Given a long enough timeline, nature will swallow most anything up, and such was the fate of an abandoned small zoo just off U.S. Route 6 in Connecticut. Now people drive by every day without knowing the remnants of a Depression-era menagerie are peeking out from the overgrowth surrounding the road.
The little “zoo” was part of an 800-acre preserve called Shade Swamp Sanctuary, which started out as a wildlife rehabilitation center in the 1930s. Injured animals were cared for and released back into the wild. It housed birds, wolves, bears, and many other animals. Known to many as the “Farmington Zoo, it also featured a breeding program for critters like raccoons and rabbits that were commonly hunted off the busy highway during the Great Depression.
Shade Swamp’s reputation as a zoo spread, and soon people were bringing in exotic pets they didn’t want to care for anymore: monkeys, an alligator, and even a baby giraffe from a stranded carnival. The breeding program ended soon after the Depression, and the sanctuary was later abandoned in the 1960s after U.S. Route 84 took most of Route 6’s traffic.
A wooden shelter in the sanctuary was built in 1934 by members of the Civilian Conservation Corps. It’s thanks to this artifact that the area was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Now one of two trails runs from Route 6 to the deserted shelter and empty cages.
Know Before You Go
You can put Shade Swamp into your GPS and it will get you there. Failing that all you need to do is take rt 6 West through Farmington. Shade Swamp is on the right just before the intersection of New Britain Avenue. If you reach the traffic light you've just passed it.There is a small parking area. Next to the parking area there is the CCC wooden Shelter. You will see a wooden sign that says Shade Swamp Sanctuary Blue Trail. The trail is very narrow and a little overgrown. You can access it between the sign and the shelter straight back. It is a very easy walk to get to the abandoned cages. It will take less than 5 minutes. If you want to do the full blue trail it can be confusing and has many side trails you can get lost on. If you follow the trail between the cages and into the woods you should be fine. There are a couple of well-used trails to follow. The trail is about 1.3 miles. If you do decide to do the trail, once you get up the hill and come back around the bottom of the hill go back the path you came instead of going on the other path. Be VERY careful if you decide to explore behind the cages. There are concrete access hatches that are no longer covered and it would be easy to fall in (see photo). Best stay on the main trail. Once you've been there a few times & are familiar with the area you can do a little exploring.This is a swamp, so the best time to go is when the weather is cooler rather than in summer since mosquitoes become a major problem once the weather gets warm. Also the trails tend to become overgrown and harder to follow.Be careful to not confuse this with another 'Shade Swamp' hiking area a little further up rt 6. This one is clearly marked 'Blue Trail' whereas the other is only marked 'Shade Swamp Sanctuary'. This second one also makes for a nice hike for anyone so inclined. It's perhaps 1/4 mile up the road on the right just past the Jillybeans farm stand.