Mar 20, 2013
10:57 AMConnecticut Today
The Best of Connecticut State Parks
April 22 is Earth Day, and what better way to celebrate than by taking advantage of the natural delights available to all state residents? We ask Joseph Leary, author of A Shared Landscape: A Guide & History of Connecticut’s State Parks & Forests, for some suggestions.
Best place to catch a sunset/sunrise?
Alas! Our State parks close at sunset for obvious safety issues, but there are two sets of exceptions. First, a number of maritime fishing sites are kept open at night, and some of these can be quite lovely. Second, you may want to consider reserving a campsite at a Park and staying the night.
You’re likely to find me at the American Legion State Forest [Barkhamsted]. The Austin F. Hawes campground is small, quiet, wooded and private. It’s tucked in by the river and perfect for the “outdoor experience” we all seem to crave. Personally, I’m a backpacking person, and I like to set off on foot. When I’m on the Tunxis Trail, there are campsites in Nepaug and Tunxis State Forests. On the Natchaug Trail are sites in Natchaug and Pachaug State Forests. The Mohawk Trail is served by sites in Housatonic State Forest.
I think there’s nothing better than gettling settled in, then watching the day settle into night.
Best place to set up a tent and roast marshmallows?
People just love camping at Hammonasset State Park [Madison]. It tends to emphasize big-rigs and large tents, and every night turns the campground into a big party. Some families have been returning here to camp together every summer for decades.
Best place to pop the question?
People who don’t know what they’re talking about always go to Lover’s Leap State Park [New Milford] because they see the word “Lover” and figure it must be romantic. The story pivots on a waterfall, now submerged in the damming of the river. But the story is a tragic one: the Indian maiden threw herself into the waterfall, and her English lover drowned trying to save her. Please don’t send people here!
Instead, try Rocky Neck State Park [East Lyme], and a tiny stream called Bride’s Brook. In Colonial times, only a magistrate could perform a marriage, and there was only one per county. In the winter of 1667, there were heavy snowfalls, and the Saybrook magistrate couldn’t get through the snow to marry Jonathan Rudd of Lyme and his bride-to-be. John Winthrop, the New London magistrate, was available but had no jurisdiction in Saybrook. The boundary between the two counties was this tiny stream, so Winthrop invited the couple there, and stood on his native east bank while the couple stood just feet away on the west side. With a clear and loud voice honed by years at the pulpit, he performed the ceremony. Ever since, this creek has been known as Bride’s Brook.
Here in Connecticut, we find the ways to let love triumph. It’s in our very nature.
Favorite secret fishing hole?
Everybody has a personal secret, and I’ll give you some of my best.
The classic Connecticut angling experience is trout fishing in the deep woods. Some popular choices include: Housatonic Meadows State Park (Housatonic River, Cornwall and Sharon), Peoples and American Legion State Forests [Farmington River, Barkhamsted] and Nepaug State Forest with Satan’s Kingdom State Recreation Area [Farmington River, New Hartford]. These are natural, crafty mountain fish, and they’ll give any fisherman a good fight.
But what about the novice? The State DEEP does an admirable job stocking our brooks and ponds, and these fish tend to be easier to catch than their less-domesticated cousins. Check with your local park manager for specific insights—he or she will be delighted to point you in the right direction. But if you want a tip, I’ve heard good things about the brook below the waterfall at Devil’s Hopyard State Park [East Haddam]. I’m just sayin’.
Finally, my personal favorite is the fishing pier at Fort Trumbull State Park [New London]. It’s a deep-water pier, and the river has been dredged to accommodate the huge submarines built by Electric Boat just across the way. You’ll drop your line in almost 40 feet of water. As a result, if a fish lives or breeds in the Thames River or in the North Atlantic, you have a chance of catching it here.
Spot most likely to see Bigfoot or a mountain lion?
Seeing wildlife is an art, and it depends more on your state of mind than anything else. Animals roam free, and they don’t respect property lines. What I do is look for “green corridors”—those combinations of parks, forests, golf courses, water company land and other protected space through which animals may move unmolested.
Our wild northwest corner offers the classic mountain biota. Bear and moose are still pretty hard to find, but if I wanted to see one, I’d start here. Just west of Route 8 between Winsted and Torrington there’s a whole cluster of public properties with wildlife scurrying between them—John A. Minetto, Stillwater Pond, Sunnybrook and Platt Hill state parks, plus Paugnut State Forest.
Our friends in Eastern Connecticut will scoff at that suggestion. Pachaug State Forest [Voluntown, North Stonington and Griswold], with over 20,000 acres, is our largest state forest and boasts 54 miles of roads and trails. It has lakes, hardwood forests, sand barrens, mountains, an unusual white-cedar swamp and a rare rhododendron sanctuary.
As for Bigfoot, I know where he lives; but this is Connecticut, and we respect our neighbors’ privacy.
Spot that no one know about but everyone should? (Best-kept secret)
The most significant battle you’ve never heard of in the War of 1812 was fought right here in Connecticut, two hundred years ago. Commodore Stephen Decatur took a squadron of two frigates and a sloop out of New York and up the Sound, trying to break through the British blockade out into the Atlantic. On June 1, 1813, they managed to sidestep the battleship HMS Ramillies without fighting her; but almost immediately, they ran into an overwhelmingly superior English squadron that was coming to New London to strengthen the blockade. They had no alternative but to run back to New London under the protection of the forts.
For the rest of the war, the British kept Decatur bottled up in the Thames River while saboteurs, submarines and adventurers of all sorts tried to attack the English ships. While the enemy was able to range up and down the Sound, and burn the defenseless village of Essex, the two forts of New London kept Decatur and New London safe.
Both forts are now state parks. Fort Trumbull was rebuilt between 1835 and 1849, and is much larger than the 1812 fort. Fort Griswold was the site of a Revolutionary War massacre, so every effort was made to preserve it in its original condition. But when Decatur’s ships sought protection under its guns, a new fortification was built: a so-called “water battery” with its own magazine and shot furnace. This is the lower battery, down the hill from the main fort. In my opinion, it is Connecticut’s finest War of 1812 interpretive site.
Most “remote” wilderness experience in the middle of a densely populated area?
The Regicides Trail up the back of West Rock Ridge State Park is a Blue-Blazed trail that begins in the city of New Haven, just north of the summit of the mountain, then runs north for seven miles without crossing a single active road. It hugs the cliff edge, and the views into Bethany and Prospect are some of the best in the state.
Regicides Trail parallels Baldwin Drive, a now-abandoned depression era work project once considered one of New England’s finest scenic roads. Today, it serves bicyclists, wheelchair athletes and people who simply prefer pavement.
By the way, the name “Regicides” derives from “Judges’ Cave” at the southern terminus of the trail. Two of the jurists who signed the death warrant for King Charles I hid out in this glacial deposition in 1661 to avoid the wrath of the crown after the Restoration. It was considered the first act of defiance against royal authority in American history.
Imagine if New York, Boston, or Washington had a trail that started from inside the city limits overlooking a beautiful view of the skyline, then ran up a ridgeline for seven miles without crossing a single road? They’d never stop bragging.
Connecticut has a pretty spectacular piece of the Appalachian Trail—it covers the highest summit in the state [Bear Mountain], some pretty athletic terrain below that, followed by this long, flat river-walk that is about the sweetest chunk of the whole AT. But on a summer weekend, there can be so much traffic that if you stop to take a picture, you’ll get run over by three or four hiking groups coming up behind you.
My secret getaway is the Blue-Blazed Tunxis Trail. It begins in Southington and passes by Lake Compounce. It suffers a gap through Bristol, but restarts at Nepaug State Forest, goes through Satan’s Kingdom and ranges north to the Massachusetts border in Tunxis State Forest.
The Tunxis Trail is my favorite, but I guarantee that there’s a spectacular Blue-Blazed trail near your home. These trails are maintained by the Connecticut Forest and Park Association, and they are also your best resource for all your trails questions.
Best "water" park (Nicest lake, waterfront, river, etc.)?
Sorry, but there are simply too many charming possibilities! Connecticut offers almost every combination of possibilities a person could ask for.
Biggest beach: Hammonasset [Madison]. With two miles of saltwater frontage, it’s the crown jewel of the parks system.
Smallest: Mashamoquet Brook State Park [Pomfret]. At less than an acre, the pond is the smallest publicly owned body of water used for swimming.
Northernmost: Campbell Falls State Park [Norfolk]. It straddles the Massachusetts line and is jointly managed by both states.
Southernmost: Sherwood Island State Park [Westport]. Tread lightly; it’s also the site of Connecticut’s 9/11 memorial.
Best seasonal visit?
One of my favorite spots is Dean Ravine near the northern terminus of the Mohawk Trail in Housatonic State Forest [Sharon]. The trail follows the southern rim of the gorge of Reed Brook, then descends steeply to its base. There you’ll be looking up at a large outcrop of bedrock that forms a huge wall. Powered by winter runoff in the springtime, Reed Brook thunders over the cliff in spectacular fashion and cascades down to the Housatonic River below.
I’m also quite fond of Enders State Forest, a wild and undeveloped parcel of land in Barkhamsted and Granby. From Route 219, you’ll climb down through a beautiful series of cascades in a narrow gorge passing through stands of hardwoods and evergreens. It’s strenuous, but simply delightful.
Best place to spend the day with the family?
This all depends on your family! The state is loaded with multiuse places like Indian Well State Park [Shelton]: It has a beautiful and dramatic waterfall, a nice swimming beach and the terminus of the Blue-Blazed Paugussett Trail for the more athletic minded.
A great family spot is Dinosaur State Park [Rocky Hill]. If you pick up the supplies and do the labor, the park will let you make museum-quality castings of dinosaur footprints. You’ll need a 10-pound bag of plaster-of-paris, plus a little cooking oil and some old rags. Volunteers will show you how it’s done, but dress casual: it’s a messy arts-and-crafts project. In the end, your kids will have their own genuine dinosaur footprint to remember the day. It’s a unique Connecticut experience.
Best place to bring your camera?
My top pick is the Connecticut Valley Railroad State Park [Essex]; and yes, it’s the only official state park that moves! Just sit down and let the scenery come to you. Watch as the forest opens like a theatrical curtain to reveal the softest views of the prettiest river in the state. Then, connect to the riverboat, and cruise up to the East Haddam Bridge. There isn’t a finer way to spend a lazy summer day.
Of course, we recommend that you check each park's hours and availability before venturing out.