The Best of Connecticut State Parks
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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.