At this time of year leaf peepers endure traffic winding up through northern New England, seeking America’s best foliage. They could save fuel and frustration by staying within Connecticut’s borders. True aficionados of autumn’s rainbow know the glory of the hills and mountains of Connecticut in the fall—especially our more breathtaking foliage drives.
One of the highways over which countless leaf trekkers travel is famed for its fall colors, but many who use it never take their eyes off the traffic to view it: the Merritt Parkway. It’s considered one of the most elegant roadways in the nation, although the commuters who battle its traffic jams generally forget this fact. Ranked as a National Scenic Byway by the federal program that handles such things, this parkway cuts across Fairfield County for 37 miles.
The half-mile right-of-way transected by what was once hailed as the “Queen of Parkways” offers beautiful vistas of native and ornamental trees. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Merritt Parkway provides habitat for more than dozen-and-a-half native deciduous trees, including several famed for their fall color. These include red maple, sugar maple, scarlet oak, white oak and American beech. The Merritt offers a chance to see harvest season glory even while on the way to work, errands, or heading to other foliage spots.
Among those spots is a region the Nature Conservancy has designated as one of the Last Great Places—the Lower Connecticut River Valley—a stretch of the river from Middletown to its mouth between Old Saybrook and Old Lyme. While not pristine, the lower region of the river remains one of the least developed of any major river in the country. Broadening as it flows south, the river is lined with thickly forested hills that blaze in scarlet battalions during the fall.
You can get a breathtaking view of the valley’s heart from the water by taking the State-operated Chester-Hadlyme ferry, which crosses the river just below Gillett Castle State Park. The spectacular stone castle towers above on the eastern hills over the river in Hadlyme. Various cruise lines, and the Essex Steam Train and Riverboat operated by the Valley Railroad in Essex, offer tours along the river as well.
Two of the newest State parks in the valley offer prime foliage viewing, and are less familiar to most people (other than locals) because they offer few amenities such as swimming. 300 acre Macihmoodus State Park, in East Haddam, lies above the Salmon River. Four-and-a-half miles of hiking trails and old farm roads wind through woodlands, drenching you in fall colors. From its uplands, visitors can view the expanse of Salmon River cove and the Connecticut River.
The other park is Eagle Landing, little more than a 16-acre parking lot and fields right on the river in Haddam. From its shore, one can see the historic Goodspeed Opera House framed by wooded hills. Next to the park is the famed swinging bridge, which is a sight in itself when it opens to allow passage of river traffic. The park is an excellent place from which to observe bald eagles, which congregate in largest numbers during the winter but now breed along the river as well. In fact, with binoculars, an active nest can be seen from the park.
On the northwestern border of Connecticut at the New York State line, the town of Kent makes numerous lists of leafy locations. A visit to Kent Falls State Park offers a spectacular series of waterfalls cascading down en route to the Housatonic, and legendary foliage. A path leads to the top of the falls, providing a view of the water and the autumn colors above.
Hikers can see foliage on trails leading to 1,160-foot-high Caleb’s Peak in Kent, which lies on Connecticut’s stretch of the Appalachian Trail. There are several trails for experienced hikers, as well as chill routes to access the peak. Some pass through thick forest, and from the top you can take in a vast panorama of painted hills and mountains.
There are more of these undiscovered gems for the parks and rec crowd. One is Bushnell Park, in the heart of Hartford. The other is Long Beach in Stratford, which the State Department of Environmental Protection calls a “prime example” of “colorful foliage of a more unusual nature.”
Bushnell, opened in 1954, covers almost 50 acres and is an oasis of woodland amidst the concrete landscape of downtown Hartford. The park contains almost 500 trees, native and exotic, mature and young. Their color in fall matches the best that can be seen in the State’s rural areas. Four of the park’s trees are the largest of their kind in Connecticut: a turkey oak, a Chinese toon, a hardy rubber tree, and an oriental oak. The park’s most famous, however, is the scion – first generation – of the famed Charter Oak, where colonists hid Connecticut’s Royal Charter of 1662 to keep it out of British hands. The original tree, a white oak, was felled by wind in 1856.
Long Beach, a Stratford Town Beach, is a mile long and backed by dunes and tidal wetlands. A few trees dot the uplands behind the beach, but you come here in fall to see the marsh vegetation, which turns warm buff and gold. Growing in the wetlands is a succulent called glasswort, with tiny leaves but fleshy stems, almost like a cactus. The glasswort of Long Beach turns as red as the leaves of a northern maple in fall.