Southeastern Connecticut holds a special place in my heart, not just because it’s where I live, but because of the way it blends coastline and farmland, urban and rural, history and nature. That mixture helps make it a surprisingly pretty destination for viewing fall foliage. Connecticut’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP), which provides a fall foliage map as well as a list of seven fall foliage driving routes, suggests two autumn drives in this region. Since I’ve already tested the three northern Connecticut fall foliage drives on the list, I decided to see how the southeastern routes compared.
To follow the original directions, click the link to DEEP’s driving routes above. For this post, I’ve written the directions differently, to make them easier to follow. I’ve also noted (in parentheses) a few stops and short detours that you might want to add to your drive. Feel free to simply ignore these to stick to the basic driving routes.
Mystic & Beyond Loop
This drive, which DEEP calls the “CT Heritage” route, is approximately 90 miles long. It travels through small villages, past historic homes and inns, and into agricultural areas where fall is marked by sunflowers giving way to corn. The foliage along this route is not as consistent as it would be farther north, but you will find stretches of subtly changing colors, as well as a few truly spectacular trees. You’ll also probably spot horses grazing behind weathered wood fences, centuries-old cemeteries, country churches, and pumpkins perched on doorsteps and along stone walls. This drive is a good option if you’re visiting Mystic, Stonington, or New London, and want to spend three or four hours getting a taste of the nearby countryside.
The Route: Start in New London and take I95 North to Exit 86 in Groton. (Or, if you’re already east of the Thames, just start in Old Mystic to save time; there’s little foliage to be seen on the highway.) Take Route 184 East, then turn right on Route 27 South towards Old Mystic. (Here, you can turn left onto Main Street and continue on North Stonington Road for a short distance to reach the Instagram-famous Clyde’s Cider Mill. Or turn onto Lantern Hill Road and and check out the array of pumpkins at equally picturesque Stonington Gardens.) Continue on Route 27 South to Mystic. (You’ll pass the Olde Mystick Village shopping center, Mystic Seaport, and the sprawling waterfront Elm Grove Cemetery.) Turn left on Route 1 North. (A right turn here will take you into downtown Mystic; the left turn takes you towards more rural areas, but first you skirt Stonington Borough and its restaurants, shops, and historic buildings.) Turn left on Route 2 West just before entering downtown Pawcatuck. (Going straight will take you through this cute Connecticut village that’s linked to neighboring Westerly, RI.) At the traffic circle, turn right on Route 184 East. Then turn left on Route 49 North. (You’ll pass Pachaug State Forest, which has an observation deck and picnic area, as well as paved roads throughout.) Turn left on Route 14A West towards Canterbury. Turn left on Route 169 South, then left on Route 2 East. From downtown Norwich, take Route 32 South back to New London. (Or, if you started in Mystic, you can return via Route 12 South.)
Connecticut River Valley Loop
DEEP calls this drive, which is not really a loop but a lopsided figure eight, the “Connecticut River Gateway.” It’s about 80 miles long, and for such a water-centric route – it involves four river crossings – it offers a surprisingly varied display of changing leaves. This would be a lovely half-day trip in any season, thanks to its small towns and villages, from tourist favorites like East Haddam to lesser known gems like Moodus, Middle Haddam, and Deep River. It also makes it easy to stop in more vibrant spots like Middletown, as well as a bunch of state and town parks, giving it full day or weekend trip potential. It’s a more scenic route than DEEP’s other suggestion in the region, and while the leaves here aren’t as loud as in the northwest, the overall beauty is equally worth traveling for.
The Route: (Note: this drive technically begins in Middletown, but I started it on I95, so these directions reflect that. I suggest starting at whichever end you’re closest to already.) Take I95 South to exit 69. (Here you’ll pass close to the center of Essex, deservedly one of Connecticut’s best loved towns.) Take Route 9 North to Exit 2, then follow Route 154 North. Turn left on Route 82 East, and cross the Connecticut River via the swing bridge. (Eagle Landing State Park and the grassy area behind the Goodspeed Opera House offer gorgeous views of the bridge in Haddam and East Haddam, respectively.) Turn left on Route 151 North, then follow Route 151 to Route 66. Turn left on Route 66 West towards Middletown, and cross the river again via the Arrigoni Bridge. (To reach Middletown’s pretty downtown, stay on Main Street; to get to the Town Green and Wesleyan University Campus, stay on Route 66.) Take Route 17 South to Route 9 South. Get off at Exit 10, and follow Route 154 South. Turn left on Route 148 East, and cross the river via the Chester-Hadlyme Ferry. (The ferry is seasonal and may close in bad weather. If the ferry is not operating when you make the trip, cross the river in Haddam at the swing bridge, aka Route 82, instead.) Continue on Route 148 East. (Here, you can stop at Gillette Castle State Park for a picnic break or a walk among more fall leaves.) Continue on Route 82 East. Turn right on Route 156 South, and follow it until you return to I95 in East Lyme. (The junction is very close to Rocky Neck State Park, a beautiful option for a fall beach visit.)