Park It Here

Yearning for wide-open spaces, tumbling waters or perfect diversions in any season? We've got a little secret for you: Connecticut's state parks and forests are gems right in your own back yard.

 

Connecticut's state parks and forests sure are pretty. And there are a lot of them-138 to be exact, which is rather amazing for a peewee landmass like ours. "I'm very proud of that fact," says Pamela Adams, director of the state park system. "Granted, they're not massive relative to some places up north or out west; nonetheless, each is unique."

That begs the question: How can you best appreciate 138 state parks and forests? If they're unique, which ones do you go to for what? There are some readymade answers-Hammonasset Beach State Park in Madison equals swimming, Satan's Kingdom State Recreation Area in New Hartford equals whitewater thrills on the Farmington River, Kent Falls State Park equals . . . well, that one should be obvious.

Allow us to add other suggestions, with some expert assistance from the following: Pamela Adams; Eric Hammerling, executive director of the Connecticut Forest & Park Association; John Hibbard, retired executive director of the CFPA; Susan Mentser, co-president of Friends of Connecticut State Parks; Bruce Ross, certified paddle leader in flatwater and sea kayaking with the Appalachian Mountain Club; and Joe Leary, author of the exceptional resource A Shared Landscape: A Guide & History of Connecticut's State Parks & Forests.

WHICH SITES OFFER BREATHTAKING VIEWS?

The oft-cited favorite is Heublein Tower, which rises 165 feet over the ridge top of Avon's Talcott Mountain. Originally the summer home of Hartford hotelier Gilbert Heublein, it stands roughly 1,000 feet over the Farmington River Valley and can be seen for more than 50 miles while offering a sweeping 360-degree view that stretches from Sleeping Giant State Park in the south to Massachusetts' Mount Holyoke in the north.

Clamber atop the pavilion at Dennis Hill State Park in Norfolk (a 1,627-foot-high perch), and on a clear day you might glimpse the Green Mountains in Vermont or spot a chunk of New Hampshire. Haystack Mountain State Park, also in Norfolk, peaks at 1,716 feet above sea level (its summit tower offers great views of Long Island Sound); in the east, the observation tower atop Soapstone Mountain in Shenipsit State Forest boasts the advantages of being accessible by car (there's a road that ends with a parking lot 100 feet away) and affording views of airplane approaches to Bradley International Airport and Westover Air Force Base in southern Massachusetts. By the way, you needn't be situated precariously high to enjoy phenomenal scenery; just ask anyone who's taken in the Connecticut River from the terraces at Gillette Castle State Park in East Haddam.

WHERE CAN ONE FIND COOL WATERFALLS . . .

Assuming everyone and their ancestors have already seen the deservedly lauded Kent Falls State Park more than once, here are a few alternatives that offer some pretty cascades. Campbell Falls State Park in Norfolk is so out-of-the-way that half of it is in Massachusetts, and its main falls are 100 yards or so north of our border (the pretty gorge is on our side, however). "It's very steep, but I like it because you can see it all at once," says Adams. "At Kent, you have to do a lot of climbing." Hammerling loves the water views at Peoples State Forest in Barkhamsted, particularly along the yellow-blazed Jessie Girard Trail. Chapman Falls, at East Haddam's Devil's Hopyard State Park, is another winner: A 60-foot-descent that's most forceful in the spring, its water levels drop through the summer and fall, when it's easiest to see the potholes in the floor (were they caused by erosion, or . . . Satan?).

. . . AND GORGEOUS GARDENS?

They don't get much more spectacular than at Waterford's Harkness Memorial State Park, designed by the masterful Beatrix Farrand, who also created the East Gardens at the White House and the gardens of Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C. Delphiniums, lilies, dahlias, snapdragons, gladiolus, wisteria and the signature flower, Peruvian heliotrope, bloom in abundance and are lovingly tended (as Farrand herself would) by the Friends of Harkness Memorial, who brought the 1904 estate-named Eolia, for the home of the Greek god of wind, by original owners Edward and Mary Harkness-back to historic authenticity from chaos and near-eradication in the 1990s. Highlights include a perennial rock garden in which different flowers peak from early spring to autumn (daffodils are particularly outstanding) and a Japanese red maple that serves as a shelter for a "sitting spot" dotted by the five gravestones of the Harknesses' Irish terriers.

For eye-popping alternatives, visit the formal rose and rock gardens at Osbornedale State Park in Derby, the 26-acre rhododendron sanctuary at Pachaug State Forest in Voluntown (a designated Natural Area Preserve), and the two formal gardens at Topsmead State Forest. Topsmead was the summer estate of Edith Morton Chase, onetime director of the CFPA. Because of its elevation in the Litchfield Hills ("Topsmead" stands for "top of the meadow"), says Mentser, "the flowers peak later than those at lower altitude, around the first two weeks in July."

WHERE ARE UNUSUAL FAUNA FOUND?

Connecticut has proven to be a suitable habitat for most every critter from the five-lined skink (our only indigenous lizard), which largely resides in the reptile and amphibian mecca known as Southbury's Kettletown State Park, to bears and (the occasional) moose. Obviously, to catch the most exciting sights, you may have to venture off a good bit from the blue-blazed trails. On top of that, remember what you're stalking. "You have to think like an animal," says Leary. "In some ways, I think chasing animals is like chasing college freshmen; they're only interested in four things: eating, drinking, sleeping and mating. So if you can ID the places where they do that, you'll get lucky-they're creatures of habit."

Here's a short list of noteworthy animals and where they can be seen:

Beaver-Natchaug State Forest in Eastford. "They keep laying dams down in the middle of the pond and flooding the forest," says Leary. "To be able to watch them work is just incredible." Otters and other aquatic animals are also common here.

Birds (shoreline and other)-Willard Island at Hammonasset Beach State Park. "Just about anything feathered that flies will land there sooner or later," says Leary. "I've seen glossy ibis, at best rare for these parts, and a long-billed curlew, which I'm not sure is even supposed to be on this side of the Atlantic." Arctic and West Coast birds, like the snow bunting and Western tanager, have also shown up. One Audubon survey counted 231 species in all. (Be sure to check out the Bird and Butterfly Garden at the Meigs Point Nature Center. A popular feeding station at migration time-September through November-it's reportedly attracted as many as 12,000 tree swallows at once).

Cicadas-They typically come out in force every 17 years at West Rock Ridge State Park in New Haven, also a hospitable environment for hawks and, says Adams, "any number of endangered species."

Giant mute swans-Stoddard Hill State Park in Ledyard, overlooking the Thames River. Weighing up to 50 pounds, over 5 feet in length and boasting a wingspan of around 9 feet, the swans gather here in colder months, when preferred freshwater sources freeze over. Leary notes that they were originally imported from Europe in the 1800s for ornamental use by sites such as Bristol's Lake Compounce Amusement Park, which clipped their wings to keep them from flying away. Subsequent generations were free to fly-and did.

Bears, bobcat, moose-Some suggestions: Bigelow Hollow State Park in Union, Chatfield Hollow State Park in Killingworth, Penwood State Park in Bloomfield. Leary favors Tunxis State Forest in Hartland, particularly around the blue-blazed Tunxis Trail, which he finds every bit as natural and dramatic as the Appalachian Trail, but much less traveled. Adams recommends the more northerly Northwest Hills: Housatonic Meadows State Park in Cornwall and Macedonia Brook State Park in Kent, while Hibbard endorses Cornwall's Mohawk Mountain State Park (Ross agrees that there "have been bobcat sightings there for years"). 

WHERE'S THE BEST PLACE TO ENJOY THE BEACH?

Despite Hammonasset's much-admired and unequaled two-mile beachfront, our panel gave props to Rocky Neck State Park in East Lyme. Adams, who grew up in the area, particularly admires its "spectacular" stone pavilion (which also features pillars cut from state forest trees), built by the Federal Emergency Relief Agency (FERA) during the Depression. Others like the "off the beaten path" quality of it; for Hammerling, the main benefit is "I always seem to have great weather when I choose to go."

Silver Sands State Park in Milford, and outlying Charles Island, are rich in lore: There are those who believe the infamous Captain Kidd buried his loot under the island's Hog Rock. Built on the site of a former landfill and sewage treatment plant, the park also wins points for, as Adams puts it, "successful adaptive reuse of wasteland." Ross admires it for another reason. "Other than Cape Cod, Milford is the only place in New England that has such extensive tidal flats," he says. "It's the ideal beach for kids-you don't have to worry about them getting lost because you can see for miles. And at high tide, the water doesn't get terribly deep close to shore."

WHAT PARK APPEALS MOST TO HISTORY BUFFS?

Fort Trumbull State Park in New London and Fort Griswold State Park in Groton both have had long and colorful military pasts, but the first name on anyone's lips is Putnam Memorial State Park in Redding. Named after Revolutionary War Gen. Israel Putnam, it's the site of a 1778-79 Continental Army encampment that was set upon by a winter blizzard so severe (called the "Hessian Storm") that Putnam Memorial has come to be thought of as Connecticut's Valley Forge.

There are ghostly ruins of huts, a guard shack and reconstructed officers' quarters to explore as well as two intriguing monuments: an 1888 stone obelisk in honor of the encampment (topped by a cannonball) and an homage to Israel Putnam titled "Putnam's Escape at Horseneck"-now Greenwich-by noted sculptor Anna Hyatt Huntington (more of her work can be seen at Collis P. Huntington State Park, also in Redding). Adams adds that Putnam Memorial is Connecticut's first archaeological preserve. "We've found some exciting implements from the period."

WHAT ARE SOME OF OUR PARKS' MOST STUNNING MAN-MADE FEATURES?

It's impossible to walk away from Gillette Castle unimpressed. Built by actor and playwright William H. Gillette in the World War I era, it is constructed of local fieldstone, while the interior boasts a two-story living room, unique carved latches on each of its 47 doors, a library, art gallery and carved oak staircase. Gillette also installed railroad tracks on the grounds, spectacularly poised 200 feet above the Connecticut River, on which he delighted in taking guests (including Albert Einstein) for a ride. Though the tracks no longer exist, his train cars are on display in the castle's visitors center.

Lover's Leap State Park in New Milford encompasses the spot where Lillinonah, daughter of famed Wyantenock sachem Waramaug, and a Colonist named George sacrificed their lives for love in the Housatonic River. But it's the "elegant and unusual bridge" that spans the river at the spot of George's leap-a lenticular cross-span (54 feet up and 172 feet long) built in 1895 and recently restored-that most impresses Mentser. Leary favors the Connecticut Valley Railroad State Park in Essex, virtually a mobile museum of the golden age of rail, which offers exhibits in the station building (listed on the National Register of Historic Places) and a number of excursions (including the Essex Clipper Dinner Train). 

WHAT'S THE BEST PARK FOR KIDS?

Dilophosaurus tracks from the Jurassic period, Dino-dioramas, Dino-sounds and the chance to cast and take home your own dinosaur footprint-few children can resist the prehistoric exhibits at Dinosaur State Park in Rocky Hill. But other details are special, too, including the butterfly garden, a 21/2-mile trail that even babes in strollers can enjoy, a walkway that represents a timeline of life on Earth (each foot equals 50 million years) and the Arboretum of Evolution, a collection of trees and shrubs-including cedar of Lebanon, giant sequoia and monkey-puzzle trees-that represent typical plants of the age of dinosaurs.

WHAT LOCATIONS ARE BEST FOR CLASSIC ACTIVITIES?

Camping: If you're sociable and seek a "family-style" campground with a strong sense of community, Hammonasset is the clear choice, with more than 500 sites and a group of regulars who have been coming back for generations. Adams is a fan of Hopeville Pond State Park in Griswold ("intimate, shaded, with beautiful pine trees and a lovely lake for swimming") and Black Rock State Park in Thomaston ("there's a lot of rock ledge; you feel sort of tucked in and secluded"). Hammerling and Mentser recommend American Legion State Forest in Barkhamsted, thanks in part to spacious sites and fishing opportunities in the Farmington River.

Backpackers like Leary-those who go for a hike and then "make camp" wherever-might prefer Sharon's Housatonic State Forest, highlighted as it is by the gorgeous Dean Ravine (where you'll be serenaded by the white noise of Reed Brook as it cascades over a bedrock outcropping into the Housatonic River below). Horseback campers will find special facilities at Pachaug State Forest. As for those who camp via canoe or kayak, any destination in and around the serene Connecticut River is primo, such as Selden Neck State Park in Lyme or Hurd State Park in East Hampton.

Dogsled racing: Yes, dogsled racing. Anyone who owns Alaskan huskies (and their many- breeded cousins) knows they love to work it, especially on hills. Connecticut has two locations perfect for mini-Iditerods: Pachaug State Forest (thanks to its many trails and the tamped-down paths left by snowmobilers and cross-country skiers) and Haddam Meadows State Park (an open floodplain graced by a large loop road). By the way, dogsledding isn't just a cold-weather  sport. Participants train year-round, says Adams, with "gigs"-three-wheeled carts-that they also use for races in not-so-snowy winters.

Fishing: For specific catches, specific sites abound: the Connecticut River is known for shad and striped bass, the Housatonic (particularly through Housatonic Meadows State Park) for trout. One caveat: "Trout like cold, deep water," says Leary. "As summer gets hot, the Hous can get shallow. So when their luck sours there, hard-core trout people head for the colder, deeper Sandy Brook in Colebrook, which runs through Algonquin State Forest.

"We stock ponds and rivers promiscuously every spring, so if you want to catch a fish, the second week in April is your time. One place that's stocked really well is Deep Hole at Devil's Hopyard." On the other hand, those who just want to cast their line into a patch of salt water and don't care what they get will fare best on the fishing pier at Fort Trumbull. "It's surrounded by water 40 feet deep," Leary says. "Most people have never fished in water that deep without actually being on a boat. So anything that swims the Atlantic will eventually head their way."

Hiking: Novices, as well as hikers with limited stamina or young children, will feel most comfortable on the Air Line State Park Trail, a greenway cutting a flat, diagonal course from East Hampton to Thompson and intersecting with other properties (Salmon River State Forest, Beaver Brook and Mansfield Hollow state parks) en route. Formerly a working rail line, it's characterized by exceptional width-making it popular with cyclists, horseback riders and wheelchair athletes-and easy navigation.

Hikers in search of a challenge will probably love the dramatic overlooks and scenery of a jaunt up the aptly named Mount Misery in Pachaug State Forest, but true fans of vertigo should head for the Undermountain Trail at Mount Riga State Park in Salisbury-though it's just under two miles long, it ascends from 750 feet (the highway) to 1,750 feet (where it joins the Appalachian Trail). From here, climb roughly 600 more feet and you'll be at the summit of Bear Mountain, Connecticut's highest peak. Meanwhile, those who seek a rewarding "long-haul" experience might like Cockaponset State Forest, the state's second largest, which allows hikers to trek from Westbrook to Higganum while immersed in the woods for all but a half-mile stretch of road.

Disabled hikers, notes Hibbard, will find an ADA-approved handicapped-accessible trail at Pachaug State Forest's rhododendron sanctuary. Runners need not feel left out, either. Every year, the Bigelow Hollow State Park's Nipmuck Trail  hosts a "Grand Tree" marathon, says Hammerling, with the winner being awarded an apple pie. Hamden's Sleeping Giant State Park offers trails for all levels of expertise. Start with the beginners' Yellow or Violet trails and aspire to the ultra-demanding Quinnipiac Trail, the giant's oldest (laid out in 1928).

Mountain biking: Think Bluff Point State Park in Groton, say both Adams and Mentser, for its not-too-challenging hills, varied terrain  and views of Fishers Island Sound. Cockaponset State Forest is favored by seasoned riders for its many extensive, wide routes, while the steep trails of Macedonia Brook State Park are perfect for daredevils. One of the best places for bikers to practice skills, says Leary, is the relatively unthreatening West Rock Ridge State Park-especially on the "escalator," a long trail that feels "like you're riding an escalator backward."

Park It Here

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