15 Outdoor Spaces for Social Distancing in Connecticut

So here we are. It’s not where any of us expected to be at the start of spring, or at least I didn’t. Among all the life and death fears, which must take precedence, there are disappointments too. I was hoping to be traveling more, both near and far, as the days got warmer and lighter; that won’t be happening now. But it’s important to remember that – for the time being, at least – while planes, trains, hotels, restaurants, and group events are irresponsible if not prohibited, we can still explore. In Connecticut, we’re fortunate to be surrounded by so many open spaces, full of nature and history, where it’s not only possible to stay six feet away from other humans, it’s probable you won’t encounter anyone else at all. Here are 15 of my favorite local places (including specific destinations and broader categories) to go if you’re seeking fresh air, stillness, calm, and solitude. (Also, please read my post about my CT outdoors social distancing tips for more on how to find outdoor spaces near you and how to determine whether a place is safe to visit!)

PLEASE NOTE: As of March 19, 2020, when this post is being published, the places listed below are open to the public. (Most of the indoor facilities and events associated with each destination are currently closed.) This may change as events unfold, so if you choose to go to any of these locations – or any other public space – make sure to check for updates on the website and/or social media accounts of the town, department, organization, or business that manages the space. It’s also helpful to keep yourself appraised of any changes to state and local laws, rules, and guidelines. Also check ct.gov/coronavirus for statewide information and resources. 

Mine Hill (Roxbury)

Drive to the middle of nowhere, then keep driving, into the rugged woods where you can’t imagine anyone ever living and working, and you’ll find Mine Hill, a historic site and nature preserve maintained by the Roxbury Land Trust. What remains of a short-lived 19th-century iron-making operation – a few remnants of a long-abandoned village and some massive blast furnaces and roasting ovens – stands as an impressive and eerie monument to a lost industry in these now-peaceful woods. Beyond the ruins, trails of different lengths wind through the 360-acre property. 

White Memorial Conservation Center (Litchfield)

This 4,000 acre wildlife sanctuary is truly an escape into the natural world. Over 35 miles of trails criss-cross the property at White Memorial Conservation Center in Litchfield, but my favorite sections consist of small wooden bridges over little rivers and boardwalks elevated above wetlands. As you walk between the trees, suspended above the marshland, it feels like you’re alone in the wild. You may lose yourself in the details of nature, or worry if you’ll find your way back to where you started, but it’s practically guaranteed that – at least momentarily – your mind will retreat far from the concerns of the world outside. 

Historic Cemeteries

If you’ve never been one to wander through a cemetery before, this time of seeking new ways to keep busy might be the moment to try it. Old burial grounds are often surprisingly serene outdoor spaces, packed with centuries of history and art. 

There are interesting old cemeteries in most, if not all, Connecticut towns, but two particularly aesthetic options are Old Norwichtown Cemetery in Norwich (Old Cemetery Lane), with its variety of carved headstones, and Duck River Cemetery in Old Lyme (McCurdy Road), a lovely resting place bisected by a stream. In urban areas, the oldest cemeteries are more compact, and seem even more suffused with stories of the past. Two prime examples are Ye Antientist Burial Ground in New London (Hempstead Street), standing high on a hill as if to escape the city noise, and Hartford’s Ancient Burying Ground, physically in the center of downtown but emotionally worlds away. Some cemeteries are notable for one individual buried there: e.g. Connecticut native Nathaniel Lyon, the first Union general to be killed in the Civil War, is interred in a small remote cemetery in Eastford (General Lyon Road) near the monument dedicated to him in nearby Natchaug State Forest. If you can’t or don’t want to explore on foot, some of the state’s grander, park-like burial places, such as Mountain Grove Cemetery in Bridgeport and Cedar Hill Cemetery in Hartford, also function as scenic drives.

Beckley Furnace Industrial Monument (North Canaan)

It’s similar to Mine Hill, in that both combine gorgeous rural scenery with memorials to an erstwhile industrial age. But Beckley Furnace Industrial Monument is much more accessible; it’s located just off the road, and has a flat lawn, a proper parking lot, and a few picnic tables. The bucolic Blackberry River flows beside the preserved iron furnace, which towers high above you as you approach, making you feel quite small in both space and time. This is the perfect place for some quiet contemplation or a short stroll. If you want to hike farther, cross the bridge over the river to find trails.

Town of Union 

If the best way to avoid other people is to stay home, the second best might be to go to Union, Connecticut’s least populated town. (It also boasts the highest elevation in the state east of the Connecticut River.) With fewer than 1,000 people living in a land area of about 28 square miles, you’re unlikely to run into anyone as you admire the historic church, library, and schoolhouse near Union’s tiny town green. This Quiet Corner town is also home to the connected Nipmuck State Forest and Bigelow Hollow State Park, which comprise 9,000 wild acres full of hiking trails and other opportunities for outdoor recreation. 

Beaches 

Beach parking in some more densely populated places has been closed due to the inability to maintain a safe distance between visitors, and I assume others will follow. However, most beaches (and their parking lots) are still open for now, and there’s nothing that clears the mind and brings you back to the small pleasures of life than a walk on a beach in the off-season. A good bet for finding the least-crowded beaches is look for those in smaller and less densely populated towns, and/or for large beaches where visitors can spread out. Consider coastal state park beaches like Hammonasset Beach State Park in Madison, Rocky Neck State Park in East Lyme, and Bluff Point State Park (less sand, more wooded coastal trail) in Groton. Also look for towns with a variety of beach options, like Niantic, Milford, and West Haven

Captain’s Cove Seaport (Bridgeport)

Most people would say that all the fun of Captain’s Cove Seaport happens in the summer. (For now, the opening day of the season is scheduled for May 8, 2020.) I personally might disagree, but either way, the kind of fun that involves restaurants, bars, shopping, sailing, and mingling with the crowds that flock to this local favorite spot is not allowed at the moment. So if you prefer the vibe of old-timey seaside villages in the off-season, take this opportunity to explore an empty Captain’s Cove. Minus the tourists, the adorably miniature pastel-painted shops stand shuttered along the boardwalk, and the waterfront is empty except for you and the gulls. 

Johnsonville Village (East Haddam)

Where to go to really get away from everyone? A ghost town, naturally. Johnsonville (Johnsonville Road), a 19th-century mill village turned 1960s tourist attraction, is now an odd mix of quiet neighborhood and semi-spooky sight-seeing destination. Located in the Moodus section of East Haddam (which once had so many mills it was known as the “Twine Capital of America”), it consists of a collection of historic structures – including a chapel and a one-room schoolhouse – gathered from around the state. The history and architecture is interesting, but the village is almost more fascinating due to the periodic hype around it, which rises and falls as Johnsonville inevitably comes on and off the market. During the daylight hours, at least, Johnsonville is not particularly scary, but perhaps it is haunted, if only in that something keeps thwarting everyone’s plans to transform these lovely buildings into something, anything, other than the abandoned village they seemingly insist on remaining. (Use your discretion when visiting; the buildings themselves are private property, but viewing and photographing them from the public roads is allowed.)

Lighthouses

There are about 20 lighthouses on the Connecticut coast, some active and some reminders of local maritime history. Of these, there are only four that you can walk right up to, without being part of a lighthouse tour, without getting on a boat, and without trespassing on private property.  The New Haven Lighthouse, in Lighthouse Point Park, is a sturdy sandstone and granite octagon above New Haven Harbor.  Fayerweather Island Light in Seaside Park in Bridgeport is perched picturesquely at the end of a rock jetty. (Seaside Park, occupying a sweeping expanse of the city’s waterfront, is one of the beautiful city parks I wrote about in this post. ) Avery Point Light, on the lovely waterfront campus of UConn Avery Point in Groton, is the most modest lighthouse of the group. (From here, you can also spot the New London Harbor Light and the New London Ledge Light.) The sweet stone Stonington Harbor Light is now the Old Lighthouse Museum, and while the museum itself is currently closed, the off-season is the perfect time to experience a less-populated Stonington Borough

Windsor Locks Canal Trail State Park (Windsor Locks, Suffield)

If you’ve ever wanted to stroll along a semi-isolated trail without worrying about reading maps or keeping an eye out for hidden turns and faded blazes, a canal trail is the solution. Connecticut has many, and one of my favorites is the Windsor Locks Canal Trail, a linear state park that stretches for 4.5 miles beside the Connecticut River between Windsor Locks and Suffield. As you walk along the narrow old towpath, wild river on one side and human-made canal on the other, you’ll see trees, textile mills, old railroad bridges, and rolling farmland. Your mind might wander as you contemplate the range of natural beauty and human history here, but you will not – cannot, in fact – get lost. 

Keep in mind that some or all of this trail may be closed for part of the year to protect nesting bald eagles. For a similar linear park experience, try one of the many official Connecticut Greenways, located all across the state.

Gurleyville Grist Mill (Mansfield) 

In complicated times, sometimes the best cure is a simple setting. The Gurleyville Grist Mill in the Gurleyville Historic District in Mansfield, now maintained by the nonprofit organization Joshua’s Trust, is such a place. Down a quiet rural road, Connecticut’s last remaining stone gristmill stands at the center of a pastoral scene that seems unchanged since the building was constructed in the 1830s. Sit beside the mill building where the grass slopes down to the bank of the Fenton River, or on the bench overlooking the stone arch bridge spanning the water, and just appreciate the stillness. (The mill is open to the public as a museum in the warmer months; currently the season is set to begin at the end of May, which could of course change. But the grounds are open, and worth visiting, year-round.)

Grass Island (Guilford)

It’s not technically an island, and while it does have grass, that’s not the primary feature of this gorgeous little beach on the Guilford/Madison town line. Grass Island, a wind-swept and isolated-feeling 30 acres of sand where the East River meets Long Island Sound, is empty save for its iconic, uninhabited red shack. A close-up view of this solitary building is your reward for walking to the far end of the beach – or maybe the reward is the walk itself, and the way it makes you feel like you’re standing at the edge of the world, in an untamed landscape of shells and stones and twisted tree branches that have washed ashore. (Park at the East River State Boat Launch in Madison, then walk a short distance to the entrance of Grass Island.)

Weir Farm National Historic Site (Wilton)

When most people think of national parks, they imagine endless swaths of rugged nature, the kinds of places one could wander for weeks. Connecticut, however, does NPS properties on a manageable, Connecticut-appropriate scale. And a walk around the grounds at Weir Farm, the former home of impressionist J. Alden Weir, is accordingly comforting, calming, and beautiful – like briefly stepping into a softly painted landscape. These preserved 60 acres provide walking trails and fittingly picturesque views of meadows, woods, wetlands, and wildlife. (The grounds are free and open year-round; the seasonal visitor center and museum hours are currently scheduled to begin on May 1, which, of course is subject to change.)

Lock 12 Historical Park (Cheshire)

Cheshire’s Lock 12 Historical Park is underrated. It’s the sort of place you never hear anyone talking about (at least not outside of Cheshire.) In normal times, I’d say that’s a shame, because it’s a lovely place. But at this moment, it’s good news, because chances are that this little fairy-tale landscape of a park will not be crowded if you go there to escape the whirlwind of the wider world. Located within the Farmington Canal Linear Park, which is itself part of the statewide Farmington Canal Trail, Lock 12 is built around a restored 150-year-old lock that operated as part of the 19th-century canal system that briefly boomed and quickly busted. There’s nothing grand here – it’s just the lock, a few diminutive historic buildings, and small bridges crossing the still water. But it’s a quiet reminder that sometimes, when ambitious endeavors flounder, what remains can become the building blocks for something necessary and beautiful.

Local and State Parks and Forests

If you already take advantage of these resources often, this suggestion will seem beyond obvious. But it’s easy to forget that Connecticut is full of so many wonderful open spaces, and that they can be found in every town and city in the state. I’ve mentioned a few specific ones above. Some others I have written about recently on this blog are Putnam Memorial State Park in Redding, McLean Game Refuge in Granby, and Gay City State Park in Hebron; I also included several parks in my post on Where to See Spring Flowers in Connecticut. But this is as good a time as any to seek out more state parks and forests, local parks, and local land trust properties, as well as nearby trails, greenways, and beaches that you’ve never taken the time to explore before.

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