It’s officially fall: the time of changing leaves, crisp cool air, and that sense of panic that you won’t get to take advantage of this fleeting season before a hurricane blows through or winter comes and dumps two feet of snow on top of all your travel dreams.
But if all goes well (cross your fingers!) we’ll have three whole months to pack in all the New England-y fall activities. Here are some autumn ideas and tips for getting the most out of all that Connecticut has to offer in the fall.
Plan Your Foliage Viewing With the Help of Science
In general, I’m an advocate for appreciating the subtle beauty of the seasons every day. You don’t have to travel to the hottest spot for leaf peeping (just picture me rolling my eyes as I type that) when your daily commute takes you past trees that are just as colorful. That said, sometimes you want to be surrounded by peak foliage, and you don’t want to wait for it to serendipitously appear. In those moments, you need a plan. Luckily, there are a number of foliage predictors, complete with color-coded maps, to help you strategize.
SmokyMountains.com lets you slide a pin along a timeline to check when your area will explode with fall color. It suggests that late September through mid-October is best for the northern half of Connecticut, and all of October is good for the southern half. NewEngland.com (i.e. Yankee Magazine) has a more detailed, New-England-only map, over which you can play a time-lapse of foliage advancing. This map has color creeping into Northwestern Connecticut in early October, covering most of the state by mid-October, and ending by late October, with the southern tip of Fairfield County and the Southeastern Shoreline holding on the longest.
Of course, it’s also important to check the weather regularly; a severe storm can strip the leaves from the trees at any time. But tools like these are helpful for getting an overview of the fall landscape.
Support Local Makers
I grew up going to the local Apple Festival every fall. I went to perform with my dance class, but I also remember wandering through the high school building, which transformed annually into a combination haunted house, baked goods sale, and (the best part) vast display of pretty jewelry and scarves. That particular event is now defunct (though it’s been partially replaced by CraftWestport, November 9 & 10) but to this day I associate fall with shopping for handmade goods from local artisans. This is the season of candles, mittens, and, for the super-prepared, stocking up on holiday gifts, so it’s only logical to do all that shopping while getting some local color and supporting small businesses in the region.
There are craft fairs and festivals across Connecticut in the fall, and the best way to find one near where you’ll be is to search the event calendars of individual towns. But a few I’d travel for are the Old Wethersfield Arts & Crafts Fair (October 5), held at the gorgeous and historic Cove Park; the Roseland Cottage Fine Arts & Crafts Festival in Woodstock (October 19 & 20), which includes a tour of the famously pink historic home; and the Madison Green Autumn Arts Festival (October 12 & 13), conveniently close to this very cute town’s bustling center.
Take a Staycation
If you live in Connecticut, there’s a sort of peer pressure thing that happens in the fall. We feel compelled to travel en masse to Vermont and Maine to look at colorful leaves, stone walls, and pumpkin patches just like the ones we have at home. This year, I have a proposition for you: try exploring Connecticut instead of – or in addition to – those other states farther north. Fall is the ideal time to get to know a different region of the Nutmeg State. Each is complex and diverse, but to sum them up, the Southwest is high-end and fast-paced (towns like Shelton have an ideal mix of things to do and nature to explore.) The Southeast is casual, nautical, historic, and calm (check out my tour of the Connecticut River Valley.) The Northwest is storybook-pretty and subtly posh (my Northwest Connecticut Road Trip works in all seasons.) The Northeast is unspoiled, agricultural, and surprising (Connecticut State Route 169 is a ready-made introduction to the region.) And the center is a mix of old and new, urban and suburban, traditional and innovative (the capital city, Hartford, is surrounded by beautiful towns and nature in all directions.)
And if you’re not from Connecticut, but you’re considering a trip to Massachusetts or New Hampshire this fall: come here! The entire region is rightly famous for its fall weather, so why not experience it in a place where everything you could want, from cities to small towns to countryside to food to arts to hiking to history to shopping to scenic drives to cozy inns, is all within a two hour drive.
Follow a Connecticut Trail
When I say trail, I don’t mean a hiking trail through the woods – although I thoroughly recommend those too. Instead, I’m talking about the many themed “trails” that have been established to promote local tourism by highlighting specific activities or sites. I’m a big fan of the Connecticut Wine Trail (my favorite: Saltwater Farm Vineyard in Stonington) and the Connecticut Freedom Trail (my personal must-sees: the John Brown Birthplace Site in Torrington and Glasgo Village in Griswold), and I’ve been writing about the Connecticut Barns Trail since long before they developed a handy map with scenic driving routes. But there are many others. Even the ones that are limited in scope, like the Antiques Trail and the Art Trail, can be useful resources to help you plan a trip.
You can also invent your own “trail” based on your interests; anything from old mill buildings to college towns to city parks to murals would make an excellent route through the state.
Take a Hike (Covered Bridge Included)
It’s New England in the fall, so it’s time to put on a fleece and take a picturesque hike beside a covered bridge. Is it a cliche? Heck yeah! But it’s so New England and so pretty that it must be done. Connecticut has three “real” covered bridges; that is, historic structures that have survived from Ye Olden Dayes. The Comstock Covered Bridge (Bridge Street, Colchester) is the one pedestrian-only bridge of the set, making it a particularly special place to spend some time. It spans the Salmon River between Colchester and East Hampton, and is a convenient entry point to the Salmon River State Forest, which is connected by trails to Day Pond State Park. Far better known are the bridges on the other side of the state. Bulls Bridge (Bulls Bridge Road, South Kent) crosses the Housatonic River in Kent. It’s said that George Washington crossed the first bridge built at this location, but today it’s Appalachian Trail hikers who pass through on their way across the country. Shorter hikes include Ten Mile Hill and the Bulls Bridge Scenic Loop. The West Cornwall Covered Bridge (Route 128, West Cornwall) also crosses the Housatonic, between Cornwall and Sharon. There’s no trail here, but there is a small seating area, perfect for fishing, picnicking, or simply admiring the view.
There are many less historic but equally pretty covered bridges to be found in Connecticut state and municipal parks. Chatfield Hollow State Park in Killingworth, Southford Falls State Park in Southbury, and Kent Falls State Park in Kent all combine covered bridges with trails of varying difficulty. You can also find postcard-worthy covered bridges along trails in Avon’s Countryside Park and New Haven’s East Rock Park.
Make Shopping Special
Connecticut has some pretty decent outdoor outlet malls (I spend more time than I’d like to admit at Clinton Crossing and the Westbrook Outlets.) But we also have some unique shopping centers that combine local flavor with stores you won’t see at the typical mall. These destinations are well suited for fall visits, when it’s warm enough to enjoy the walk between stores, but cool enough to make you want to warm up inside. At Old Mill Pond Village Shops in Granby, a collection of large historic buildings clustered around, yes, an old mill pond, have been converted to stores selling furniture, accessories, pottery, and endless varieties of Christmas decorations. In the autumn months, it’s all decorated like a harvest festival. At Old Mistick Village in Mystic, there’s more of a coastal vibe, with nautical touches, seasonal events, and a duck pond. (The ducks never get cold, but if you do, stop at Vault Coffee.) There are some good specialty stores here, like Kitch, and some that sell old-fashioned gifts and souvenirs, like Franklin’s General Store. Cannondale Village in Wilton is smaller, but intensely picturesque in a time-warp sort of way. The best known businesses here are Penny Ha’Penny, which sells everything British, and the Schoolhouse at Cannondale, an acclaimed restaurant in a 19th century one-room schoolhouse.
Learn About Connecticut’s Native American Heritage
One of my favorite things about fall is Thanksgiving, but the holiday is often served with a simplified version of a very narrow slice of Native American history. Real Indian history is far more complex and fascinating, and there’s a lot of that history – not to mention thriving modern Indian culture – right here in Connecticut.
A good place to start is Fort Shantok (on maps, Fort Shantok Archeological District), a tranquil park and historic site in Montville. (Enter from Massapeag Side Road.) This 17th century Mohegan settlement was briefly a state park, but today it’s part of the Mohegan reservation. It’s a scenic spot for an easy autumn walk – just follow the short loop trail across the pond via the boardwalk then into the woods. It’s also a National Historic Landmark and a place sacred to the Mohegan people. Where the fort once stood, you can view an old burial ground and a wigwam-shaped stone monument.
If you’re more of a museum lover, you have a few options. The Tantaquidgeon Museum in Uncasville aims to “showcase objects from a Native American perspective;” the Institute for American Indian Studies Museum & Research Center in Washington tells “the 10,000 year long story of Connecticut’s Native American Peoples from the distant past to their lives and culture today;” the Indian & Colonial Research Center in Old Mystic is a mix of small-town historical society, gallery, and archive; and the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center in Mashantucket is the largest Native American museum in America.
Explore the Great Indoors
Ah, fall. Season of sweaters, scarves, and debates about how to pronounce the word hygge. The perfect time to be outdoors admiring the leaves, and the perfect time to be indoors, feeling cozy, taking advantage of all the snug spaces you can find. In my opinion, the most welcoming indoor spots can be found in coffee shops and bookstores, places where there’s no pressure to leave and you’re surrounded by hot drinks, baked goods, and as-yet-unread stories. A tiny handful that fit the bill are R.J. Julia Booksellers in Madison, Books on the Common in Ridgefield, Dianne’s Books in Greenwich, Bank Street Book Nook in New Milford, Ashlawn Farm Coffee in Old Saybrook, Victoria Station Cafe in Putnam, Muddy Waters Cafe in New London, Common Grounds in Branford, Stafford Coffee Company in Stafford Springs, and Three Bridges Coffeehouse in Shelton.
But there are so many more out there – with new places popping up seemingly weekly – and at least half the fun is discovering bookstores, coffee shops, libraries, stores, museums, and other indoor spots that make you feel your coziest.
Visit a Fall Farmers’ Market or Farm Store…
Though they’re usually more closely associated with summer, many local farm stands and stores, as well as farmers’ markets, keep operating throughout fall (and even into winter.) And the next three months might just be the best time to experience this New England tradition. With their array of pumpkins, calico corn, and multi-colored mums, autumn markets feel a little less like stocking up on groceries and more like attending a festive seasonal celebration. A few of my favorites are the Coventry Farmers’ Market, the Lebanon Farmers’ Market, the Bishop’s Orchards farm store in Guilford, and Smith’s Acres in Niantic. The Westport Farmers’ Market, one of Connecticut’s largest, runs through early November. In October, the Stonington Farmers’ Market moves from its warm-weather dockside location into the Velvet Mill, a shopping destination in its own right. And remember that this seasonal bounty isn’t confined to suburbs and rural areas; there’s something special about the farm coming to the city, as it does year-round in Hartford and New Haven. The Connecticut Department of Agriculture lists all the farmers’ markets and farm stands in the state, so you can find one wherever you’re going.
…and Bake With Local Produce
I admit, this isn’t exactly a travel idea – unless you combine it with that trip to the farm stand. But one classic way to experience New England in the fall is to bake or cook with local seasonal produce. Connecticut apples really do taste better than those sad apples shipped here from across the country. Two relevant recipe books in my Amazon cart right now are The Connecticut Farm Table Cookbook, which features recipes from Connecticut’s “celebrated chefs and the dedicated farmers, fishers, ranchers, foragers, and cheese makers they partner with,” and Northern Hospitality: Cooking by the Book in New England, an “anthology of almost 400 historic New England recipes from the seventeenth to the early twentieth century.” Of course, you can simply use your farmers’ market finds in an old favorite recipe, as I usually do. Either way, you’ll have created a treat that tastes like the best of Connecticut in the fall. Just be sure to put some nutmeg in it.