Rec and roll: Giant rhododendrons blooming now in Cedar Swamp Preserve

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If my car is parked in front of my home, but I don’t answer the bell, it’s probably because I’m walking in the woods nearby, part of the Manchester Cedar Swamp. Inside, next to the door, I keep hiking polls and bug spray.

This time of year, I’m in the woods any chance I get, and that’s because the rhododendron thickets are in bloom, which I eagerly anticipate for weeks, checking as the buds develop. To get there, I take an access trail through lush ferns next to the beaver ponds of Millstone Brook where ducklings hatch in the spring and blue herons glide. Stepping carefully across a stream, outside sounds are muffled and my steps are padded by evergreen needles. Deeper in the wood, song birds call and a woodpecker knocks. I may see a brown toad and a snake slithering for safety.

At the sign for the Rhododendron Loop Trail, I turn and cross a footbridge across a burbling brook. From the sunlit expanse of the power lines, I enter the shaded, cooler world of hemlock forest.  That’s where I find the rhododendrons growing under the trees, reaching for the light and in season, producing large, showy clusters of pale pink and white flowers. The shrubs grow over 10 feet tall and spread as wide as a house.

The virginal woods hide huge boulders left by the glaciers, with moss and ferns on top. The ground cover includes winterberry, cinnamon fern, and low-growing evergreens.

When the blooms pass, I will seek the cool of the cathedral-like grove on the Woodland Loop Trail. It winds through boulder-strewn, open, tall oak forests with chestnut resprouts on the floor covered by low-growing wintergreen, partridgeberry and trailing arbutus. A small loop trail penetrates the ancient white cedar swamp where 450-year-old black gum trees grow

The Hackett Hill preserve, on the West Side, is best reached from Countryside Boulevard. You can print a brochure and trail map.