One of the glorious, challenging and invigorating things about living in New England is bein…
You don’t have to look very far to find a great place to explore nature in Connecticut. Scenic wilderness trails criss-cross nearly every corner of the state, offering views aplenty. From flat and, in some cases, paved walkways to intense wilderness hikes, and dog- and bicyclist-friendly destinations, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of wonderful places to get out and about in the state. Here we take a closer look at 26 of our favorites. If your preferred spot did or did not make our list, let us know by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Note: If a location is designated as dog friendly, please assume dogs must be leashed at all times.
Kent Falls State Park
For a less intense but equally scenic hike in Kent, visit this beloved natural attraction. From the parking lot, guests cross a covered bridge into a scenic field with picnic tables, grills and great views of the falls. From there they can trek up a paved but steep path beside the falls that winds up the hillside for 200 feet before ending at a dramatic 70-foot cascade. The walk is only a quarter-mile each way, but feels longer on the way up. There are many scenic spots and viewing platforms along the way, allowing guests to gaze at different cascades and areas where the limestone over which the water flows has been carved into interesting shapes. The park is free during the week, but there is a $9 parking fee for state residents and $15 fee for non-state residents on weekends and holidays from Memorial Day until Oct. 31.
Length: Half-mile there-and-back Biking? No Dog friendly? Yes
About 52 miles of the world-famous Appalachian Trail (AT) cuts through Connecticut from the New York border into Kent, then on to Salisbury and into Massachusetts. It passes through the town of Cornwall and the villages of Falls Village and Lime Rock, slicing its way up and down the Litchfield Hills, aka the foothills of the Berkshire Mountains. There are waterfalls, country vistas, steep climbs and relatively flat areas. The Undermountain Trail on Bear Mountain links up with the AT — a three-quarter-mile section in Falls Village is flat and wheelchair accessible — and there are several popular spots in Kent, including St. John’s Ledges, a 4.7-mile section of the trail that includes several sweeping views of the Housatonic Valley and is accessible from River Road.
Length: About 52 miles Biking? No Dog friendly? Yes
Devil’s Den Nature Preserve
At 1,756 acres, Devil’s Den is the state’s largest continuous preserve. It straddles the towns of Weston and Redding and offers a 20-mile trail system that takes walkers past rocky crests, outcroppings, cliffs and high ledges, many partially covered with grasses and mosses. The preserve provides habitat for 500 types of trees and wildflowers, as well as red fox, bobcats, coyote, Eastern copperheads, wood ducks, woodpeckers and more than 140 other bird species. It is run by the Nature Conservancy to protect the watershed of the west branch of the Saugatuck River and provide refuge for wildlife and many aquatic species, including uncommon mussel species. Because of its preservation mission, only low-impact activities are permitted and bicycles and pets are not allowed.
Length: 20 miles Biking? No Dog friendly? No
Macedonia Brook State Park
Step into the wilderness at this hardcore hiking destination. Cellphone service is spotty, and the signs and sounds of civilization are far away at this 2,300-acre wilderness park occupying land once owned by Native Americans. There are miles of rugged hiking trails, including the Macedonia Ridge Trail, which takes you to the top of Cobble Mountain (elevation 1,380 feet) and offers spectacular views of the Taconic and Catskill mountain ranges. Several streams also traverse the park. In years past, Macedonia has also served as a campground, but the park’s campground is not expected to be in operation in 2017, as it is likely to be another casualty of the state’s ongoing budget woes.
Length: More than 11½ miles Biking? Yes Dog friendly? Yes
The tallest peak in the state soars 2,316 feet above the Litchfield County countryside. Strangely, it’s not the highest point in the state. That honor belongs to the mountainside of Mount Frissell, also in Salisbury, but the peak of Frissell is over the Massachusetts border. State boundaries and height milestones aside, hikers seeking to conquer this towering summit should prepare for a strenuous trek that rewards exertion with great views and a chance to access a part of the Appalachian Trail. Berkshirehiking.com advises climbing Bear Mountain by taking the “Undermountain Trail which is 3 miles north of Salisbury off of Route 41. … When you reach the large wooden trail sign as Undermountain and Appalachian Trails meet, you’ll take a right turn onto the Appalachian Trail. From here it’s about another mile to the top of Bear Mountain with a short, semi-steep rise the final few hundred yards.”
Length: 5-6 miles round-trip Biking? No Dog friendly? Yes
Quinebaug River Trail
Killingly and Putnam
This Quiet Corner paved trail follows the gentle path of the Quinebaug River for more than four miles from the Plainfield town line north to Putnam. According to the Killingly Conservation Commission, “the trail starts at the Holiday Inn just west of the Attawaugan/Ballouville exit of 395 (exit 94) and goes north along Tracy Road toward Putnam. The trail ends on Tracy Road, but if you continue north into Putnam you can connect with the Putnam River Trail along the Quinebaug River.” Activities include walking, running and biking. The plan is to eventually connect the trail with other pathways in the region to become part of the East Coast Greenway connecting the entire Eastern Seaboard.
Length: More than 4 miles Biking? Yes Dog friendly? Yes
Steep Rock Preserve
A 974-acre preserve, Steep Rock offers nature and hiking enthusiasts the chance to walk along the banks of a scenic river and trek up to the Steep Rock Summit, which, at an elevation of 776 feet, provides an expansive view of the Clam Shell section of the Shepaug River Valley. Other attractions include a suspension foot bridge and a former railway tunnel, which cuts dramatically through the side of a ridge, creating an opening that looks like King Kong’s lair. The suspension bridge allows you to walk over the center of the river and get a great vantage point, perfect for Instagram. The Steep Rock preserve is part of the Steep Rock Association, a land trust which oversees other nearby preserves totaling 2,700 acres.
Length: The Steep Rock loop, which includes Steep Rock Summit, is 4 miles Biking? Yes (15-mph limit, must dismount when approaching horseback riders) Dog friendly? Yes
Just minutes from the crowded thoroughfare of Route 7, this 280-acre country park is a hidden gem in Fairfield County. A mostly flat nature trail circles a charming pond hugging the banks of the water and offering plenty of views and a non-strenuous nature experience. Guests can also enjoy swimming and picnicking at a sandy beach. But the fees could be prohibitive for non-residents: a yearly pass is $60 for town residents and $150 for others. The trail, however, is open to all free of charge. Not only is the park dog friendly for leashed canines, but there is even a fenced-in area on the water that serves as an aquatic dog park, and allows your furry hiking companions to cool off.
Length: More than 2 miles Biking? Yes Dog friendly? Yes
Sleeping Giant State Park
This south-central Connecticut icon is perhaps one of the best-known natural formations in the state. For those who don’t know, the ridge located next to Quinnipiac University resembles a 2-mile-long figure that has laid down and become rooted to the earth, to our stories and to our vision of the area. There are enough trails to keep even an experienced hiker coming back over and over. Highlights include the many vistas on the “head” of the giant, or the western edge of the ridge. Not to be missed is the abandoned quarry at the far western edge of the park, and the tower atop the giant “left hip,” offering stunning views of the Greater New Haven area. (The tower was built in 1936 as part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration.) Open until sunset year-round, the park is traversed by 5 miles of the blue-blazed, 23-mile Quinnipiac Trail.
Length: More than 30 miles Biking? No Dog friendly? Yes
Chatfield Hollow State Park
For those who live on or near the central shoreline, Chatfield Hollow is an accessible yet immersive state park, with a network of trails blanketed in thick forest. The park’s many rock formations provide excellent opportunities for those who like to climb or scramble up rock faces (without investing in climbing equipment). The formations create a number of cliffs that give a great feeling of wilderness. A short drive away from Hammonasset Beach State Park in Madison, Chatfield Hollow is a great place to heat up on a rocky hike, and then race down to the sea for a plunge in the water. An 825-foot boardwalk allows passage over an inland swamp, and the blue-blazed Chatfield Trail begins here and runs into the Cockaponset State Forest. Many streams and ponds provide swimming and fishing opportunities. Schreeder Pond, located within the park’s borders, is one of the ponds stocked weekly with trout from the state’s fish hatcheries.
Length: About 20 miles Biking? Yes Dog friendly? Yes
Mattabesett Trail and Mount Higby
Mount Higby, near the border of Middlefield and Meriden, is just one part of the 50-mile Mattabesett Trail, which winds its way from Middletown, south into Guilford, back up through Durham and Middlefield, before finishing in Meriden. The larger trail traverses a number of peaks and traprock ridges, none quite as nice as Mount Higby. Park your car in the lot on the westbound side of Route 66 as it heads toward I-691. It’s a short hike to the ridge, featuring excellent views of Meriden, its Hanging Hills, and the surrounding area. For a bonus, instead of following the trail back to the parking lot, bear left and take an alternate trail down to Guida’s Diner, for some of the best home fries you’ll ever have.
Length: More than 9 miles round-trip Biking? Not recommended. The trap rock cliff has a pretty big fall. Dog friendly? Yes
River Mills Heritage Trail & Putnam River Trail
Stay on the Quinebaug River for a hike that merges the man-made environment of the area with stunning natural beauty. The River Mills Heritage Trail is a mile-long walk that connects six different old mills along the river, reminding us of the river’s once total importance to the life and economy of this part of the state. Starting on the east side of the river, then crossing over to the west, then finally back to the east, this walk gives an excellent survey of the industrial history of the area, including the Cargill Falls dam and rapids. Stay on the east side of the river on the 2-mile Putnam River Trail, passing through wooded areas, as well as shopping districts.
Length: River Mills 1 mile, Putnam River 2 miles Biking? Yes Dog friendly? Yes
White Memorial Conservation Center
This private land trust has numerous easy and moderate trails slipping through a wondrous array of habitats, including preserved forests, fields and wetlands. Hiking, biking and horseback riding are only some of the activities to enjoy here, but motorized vehicles are not allowed. The most popular trail is the Little Pond Boardwalk Trail, in which a 1.2-mile wooden walkway allows exploration of woods around the edge of the pond and over the marshes. The trail and boardwalk are open to foot travel only. The newest trail, Slab Meadow, was blazed in the fall of 2015 and includes several loops, vernal pools, an overlook onto a marsh, and a link to the Mattatuck Trail. While White Memorial offers no single-track bike trails, bikes can be ridden on any designated gravel and other roads, which offer some heart-pumping climbs and downhills. White Memorial’s grounds and trails are open to the public 24 hours a day all year long.
Length: 40 miles Biking? Yes Dog friendly? Yes
Bluff Point State Park
The Connecticut shoreline is pretty heavily developed, but the farther east you go, the more sparse it gets. Bluff Point is a proper piece of wilderness, right there on the water. If you are a lover of the sea, of the smell of salt water, and dense wood, the more than 800 acres of the peninsula of Bluff Point are for you. Saltwater fishing and mountain biking opportunities abound on this spit of land, abutted by the Poquonnock River and Mumford Cove. According to the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, although Bluff Point was “originally proposed for acquisition as a state recreation facility as early as 1914, it was not until 1963 that the western one-third of the land was purchased from Henry A. Gardiner III. State holdings include a north-south strip of the mainland, a portion of the headland bluff fronting the Sound, and the tombolo or sandspit forming a beach of nearly one mile in length.”
Length: 4-mile loop to the beach and back Biking? Yes Dog friendly? Yes
Mine Hill Preserve
Not only does this 360-acre Roxbury Land Trust nature preserve offer some of the best (and most strenuous) hiking in New England, let alone Connecticut, but it also provides an up-close glimpse into history. Mine Hill is the site of a 19th-century iron mine, granite quarries and furnace complex, an operation that burned hot for a short time, even resulting in the founding of a “boom town” named Chalybes to house and service the many immigrant workers. Its commercial venture long abandoned, Mine Hill now allows visitors to head to the hills, passing by mine tunnels, air shafts (which are now protected entrances to several bat hibernacula) and massive granite cliffs, before looping back down into the Shepaug River valley and the complex with its restored blast furnace and roasting ovens. Just make sure you’re in somewhat good shape. The blue-blazed loop trail is classified as moderate, but some portions of the northeastern part of the loop are advanced.
Length: 4 miles Biking? Yes (must stay on blazed trails) Dog friendly? Yes
Bigelow Hollow State Park
One of the more remote locations in our state, this 516-acre park near the Massachusetts line in the northeast corner is also among the most picturesque, with endless thick forest, exposed rock, and many streams, ponds and lakes. Arguably the park’s standout features are its bodies of water, with trails running to and from the 18-acre Bigelow Pond, the 92-acre Breakneck Pond and the 300-acre Mashapaug Lake. The 6-plus-mile loop around Breakneck Pond can be challenging at times, but doesn’t come close to living up to its name. Pause every now and then to take in the grand views offered by overlooks. Although hiking is likely more popular, mountain biking opportunities are also many, with about 20 miles of bike-friendly trails. A word to the wise: either bring a map or pick one up in the park. Only two trails loop, and trails and roads crisscross in spots. And with densely packed trees everywhere, the last thing you want to do is get lost.
Length: More than 35 miles Biking? Yes Dog friendly? Yes
Manchester and Glastonbury
A few years back, Bicycling magazine proclaimed this the best place for mountain biking in the state. That proved to be a double-edged sword, as a whole new set of biking enthusiasts discovered this great jewel, which took a bit of a beating in the process. Fortunately, trail maintenance has improved in recent years, preserving this 640-acre recreational area for years to come. The trails feature rocky and hilly terrain, making for somewhat challenging hikes and bike rides. Make it to the summit of the mountain and enjoy a wonderful view of the Hartford skyline and the Connecticut River Valley. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, you can hop on over the trail to Gay City State Park in Hebron, as well as the 29-mile, blue-blazed Shenipsit Trail, which crosses Case Mountain on its way from East Hampton to the Massachusetts border.
Length: 10 miles Biking? Yes Dog friendly? Yes
Pachaug State Forest
Voluntown, Griswold, Plainfield, Sterling, North Stonington and Preston
With more than 28,000 acres, this is our largest state forest, boasting 54 miles of roads and trails. The landscape offers lakes, hardwood forests, sand barrens, mountains, an unusual white-cedar swamp and a rare rhododendron sanctuary, which is home to an ADA-approved wheelchair-accessible trail and is in full bloom in June and July. Hikers in search of a challenge will probably love the dramatic overlooks and scenery of a jaunt up the aptly named Mount Misery. The forest’s four popular hiking trails include the 30-mile Pachaug Trail, an east-west route that follows a horseshoe curve north, the 15-mile Nehantic Trail, running northwest from Great Fall Pond near the Pachaug Trail, the 7-mile, north-south Quinebaug Trail, and the Narragansett Trail, which starts from Lantern Hill in North Stonington and passes into the Yawgoog Scout Reservation in Rhode Island.
Length: 54 miles Biking? Yes Dog friendly? Yes
Naugatuck River Greenway
Torrington to Derby
The Naugatuck River, long derided as a bringer of destruction with the historic Flood of ’55, as well as a noisome dumping ground of industrial waste, has seen a remarkable rebirth in recent decades. Anglers and paddlers have rediscovered the river, and, most recently, the dream of a recreational corridor of open space known as a greenway has come closer to reality. While only about 10 percent of this planned 44-mile multi-use trail following the Naugatuck River from the Litchfield Hills to the Naugatuck River Valley has been completed, the quality of its finished sections and the ambition of the project merit a place on this list. The head of the trail is along Franklin Street in Torrington and will follow the river south through Litchfield, Harwinton, Thomaston, Watertown, Waterbury, Naugatuck, Beacon Falls, Seymour, Ansonia and Derby. Designed for walkers, runners and cyclists, the NRG has six finished sections, with portions in Derby, Ansonia, Beacon Falls, Naugatuck, Watertown and Torrington. A new section is underway in Seymour, and is expected to be completed by August, an extension in Ansonia could break ground this year, and plans are in the works for an extension in Torrington and a new section in Waterbury. The goal is for all sections to be completed and linked by 2031.
Length: 44 miles (when completed) Biking? Yes Dog friendly? Leashed dogs allowed on some sections
Air Line State Park Trail
East Hampton to Putnam
This former path of the Air Line Railroad, which carried passengers to and from New York City and Boston, is today a scenic gravel trail that might be the best way to explore the Quiet Corner, as well as a large chunk of the state’s northeast region. Wending its way through more than a half-dozen state parks and forests, the trail is flat and wide (to best accommodate trains), making it ideal for walking, running, biking and horseback riding. The trail is divided into two sections: the south, which runs from East Hampton to the Willimantic River; and the north, which goes from Willimantic to Putnam. The trail continues through Thompson to the Massachusetts border, although it’s not as well cleared as the rest. Extension work is either underway or in planning stages for East Hampton and Portland, whose section would also link the trail to Middletown via the Arrigoni Bridge. The Air Line is part of the East Coast Greenway, a planned traffic-free trail from Maine to the Florida Keys. About a third of the 3,000-mile route is linked, with hopes that all will be connected in about 20 years.
Length: More than 50 miles Biking? Yes Dog friendly? Yes
Talcott Mountain State Park
Not every trail has its final destination visible from the first step, but the historic Heublein Tower awaits hikers at the top of the 574-acre Talcott Mountain State Park some 1,000 feet above the Farmington River Valley. The 165-foot tower is on the National Register of Historic Places and offers phenomenal 360-degree views once hikers make the 1¼-mile walk, which takes about 30-40 minutes. The state DEEP website claims “those with sharp vision can see an area estimated to be 1,200 square miles.” It also advises what to do in the case of a bear sighting; so your trip may end up being more than just a walk in the park. A small section of the blue-blazed, 62-mile Metacomet Trail also runs through the park.
Length: 2½ miles round-trip Biking? No Dog friendly? Yes
Silver Sands State Park
Walkers and joggers would be hard-pressed to find better shoreline scenery anywhere else in the state for their cardio exercise routine. Running parallel to Long Island Sound, the boardwalk has unimpeded views of the ocean and Charles Island as it connects Silver Sands Beach to Walnut Beach. There are slight curves, inclines and declines throughout — not to mention large numbers of people when the weather cooperates — so joggers who suffer from boredom on treadmills and circular tracks won’t have trouble maintaining focus. If you’re there for a leisurely stroll, take the time to look around. Rocks are the language of the boardwalk; they’re used to spell words like “Love” and “Storms Pass” or provide the canvas for messages as part of The Kindness Rocks Project. Silver Sands also offers walking trails of gravel, asphalt, dirt and wood that crisscross tidal marshes and dunes. And twice a day during low tide, you can make the 2½-mile loop out to Charles Island and back.
Length: More than 2 miles Biking? No Dog friendly? No
Farmington River Trail
Farmington to Simsbury
Branching off from the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail near Tunxis Meade Park and running north to Simsbury, the Farmington River Trail provides a diverse array of settings and terrain over its 18 miles. Occupying the space of the former Central New England Railroad, this rail-trail offers stretches when you’re on asphalt under a shady canopy of trees, sections that are on town roads, and woodsy areas of dirt and crushed stone. Flat and wide enough for biking, inline skating and cross-country skiing in the winter, much of the path runs along the banks of the Farmington River — remember: ski poles in the winter, fishing poles in the summer — and loops back to reconnect with the Heritage trail. In the not-too-distant future, the river and Heritage trails will be truly connected, forming one 84-mile trail stretching from the New Haven coastline to the foothills of the Berkshires in Northampton, Massachusetts. Farmington is nearing completion of an extension into northern Plainville, Southington is planning its own extension to the Plainville line, and Plainville is gearing up to plug the last remaining gap in the coming years.
Length: 18 miles Biking? Yes Dog friendly? Yes
Mianus River Park
Greenwich and Stamford
This heavily used 391-acre park is made up of three sections — Mianus River Park (owned by Stamford), Mianus River and Natural Park (owned by Greenwich), and Mianus River State Park, aka Treetops (owned by the state). There is a 2½-mile nature trail with 13 points of interest, but there are also plenty of trails for walking, hiking, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and mountain biking. There is a seemingly endless network of well-maintained trails for dog-walking, exploring nature and finding the perfect fishing spot in the Mianus River. One downside is that parking is not plentiful, and on a nice summer day, the people will be.
Length: More than 7 miles Biking? Yes Dog friendly? Yes
Mount Tom State Park
The main attraction at Mount Tom State Park is the spring-fed pond and beach and picnic areas. But the hiking trail here leads to a 34-foot stone lookout tower (a poor man’s Heublein Tower, if you will) that sits 1,325 feet above sea level and offers clear views of Massachusetts, New York and all of northwestern Connecticut. The trail is less than a mile long but is fairly steep. Take a few breaks on the way up to check out some interesting geological formations, glacially created for your enjoyment. Parking is limited, and when the park reaches capacity it will be closed to additional visitors, so get there early. And while it’s a great hike during the summer months because of the proximity of the pond, the forest foliage in the fall is not to be missed.
Length: More than a mile round-trip Biking? No Dog friendly? Yes
The only entry on our list visible from the windows of the Connecticut Magazine offices, there are more than 10 miles of trails at East Rock, including an 800-foot self-guided nature trail constructed and maintained in part by students of Wilbur Cross High School in New Haven. The 365-foot summit — home to the Soldiers and Sailors Monument — affords views of neighboring downtown and Long Island Sound. The Giant Steps Trail to the summit provides a solid workout, with a convenient handrail. Bicycling is prohibited on the hiking trails, but permitted on roads and city-designated mountain bike trails. Open year round, cross-country skiers and snowshoers can take advantage of the 427-acre park in the winter months.
Length: More than 10 miles Biking? Yes (on designated bike trails only) Dog friendly? Yes