In Connecticut, opportunities abound to connect with the natural world on a hike. The compact state is veined with hiking trails: Some are well known, like the blue-blazed Metacomet, Mohawk, and Mattabesett Trails and the Appalachian Trail, which travels 51 miles through Connecticut's northwest corner, and others are hiding and worth seeking. More than 137 non-profit land trust organizations protect the scenic acreage in Connecticut: That's more than all but two other states can claim. And Connecticut Audubon's 20 sanctuaries are ideal spots for birdwatching walks. Whether you want to climb a mountain, follow a railroad bed or riverbank, or discover waterfalls in the woods, here are 10 of the top hikes for appreciating Connecticut's natural beauty.
Not as well known as Connecticut's Gillette Castle, but with intrigue all its own, Castle Craig sits atop East Peak in the Hanging Hills: a range of trap rock ridges overlooking the city of Meriden. Built by local masons in 1900, the 32-foot-tall stone tower at the 976-foot summit has interior stairs that lead to an observation deck, from which you can view Sleeping Giant and the waters of Long Island Sound beyond. The hike to the top is one of the most notable things to do in Meriden's 1,800-acre Hubbard Park, which, like the tower, was a gift to the city from Walter Hubbard. You'll find the trailhead on Mirror Lake Drive. It's just under 3 miles up and back down (or 4 miles if you hike the entire white-blazed loop), and the climb is not to be underestimated: It's for intermediate-level and experienced hikers.
One of Hartford County's most popular hikes, particularly during fall foliage season, is the mile-and-a-quarter-long uphill climb to the summit of Talcott Mountain, where 165-foot-tall Heublein Tower provides panoramic views of the Hartford skyline and the Farmington River Valley. Parking is located on Summit Ridge Drive in Simsbury, just a mile and a half from an overlooked attraction you may want to see while you're in the area: the massive Pinchot Sycamore, Connecticut's most giant tree. Getting to the tower, the focal point of 557-acre Talcott Mountain State Park, requires a moderate hike that is manageable for most, including young children. Pack a backpack with food, beverages, sunscreen, and bug spray, and claim one of the picnic tables when you reach the top. The six-story tower, which has a fascinating history, is open seasonally.
The view of Lake Waramaug, particularly when fall leaves frame it, makes the moderately strenuous hike to Waramaug's Rock (sometimes called "The Pinnacle") worth the effort. To get there, you'll follow the mile-long Waramaug's Trail, which is tucked within the Steep Rock Association's Macricostas Preserve: a land trust parcel in New Preston. From the seasonal parking area on June Road, follow blue-circle blazes and make the ascent. The large flat rock at the top is a perfect picnic spot. Up for a bigger challenge? Find your way to Waramaug's Rock via the yellow-circle-marked Meeker Trail, which begins at a parking lot on Christian Street and crosses over Bee Brook before climbing sharply via a series of switchbacks to Macricostas Lookout. Continue to the junction with Waramaug's Trail, and climb for an additional 15 minutes or so to Waramaug's Rock.
Connecticut's best rail-trail follows the route once traveled by the gold-trimmed, white-painted "Ghost Train," which whisked well-to-do passengers between New York City and Boston from the late 19th century through the middle of the 20th century. Hikers share this flat, easy gravel path that cuts a diagonal through northeastern Connecticut with cyclists and horseback riders. You can pick up a section of the 50-mile trail in several locations between Portland to the west and Thompson at the eastern end. One of the prettiest stretches is in Colchester, where the Air Line Trail crosses a bridge over the Jeremy River and runs atop the Lyman Viaduct. This buried railroad trestle formerly carried the Ghost Train over Dickinson Creek.
Not far from Connecticut's border with Massachusetts, hidden in Enders State Forest in the town of Granby, there is a series of five waterfalls accessible via a half-mile-long trail. This rocky gorge with its rushing water and cooling swimming holes is as attractive a spot as you'll find in Connecticut. Keep an eye out for the parking lot at the trailhead on the north side of Route 219. The recent construction of railed stairways makes the descent easier and safer than ever. However, you should wear sturdy shoes and must exercise extreme caution here, particularly if you venture into the refreshing water for a swim. The park has been closed at times due to construction, so verify that the falls are accessible before you make a trip by calling the Connecticut State Parks information line at 860-424-3200.
Just 12 miles north of the city of New Haven, the 2-mile ridgeline within Sleeping Giant State Park does indeed look like a slumbering colossus if you use your imagination. There are 30 miles of volunteer-maintained trails on the mountainside, including some that are tricky and steep. But the most popular hike along the mile-and-a-half-long Tower Path is a gentle ascent to a four-story, fieldstone tower built during the Depression era. From the top, you can spy Long Island Sound on clear, bright days. There is a parking fee for out-of-staters who visit on weekends and holidays from Memorial Day weekend through October.
For serious hikers, Bear Mountain is Connecticut's pinnacle adventure. The ascent to the summit of Connecticut's highest peak along a stretch of the famous Appalachian Trail is strenuous, but those who complete the trek are rewarded with spectacular aerial views in all compass directions and, in early summer, the chance to see lovely white and pink mountain laurel—Connecticut's state flower—in bloom. You're looking at a 5- or 6-mile hike, depending on whether you hike out and back or descend via the Sages Ravine Loop Trail. Most begin this hike from the parking area on Undermountain Road in Salisbury, Connecticut. Follow the blue-blazed Under Mountain Trail for one mile to the left at the T toward Riga Junction. It is here that you will intercept the white-blazed Appalachian Trail, which leads to the 2,316-foot Bear Mountain summit.
In the Litchfield County town of Norfolk, you'll find one of the best little climbs in Connecticut. From the parking area inside Haystack Mountain State Park, the half-mile hike to the mountaintop is steep but manageable for hikers of most abilities. For an added challenge, start the climb just outside the park entrance and hike the entire 1.8-mile Haystack Tower Yellow Loop Trail. Norfolk is known as the icebox of Connecticut for its cool temperatures. At the 1,716-foot summit, you'll feel a refreshing chill even on the hottest day as you climb the stairs of the fairytale stone observation tower for an elevated, 360-degree view of the surrounding hills.
Bluff Point State Park in Groton, Connecticut, occupies an 800-acre peninsula stretching into Long Island Sound that has changed little in the four centuries since this was the Pequots' domain. In fact, this landscape inspired the mural that encircles the recreated 16th-century village at the nearby Mashantucket Pequot Museum. A 3.6-mile, multi-use trail loops through what is now the largest undeveloped tract of land on Connecticut's shoreline, designated a coastal reserve since 1975. An easy walk through coastal forest and marshland leads to a mile-long sandy beach, where families love scouting for hermit crabs. There are many narrow offshoot trails for those who want to venture into intriguing areas of the park to look for landmarks like Sunset Rock and the remains of a cottage built by John Winthrop, one of Connecticut's early colonial governors.
Kent, Connecticut, on the western side of the state is as "Gilmore Girls" charming as any town you'll encounter. Still, it has one peculiar amenity in its Welcome Center: coin-operated showers. That's because the Appalachian Trail runs through this historic town, which makes hikers feel as right at home as weekenders from New York City. If you're interested in experiencing a taste of this famous trail, which runs from Georgia to Maine, the 5-mile River Walk stretch between Kent and Cornwall Bridge is a spectacular option. The terrain is flat, the trail is beautifully maintained, and you'll have views of the Housatonic River and surrounding hills all along the way.