New England Weekend Getaways: Things to Do in Connecticut

Adventure Travel, Tours & Attractions, Wildlife & Animals — By on August 12, 2010 at 6:00 am

New England is best known for its fall foliage but the region has plenty of natural attractions to see this time of year. From Maine to Massachusetts, this mini-series highlights what each of its states has to offer outdoors while the weather is still warm.

By Michele Herrmann

From the Gold Coast to the Quiet Corner, Connecticut‘s diverse counties contain a number of parks, trails, and venues to explore. These attractions can suit just about any outdoor-interest.

Wildlife Sanctuaries and Reserves

More than 50 miles of the Appalachian Trail cut through the northwestern corner of the Nutmeg state. The Housatonic River Valley to the east and the Taconic Range to the west are particularly scenic, and one section near Falls Village has been designed for wheelchair accessibility. Learn more from the Connecticut chapter of the Appalachian Mountain Club .

The Connecticut Audubon Society manages 19 wildlife sanctuaries around the state and preserves more than 2,600 acres of open space. It operates nature facilities such as a museum and two sanctuaries in Fairfield; coast centers in Milford and Glastonbury; a facility in Pomfret; and an EcoTravel office in Essex.

Under the care of the Nature Conservancy, Devil’s Den Preserve in Weston/Redding is the largest tract of protected land in Fairfield County (at 1,756 acres). In Litchfield, the White Memorial Conservation Center has a nature museum along with an outdoor arena that includes a wildlife sanctuary maintained by the White Memorial Foundation.

Parks and Forests

Connecticut’s state parks and forests are diverse in their history, location and layout. Here are some worth noting.

Sleeping Giant State Park in Hamden gets its name from the two miles of mountaintop resembling a large man lying in repose. A one-and-a-half mile scenic trail leads to a stone observation tower on the peak of Mt. Carmel, which provides a clear view of Long Island Sound and the New Haven area. At Dinosaur State Park in Rocky Hill, find a 200-million-year-old fossil track way, interactive exhibits, and the chance to cast a dinosaur footprint to take home.

Hammonasset Beach State Park in Madison offers more than two miles of beach and more than 550 grassy campsites. Enjoy the mist from the water cascades found at Kent Falls State Park in Kent while meandering across a covered bridge and hiking up a trail that winds up along the falls.

Since Colonial times, Fort Trumbull State Park in New London has been the locale for various military forts, schools and research facilities for the U.S. Army, Coast Guard, and Navy.

Gillette Castle State Park in East Haddam is best known for a 184-acre-estate that looks like a medieval fortress built for actor William Gillette (no relation to the razor). Visitors can check out both the castle and the adjoining woodland property, along with break-taking views of the Connecticut River.

Farm Living

Learn about the Constitution state’s wine making industry by taking a drive along the Connecticut Wine Trail. The trail bypasses about 20 or so member vineyards and is divided into two sections: east and west. Make stops to taste locally produced wines, ciders and fruit wines.

A free Connecticut Farm Map offers an online guide to an array of farms, stables, greenhouses, and pastoral scenery. Head to rural Easton for Silverman’s Farm for picking apples or pumpkins or up to Lyman Orchards in Middlefield for its Apple Barrel Market. Or check out an agricultural fair. The Association of Connecticut Fairs provides a calendar schedule of and additional information on well-attended state fairs.

Artistic Side

Art aficionados may want to venture down the Connecticut Art Trail, which encompasses 15 museums and historic sites from bucolic farms, art studios and former artists’ boarding houses to grand and modern art museums. The website lists trails by regions such as River Valley and Litchfield Hills.

The Weir Farm National Historic Site in Wilton/Ridgefield preserves the home and studios of three generations of artists (American impressionist J. Alden Weir, Mahonri and Dorothy Weir Young, and Sperry and Doris Andrews) and the landscape that inspired their work.

Artists who were boarders at what’s now the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme painted panels on the walls. Booklovers can visit the Hartford homes of Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe.

If architecture is your thing, don’t miss the Philip Johnson Glass House in New Canaan. Designed by the late architect, the 47-acre campus is determined to become a center point for the preservation of modern architecture, landscape, and art, but also to foster new ideas and cultivate talent.

By the Water

Like being near the water? Captain’s Cove Seaport in Bridgeport, located on Historic Black Rock Harbor is an active maritime and amusement center with eateries and shops.

Situated near the waterfront, The Maritime Aquarium in South Norwalk (or known as SoNo) offers two-and-half-hour marine life study cruises on the Sound to educate on the creatures that live and depend on the water. The city of Norwalk will hold its annual Norwalk Oyster Festival September 10-12 at Veterans Park.

Even yet, take a cruise around the Thimble Islands, off the coast of Branford.

The Charm of Mystic

Like charming, seafaring towns? Drive up I-95 and get off at Mystic. Mystic Seaport, a maritime museum, houses four National Historic Landmark vessels and also features a working preservation shipyard, a re-created 19th century seafaring village, exhilarating exhibits and a planetarium. Browse through shops at the Olde Mistick Village. See beluga whales and penguins at the Mystic Aquarium & Institute for Exploration.

In nearby Groton, nicknamed “The Submarine Capital of the World,” the Historic Ship Nautilus & Submarine Force Museum lets guests go aboard the Nautilus, the world’s first nuclear-powered vessel and the first ship to go to the North Pole. The museum traces the development of the “Silent Service” from the 1700s to more recent Ohio and Virginia class submarines.

Being Adventurous

Lake Compounce may be the nation’s oldest amusement park but officials have brought it to modern times over the past 13 years with current fitting rides and a water park. Recent newbies include the wooden Boulder Dash roller coaster and the thrill ride Thunder n Lightning. Also consider Quassy Amusement Park in Middletown. Overlooking Lake Quassapaug, the park features more than two-dozen rides and attractions.

Ocean Beach Park in New London is a topnotch outdoor recreational facility with an Olympic-size freshwater pool. The 50-acre park also boasts a landscaped 18-hole miniature golf course and various attractions.

Farmington River Tubing in New Hartford has specifically designed river tubes to climb in or sit on for a two and a half mile ride down the Farmington River. The river contains class 1, 2, and 3 rapids, water, rocks, trees, and other obstacles. If you fall out of the tube, get right back on it! Like racing? Get your fix for speed at Lime Rock Park in Lakeville.

Want something more laid back? Essex Steam Train and Riverboat Ride in Essex offers rides on two coal-fired locomotives that pull a collection of restored railroad cars through the scenic towns of Deep River and Chester. Passengers can also purchase tickets for a river boat ride up the Connecticut River.

Those who still appreciate drive-in movie theaters should know there are still two in the state offering current flicks: the Mansfield Drive-In and the Pleasantville Drive-In. Mansfield also hosts a large flea market every Sunday, rain or shine.

To learn more about Connecticut, visit these websites:

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