The Best of Connecticut State Parks

Hammonasset State Park in Madison is the crown jewel of the state's beachfront parks.

Hammonasset State Park in Madison is the crown jewel of the state's beachfront parks.

Jack McConnell

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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.

The Best of Connecticut State Parks

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