Connecticut’s beaches are many and varied, and each little piece of our shore has a character all its own. These unique qualities are especially apparent in the fall, when the crowds drift away, and in the winter, when the already largely deserted coast becomes even more desolate. In these colder seasons, the natural beauty of the shoreline is revealed.
Some of the most unusual public access points along the water in southern Connecticut can be found in Guilford, where eight rivers flow into Long Island Sound and numerous small inlets and coves add many miles of hidden coastline. Here, salt marshes and striking rock formations meet boardwalks and migrating birds. The landscape is quite different from the long strip of sandy beach at Hammonasset Beach State Park in neighboring Madison. Though there are a few traditional beachy amenities in Guilford, and some pretty swaths of sand, overall this coast feels lusher, wilder, and farther from the beaten path. You can spend hours at any one of these destinations, simply relaxing and observing. But because they are relatively small and just minutes apart by car, you can also explore them all in a single morning or afternoon.
From the street, it doesn’t look like much – a green lawn, some bocce courts, and a soccer field. But don’t just drive past this 14-acre public space, because Chittenden Park is far more interesting than it first appears. Walk from the parking lot through the field towards the water concealed behind the trees. You’ll see a small opening, then a wooden boardwalk leading you to a platform overlooking Guilford Harbor and Long Island Sound beyond. This squiggle of sand and salt marsh blurs the boundaries of beach and wetland, of suburb and wilderness.
And here’s a cool fact: Chittenden Park is the southern terminus of the New England National Scenic Trail, which runs for 215 miles to the Massachusetts/New Hampshire line.
Location: Seaside Avenue. The parking lot is on Field Road.
It’s tiny, just half an acre, but Shell Beach (yes, you are standing mostly on shells here, not sand) is a secluded hideaway in what feels like a watery world set apart from the rest of the town. Even the route to this little beach, located just outside the historic private community of Leetes Island, offers some especially lovely views. On the town’s website, the only suggested activity at this beach is clamming. But don’t let that stop you from just walking, watching the tall grasses waving in the blue water, and staring out at the houses dotted along the rocky coastline.
Location: Shell Beach Road. There is a small parking lot behind the red shed on Shell Beach Road near Leetes Island Road.
Chaffinch Island Park
Chaffinch Island Park (it’s not really an island; there’s no ferry involved) is part ordinary town park and part unspoiled natural landscape. From a tree-shaded area with picnic tables, grills, and pretty views of the West River, a hill slopes down to the water, and the river blends into the Sound. Walk across the grass and massive rock formations, along a narrow sandy path through the trees, and emerge overlooking the tidal wetlands. In this 22-acre park, you can find plenty of places to explore or to sit and contemplate the landscape. Whether you do this from the relative civilization of a bench or from a rock on the jagged shore is up to you.
Location: Chaffinch Island Road.
Barbara Pine Memorial Beach
This diminutive (¾ acre) beach on a protected cove in a quiet neighborhood looks exclusive, but anyone can walk out onto the soft sand and enjoy this sheltered spot. Look up to see the osprey nesting platform, high atop a pole on the beach. The birds may have flown south for the winter, but there’s still a lot to see here. Gaze out at the small boats bobbing on the water and the homes perched precariously above the rocks along the shoreline.
Location: Daniel Avenue and Mulberry Point Road. There is a small parking area on Daniel Avenue.
Jacobs Beach, by far the most traditional or typical Connecticut town beach on this list, has boat racks, picnic shelters, a short boardwalk, a playground, a bathhouse, and the other expected amenities. It’s also therefore the most likely to be crowded in the summer, when locals come to appreciate the perks of living in this coastal town. But in the fall, the mood shifts. The only crowds are made up of seagulls, who come to appreciate the wide rectangle of sand and the rocky jetties. Spread out over 25 acres, Jacobs beach offers a relatively spacious and flat area to wander without feeling too remote.
Location: Seaside Avenue.
Grass Island is a truly special place, unlike any other beach or park in the state. What makes this wind-swept, 29.6 acre peninsula (like Chaffinch Island, it’s not technically an island) so unique? Maybe it’s just the feeling you get when you step onto the sliver of sand beyond the last house on the road and walk out into what feels like a world apart. It’s not a long walk to the tip of Grass Island; it takes perhaps 20 minutes if you stop to take pictures or watch some shorebirds along the way. And you’re not exactly isolated here – there are several businesses just across the water, and kayaks and small boats periodically glide by. But as you wend your way along the narrow beach, past driftwood trees and piles of shells, you can feel you’re wandering an uncharted shore. If you’re tempted to turn back before reaching the end, keep going – you don’t want to miss the red shack, a local landmark that’s been standing on this lonely spot since 1950.
Location: Circle Beach Road. Park at the lot of the East River State Boat Launch, then walk to the end of Circle Beach road to access the beach.
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