If I made the rules, one of them would be that anyone who lives in or visits Connecticut during the summer season is required to get out on a boat at least once. There’s just something about sailing along the shoreline that reminds you how beautiful this stretch of coastline is, and forces you to see familiar surroundings in a different light. And sometimes, that light is provided (if only metaphorically) by a lighthouse.
If you happen to be in or near Fairfield County, one way to get your summer boat tour in is to buy a ticket on a Sheffield Island Lighthouse and Harbor Tour, operated by the Norwalk Seaport Association.
This trip takes three hours overall, and if you don’t own your own boat, it’s virtually the only way to reach this shell-strewn squiggle of land off the Connecticut coast. The ride is about half an hour each way. On the way there, as the boat navigates Norwalk Harbor and the Norwalk River, the crew points out local attractions and helps you orient yourself amid the archipelago known as the Norwalk Islands. The islands have names like Crow, Sprite, and Tavern, and their history is equally unexpected. En route to Sheffield Island, you’ll hear about oyster fishermen, explorers, tax evading yacht owners, pirate treasure, mutiny, war, local brushes with fame, and Colonial adventures in sheep breeding. On the way back, you can relax and breathe the salt air, watch smaller boats motor past, and gaze at cormorants huddled on channel markers and osprey chicks in their nests atop pilings.
In between, you get about one and a half hours on the island, where there’s not much to do – and that is precisely the point. There are two optional guided lighthouse tours, each lasting less than 20 minutes; a nature trail; a covered picnic pavilion; two small beaches scattered with pebbles, boulders, and shells; and some strategically placed chairs and benches for those who prefer to sit and enjoy the view. You can also simply wander on the lawn around the lighthouse and along the rocky coast.
Sheffield Island had many names and many owners before 1804, when it was purchased by Revolutionary War veteran Captain Robert Sheffield. (The earliest recorded, in 1690, was Winnipauk, a Norwalk Indian chief.)
The first lighthouse on the island, a stone tower constructed in 1827, was replaced by the existing Sheffield Island Light in 1868. If it looks familiar, you may have seen its clone on Block Island or while sailing off Noank or Greenwich; the two-and-a-half-story granite structure is one of several built in this exact style. The lighthouse has been inactive since 1902, and is now a museum maintained by the Seaport Association. The interior is decorated with period furniture, historic photographs and maps, and artifacts that give visitors a glimpse into the lives of the lighthouse keepers and the area’s maritime heritage. (If you’re interested in lighthouses in the eastern part of the state, check out my post about another Connecticut lighthouse cruise.)
Along with nearby Chimon, Goose, and Peach Islands, Sheffield Island is part of the Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge. Many areas are off limits to safeguard the habitats of local birds and other wildlife, but the trail offers human visitors a view of this protected landscape, home to “American oystercatchers, osprey, killdeer, gulls and numerous songbirds.” (Other easily accessible sections of Connecticut’s only National Wildlife Refuge include the Salt Meadow Unit in Westbrook, which I included in my post about coastal walking trails, and the Milford Point Unit, which is in my list of Milford Beaches.)
Because human activity is limited here, Sheffield Island has a remote, unplugged atmosphere that’s hard to come by in bustling southwestern Connecticut. Except for the lighthouse, a few other humble buildings, and the sights of the city off in the distance, these 53 acres feel almost untouched. As you step off the boat ramp, the pace of the world seems to slow down, and for just a moment, you feel like you’re alone with the woods and the waves.
Info & Tips:
See the Norwalk Seaport Association website for up to date information about tour schedules and prices.
There’s plenty of parking in the lot beside the dock at 4 North Water Street in South Norwalk, as well as at the Maritime Center garage and the surrounding area. Just be aware that it’s pay parking.
Take the warnings about the island being buggy seriously. Insect repellent is provided, but you may be swarmed before you even get to the table where it’s laid out. To avoid that, or if you prefer an alternative to DEET, pack your own bug spray; also consider covering up fully, especially if you plan to spend any time in the woods, where there are ticks.
There’s no food for sale on the island, so bring your own if you want to have a picnic or a snack. And bring water – there’s not a lot of shade available, and you’ll probably want to walk around exploring, so you’ll need it.
There are restrooms on the boat and on the island.