trees. Then notice some of the species of smaller trees in the understory. If you know Connecticut’s trees, you may recognize that most of these smaller trees are not oaks, but primarily yellow birch, sugar maple, and beech. Where are all the young oak trees?
Just past where the trail makes a sharp left, you see an old stone wall. Follow until you are at a gapway in the wall. Look left at a forked shagbark hickory next to the wall. Can you tell how the species got its name?
Yellow birch, sugar maple, and beech comprise a forest type that foresters know as “northern hardwoods”. This forest type is more common in northern New England. Unlike oak trees, the northern hardwoods species are tolerant to shade and therefore can exist here in the understory beneath the older oak trees. These species also do well on soils with a lot of moisture and are more competitive in this area than oak.
Foresters know that, if the old oaks were to disappear, this growing site will become occupied by beech-birch-maple. That is, this happens unless something were to occur that dramatically disturbs the area, such as a clearcut or fire. Oak establishes itself in areas of great disturbance, which could explain its establishment here about a century ago.
This is just one small example of how you can view an area differently when seen from the eyes of a forester, who uses science and history to understand the forest we have and what the forest is likely to be in the future. Even so, you still get to enjoy the beauty around you!
At the gap in the east-west oriented stone wall, look left. This section of the wall is only less than 100 feet long. Go 80 feet down the wall on the downhill or north side. Stop about 10 feet from the end and look in the wall adjacent to a small 3-4-inch yellow birch growing on a white quartz rock. You should find your prize there!
Learn More, Earn a Patch: DEEP hopes you enjoyed your visit to Camp Columbia State Forest and learned some fun and interesting facts. You are encouraged to return one day when the property becomes more accessible for active recreation.
This is one of 32 letterbox hikes in the new second series of boxes, called the “Seedling Series”, sponsored by the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection’s Division of Forestry. This is the first letterbox for this forest (There was no “Centennial Series” box). Take 4 additional sponsored letterbox hikes to earn a commemorative Connecticut Forestry Centennial patch. When you have completed five of these hikes, please contact us and let us know what sites you have visited, what your stamp looks like and how we may send your patch. We will verify your visits and send the patch along to you.
Content last updated June 11, 2020