Off the Beaten Path: Constance Baker Motley Preserve

Get outside and celebrate Women’s History Month with a quick hike at the Constance Baker Motley Preserve! Owned by the Chester Land Trust and spanning 7 acres bordering the Cockaponset State Forest, the Preserve sits at the former property of Judge Constance Baker Motley, a leader in the Civil Rights Movement and the nation’s first African-American & first woman to serve as a federal judge. Join us for a hike & some history!

Hike Overview:
Total length: 0.5-0.8 miles (the trailhead & my activity tracker disagree!)
Difficulty: Moderate-Difficult
Type: Loop
Elevation change: 138 feet
Trail: Purple blazed “Little Nine Rock” loop
Dog Policy: There is no policy specifically listed at the trailhead or on the Chester Land Trust website. If you choose to bring your dog, keep your dog leashed & under control.

GPS link to the trailhead at 100 Cedar Lake Road in Chester

Directions: From Middletown, take Route 9 South to exit 6 onto CT-148 towards Chester/Hadlyme. Turn right onto CT-148 W/W Main street and in 1.5 miles, take another right onto Cedar Lake Road. The Preserve will be on your right in a little over a mile.

Our hike begins here, at the trailhead at Cedar Lake Road in Chester. There is a small parking lot that fits 4-5 cars.

You’ll notice right away the blue house across the street from the trailhead, as well as the historical markers. For over 40 years, from 1965-2009, this was the weekend & holiday home of Judge Constance Baker Motley and her husband, Joel Motley II, who brought their family to Chester as an escape from fast-paced New York City, home of the Judge’s career. Known as “Bushnell House,” the Motleys hosted locally famous dinner parties here, including both Chester residents & civil rights activists.

Photo courtesy of Chester Historical Society

Judge Motley was born in New Haven in 1921 and lived in Connecticut throughout her school years, eventually moving to New York to attend college & law school. Post-graduation in 1946, Judge Motley jumped right into work as a law clerk and civil rights attorney with the NAACP, working closely with prominent figures like Thurgood Marshall. In her 20 years with the NAACP, Judge Motley litigated over 200 desegregation cases, and drafted the complaint for the famous Brown vs. Board of Education case that ended segregation in schools.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

In 1964, just a year prior to her purchase of her Chester home, Judge Motley became the first woman elected to the New York State Senate and a year later the first woman to become president of the Borough of Manhattan. Judge Motley continued her “firsts” in 1966, becoming the first African-American and first woman to be appointed as a federal judge of the United States. Of this time, Judge Motley said “As the first black and first woman, I am proving in everything I do that blacks and women are as capable as anyone.”

Photo courtesy of the National Women's Hall of Fame

Because of her contributions to the civil rights movement and social justice, Judge Motley was elected to the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993, and to the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame in 1998. Judge Motley passed in 2005.

The Chester Land Trust purchased the property across from the Motley home in 2016, and volunteers worked to create what is now known as the Constance Baker Motley Preserve, the site of today’s hike. The trail, and Judge Motley’s home, are both stops on the Connecticut Freedom Trail.

Photo courtesy of Chester Historical Society

To learn more about the life of Constance Baker Motley, check out some of these audio links – if you like to listen to podcasts while you hike, bring your headphones with you and tune in as you walk through Judge Motley’s former property!

Chester Historical SocietyConstance Baker Motley: Crusader for Justice by Marta Daniels
Encyclopedia WommanicaPoliticians: Constance Baker Motley

Onto our hike!

Our hike begins here, at the sign for the Little Rock Nine Loop Trail. The sign says that the trail is ½ a mile, but my activity tracker ended up at .8 miles – either way, this hike is short and sweet and takes a little under a half an hour to complete. Walk over the bridge, and then continue straight to head counter-clockwise on the loop.

For such a short hike, there’s some solid elevation gain, and most of that takes place right at the beginning where you’ll head almost straight uphill. The second half of the trail is all downhill, so tackling the hike clockwise would still result in a steep hike.

As you make your way uphill, keep an eye out for rocks & tree roots, and look for the bright purple markers throughout the trail. While the navigating the preserve doesn’t require a map, these make it easy to stay on the trail.

Once you’ve hit the top, if you need a break you can take a seat & look over the forest below. The Preserve borders the Cockaponset State Forest, part of which you can take in here.

To continue your hike downhill and head back towards your car, follow the blazes that note the change in direction, just past the bench.

As you make your descent, the trail continues through this truly charming forest  – I was taken aback by how beautiful this trail was in March, when the trees were bare and there was minimal plant-life. I would love to see this trail in all 4 seasons!

Like I said, this trail is charming! Land trust volunteers created a staircase with rocks & spray paint to help hikers navigate down the steep terrain. Make your way down the staircase, and the trail will take you back to your car.

Alternative Options

  • If you’re looking for a longer hike, this Preserve is a great add-on to the trails in the Cockaponset State Forest. The hike around the Pattaconk Reservoir is an easy, ~2.5 mile loop with views of the water, and you can choose to take trails deeper into the Forest to extend your hike even further.
  • Check out the Chester Land Trust for other hikes in the area.
  • While not open to the public, if you’re interested in the history of Constance Baker Motley, you can drive by her childhood home in New Haven, which is a stop on the Connecticut Freedom Trail. GPS link to the Constance Baker Motley House at 8 Garden Street, New Haven.

Interested in discovering your own off the beaten path hikes? The Connecticut Walk Book and interactive maps on www.ctwoodlands.org are excellent resources.

Trail Etiquette, Coronavirus & Tick Safety

  • When social distancing is in effect, give other hikers six feet of space. Do not touch other’s dogs and keep your own dogs under control. When stepping off trail to make room, be mindful of any flora underfoot and step on rocks where possible.
  • To prevent overcrowding and facilitate social distancing, hike during less popular times such as early mornings and weekdays. Even hiking in a rain jacket during light rain can be a rewarding experience.
  • Follow the Leave No Trace principles which have been updated for COVID-19. The document at the link offers important considerations, such as being prepared to use the bathroom outdoors and carrying out your own trash, including waste your dog leaves behind.
  • Ticks are active March to November. Wear long clothing, tuck pants into socks, wear a repellant on your skin and pretreat your hiking clothes with permethrin. Shower afterwards and wash your clothes. Click here for information on identification of different ticks.

Sources

Contributed by Liz Britney

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Showing 7 comments
  • Renee Smith
    Reply

    So happy to see this blog post. You do such a nice job with this blog! This is a great trail and her history is so inspiring. I would also add that the Killingworth Library has a DVD of the PBS special about Motley entitled “Justice is a Black Woman” (It is a great documentary), and a copy of her autobiography, Equal Justice Under Law (I haven’t read it yet but it is on my list). My guess is other area libraries may also have these resources.

  • Christine Nelson
    Reply

    This is a great HIIT hike with a little bit of everything to get you through it: ups, overs, downs, vistas, running water and place to catch your breath in the middle. Thanks for dragging me along, Liz!

    • Liz Britney
      Reply

      Anytime! I’m so happy you suggested it – it packs a punch for such a short trail, not to mention it’s beautiful!

  • Courtney
    Reply

    As owner of the Motley house across the street from the Little Rock Nine Trail, I just want to call attention to one point that was not quite right in the article. While Judge Motley was the first Black woman on the federal bench, she was The first Black AND the first woman to that post, making her even more impressive, in my opinion. Thanks!

    • Liz Britney
      Reply

      Hi Courtney – We completely agree with you, that makes her accomplishments even more impressive! I will edit the post now to reflect that. Very cool that you own the house!

  • Marta Daniels
    Reply

    Thank you Rockfall Foundation and Liz Britney for this excellent feature story on the new “Little Rock Nine” hiking trail in Chester, located on the Constance Baker Motley Preserve. The trail name memorializes Motley’s heroic and pioneering legal efforts in 1957 that settled one of America’s most famous school desegregation cases.

    As lead attorney then for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Motley successfully argued for the admittance of “The Little Rock Nine”—a group of nine African American students who tried to enroll at Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas three years after the Supreme Court decision—Brown vs. Board of Education—mandated an end to racial segregation in all public schools.

    The students were initially prevented from entering the racially segregated school by Governor Orval Faubus, who called out the Arkansas National Guard to prevent their entry. After weeks of physical conflict and verbal abuse by the white community, Attorney Motley and the LDF appealed to President Eisenhower to intercede. He did so on September 25, 1957, sending in the elite 101st Airborne Division (the “Screaming Eagles”) to Little Rock, and placed the Arkansas National Guard under federal command, providing both an escort and protection for the youngsters who were finally admitted to the school. It drew national attention to the Civl Rights movement, marking the first time in American history that federal troops were used to enforce a Supreme Court decision, and the first in support of racial equality.

    Little Rock Central High is now a National Historic Site that houses a Civil Rights Museum, administered in partnership with the National Park Service, to commemorate the events of 1957. The Chester Land Trust’s new trail inside the Constance Baker Motley Preserve is aptly named for Motley’s historic and courageous efforts. Learn more at History and on Wikipedia.

  • Denny and Pat
    Reply

    Accolades to Bill Myers for blazing the Little Rock Nine hiking trail. Bill not only had the foresight to create, physically build, manage and develop the trail, but also commit to it’s care and maintenance. It is a beautiful hiking trail, well marked, not long, but challenging! Yesterday while hiking the trail we encountered more than a dozen Lady Slippers, not common and a sight to behold, one of many on the trail.

    Thank you for an interesting and informative article about the Motley Preserve, local history and important facts, a great blog!

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