This past weekend Connecticut celebrated Connecticut Trails Day with almost 200 events in and around many of the 142 state parks, forests, and beaches. Overseen by the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, state parks, forests, and beaches cover 255,000 acres of public space and thousands of trails for hiking and biking. One perk of 2020 and 2021 has been our family’s focus on spending more time outdoors, exploring many of these public spaces. To date, we’ve visited about 30 state parks and you can read about our adventures (and trail recommendations and travel tips) in this post focused in Fairfield County, this post focused in western Connecticut, this post focused on central Connecticut, and this post focused on the Mystic area. We’ve also started to amass proper hiking equipment (headline: you’ll want more than just sneakers) and you can read about our hiking supply post here.
All 50 states have designated state parks, forests, and, in some instances, beaches that are open to the public. Some states, like Connecticut, offer free admission to cars registered in state (there is often a charge included on the car’s registration bill) or charge a nominal fee for state registered cars, and a larger fee for out of state guests. State parks are quickly becoming our family’s go to plans on a free afternoon or weekend and this week, we’re sharing a few reason why:
1. State parks are well marked and easy to navigate. The CT DEEP website is the best spot for information, including trail maps. However, there are always large displays near the parking lots of all facilities that include trail maps (snap a phone photo!) and up to date information with warnings regarding wildlife, restrictions due to weather, or calendars with special events. Trails are color coded and well marked; respect nature and stay on the trail paths. Many trail paths make large loops, so there is always something new to see. Some of our favorite spots include water features like rivers, waterfalls and lakes; Lover’s Leap State Park in New Milford and Wadsworth Falls State Park in Middletown are two of our favorites for waterviews.
2. State parks offer plenty of opportunities for hands-on learning. Many parks have signage explaining the historical context of the area and often have weekend lectures, demonstrations, and open houses. One of our favorite spots is the Putnam Memorial State Park in Easton/Redding. Known as the “Valley Forge of Connecticut”, it was the winter encampment of troops during the American Revolution. The park includes many historical ruins with signage and background information, a monument, and a museum open during summer months. Fort Trumbull in New London and Fort Griswold Battlefield State Park in Groton are two other locations in eastern Connecticut, rich with history and opportunities to explore forts used in battle during the Revolutionary War.
3. State parks offer amenities that are helpful to families. In addition to restrooms and designated parking areas (usually open year round), most parks have plenty of picnic tables, outdoor barbecues, shelters, and pavilions for larger group gatherings. Some of the more popular locations also have rangers on site to answer questions and offer advice for trails. Guests are asked to “carry out what they carry in” and be mindful to picnic in designated areas. Some parks have paved paths for strollers and bikes. Hammonasset Beach State Park and Rocky Neck State Park also have hundreds of campsites (Hammonasset has over 500!) , open during summer and early fall months, for guests who want to spend more time than just the day. Campsites often sell out for weekend dates early in the season, so check online early in the season.
4. State parks offer year round fun and different experiences every season. While my family’s preference is to visit in late fall or winter to avoid ticks (Lyme disease is a big concern in Connecticut), there are plenty of reasons to visit every season. The foliage in fall is iconic; waterfalls are especially abundant in the spring (post snow melting) and everything is alive and green; it’s a fun challenge to track footprints and animal prints in the snow during the winter; and the longer hours of summertime allow for early morning or early evening visits.
5. State parks offer more than “just” hiking trails. In addition to camping at several locations (not just the two state beaches we mentioned earlier), a few of state parks (Sherwood Island and Hammonasset) are home to nature centers that have exhibits about sea life right outside their doors. Some parks are also home to museums on site; two of the most popular are Gillette Castle State Park in East Haddam, home to noted playwright and actor William Hooker Gillette, and Talcott Mountain State Park in Simsbury, home to the Heublein Tower at the top of the mountain The Heublein Tower was a summer home for the Heublein family in the mid 20th century and hosted past presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan.
For more fun throughout Connecticut, check out our list of 30 things to do, 32 places to eat, our updated City Guide to Mystic, our City Guide to Coastal Connecticut, our Food Trails for cupcakes, cookies, chocolate shops, hot dogs, crepes, tacos, and bakeries, and for dozens of attraction focused posts, check here for the index.