Yes, Connecticut is tiny.
That said, much of its beauty is found in its surprisingly expansive green space. There’s no better way to explore the state than through the list of the best outdoor activities in all Connecticut.
The beaches of Connecticut can offer a refuge from city life. But where you’ll really experience serenity is in the many parks of the Nutmeg State.
Each season presents a reinvented landscape from:
- Snow-covered forests in the winter
- To bursting blossoms of spring
- And from the dense, shady woodlands of the summer
- To the vibrant hillsides of the fall
In fact, the changing seasons in New England are a great stand-in for traveling. All one needs to do is wait three months for your entire surroundings to completely change.
An interesting discovery to make during a travel-inhibiting pandemic, for sure.
14 of the best state parks in Connecticut
With a remarkable 139 state parks in Connecticut, it can be hard to know where to set your GPS.
However, if you are looking for:
- The best state parks in CT
- Or just the best parks in CT (period)
Then this guide will lead you to the idyllic destinations to put your weary mind to rest.
Connecticut state parks near Greenwich, Connecticut
This writer would be remiss in mentioning favorite parks close to home in downtown Greenwich, Connecticut.
Mianus River State Park, Greenwich & Stamford
Sherwood Island State Park, Westport
Connecticut’s oldest state park is also one of its best beach destinations. Sherwood Island State Park consists of 238 acres of woods, fields, and sandy beaches.
Lovers Leap State Park, New Milford
Situated on the picture-perfect Housatonic River, this park honors legendary star-crossed lovers.
According to legend, two star-crossed lovers decided they couldn’t be together in this life, and plummeted to their deaths in the waters below.
And while the story is likely complete hogwash, the tragic story continues to attract visitors to the 160-acre state park.
Although it boasts unparalleled views of the river, it also offers meandering trails and historic ruins to explore. The entire park offers ample opportunities to take snapshots of its stunning vistas, not to mention impressive selfies to show off your nature-loving side.
A truss iron bridge built in 1895 adds dramatic contrast to the backdrop of this beautiful parkland.
Kent Falls State Park, Kent
As the name implies, this park is home to a stunning, cascading waterfall and rugged rocks in the heart of Litchfield Hills.
Kent Falls State Park is one of several state parks in Connecticut with waterfalls.
The waterfalls are perhaps the tallest in the state, with 250 feet of breathtaking water, and stunning views from their precipice. You’ll have to tackle the rugged, slippery hike to reach the top. However, once you reach the waterfalls you’ll soon know why it attracts thousands of visitors every year.
And fortunately, the cool mist will cool you down after your exhausting hike.
Not feeling a trip up the steep, slippery terrain?
To be honest, you can get an almost equally impressive view looking up at the dramatic water as it tumbles down towards you.
Kent is also one of the most charming Connecticut towns where you can grab a bite. Another nearby point of interest is Bull’s Bridge, a historic covered bridge that quite frankly gives the falls a run for their money.
Devil’s Hopyard State Park, East Haddam
In stark contrast to the drama of Kent falls, Devil’s Hopyard State Park’s Chapman Falls is still a wonder to behold.
At just 60 feet, the Eight Mile River has three drops cascading over the rocks into a calm pool of water where people frolic in the summer months.
The park is named after the local myth that the holes and rocky falls developed when the devil wet his tail and stomped his feet in anger.
While there are a series of trails to hike, many are quite steep and challenging.
As such, be sure to bring some sturdy hiking boots. Or skip them all together.
If you’re up to it, you can find yourself overlooking an expansive valley, a worthwhile trip in peak fall leaf season. As mentioned, the falls are the main attraction in the summer months, and people also come to photograph the wooden covered bridge.
Hammonasset Beach State Park, Madison
This is the largest shoreline park in Connecticut.
Hammonasset Beach State Park offers spectacular views of Long Island Sound. This best of the Connecticut beaches is perfect for lounging, but the cooling waters are hard to resist when the sun and sand are hot.
Aside from hiking and biking trails, the park also offers an interactive nature center. The touch-tank programs and other interactive experiences are an ideal spot to learn more about the local wildlife.
Make sure you end your visit watching the sunset over the Sound, the reason many people plan their trip later in the afternoon.
Haystack Mountain State Park, Norfolk
This park boasts perhaps one of the state’s most impressive lookouts, with a 34-foot-tall observation tower reached via a hiking trail.
These incredible views of the surrounding hills are even more breathtaking when experienced during Connecticut’s peak fall foliage season. The fiery display is sure to remain emblazoned in your mind, and might even sidetrack you from taking that selfie.
If you aren’t a big fan of hiking, you can drive to the trail leading to the observation tower, which is just a short walk from the trailhead.
Fair warning about Haystack Mountain, though:
It is uphill, but you can take your time to make the walk a little more manageable.
And while this isn’t the most haunted place in Connecticut, the hiking trail does get a tad creepy close to sunset.
Visit Norfolk to take in some Connecticut charm and enjoy a meal, or drinks at the historic Infinity Music Hall & Bistro while you’re in town. Built in 1883, the renovated building is the perfect place to end your day and enjoy a show.
Bigelow Hollow State Park, Union
Bigelow Hollow State Park is snuggled up against Nipmuck State Forest, so you get two parks for the price of one. It spans over 9,000+ acres, featuring an 18-acre fresh-water pond.
If you are looking for CT state parks with swimming, one of the main attractions is the pond. Here in the summer, people:
- And even scuba dive
They also skate on the frozen pond in the winter.
The dense forest offers miles of trails, and the park has become a destination park all year round. Whether you want to swim in the cooling waters during the heat of summer, enjoy the fall colors, or ice skate and snowmobile in the winter, you can get away from it all at any time of the year.
That said, it is particularly peaceful in the winter months when it is far more secluded. And a quiet blanket of snow enhances the park’s beauty.
Campbell Falls State Park Reserve, Norfolk
Located on the Massachusetts state line, you’ll find a trail through undeveloped forest leading to a breathtaking waterfall. Over 50 feet tall, this waterfall is thundering with the weight of the cascading water in the early spring. Fed by the majestic Whiting River, the falls are beautiful all year round.
A word of warning though, this is a strenuous hike with steep points that can make it a little too much for many. But if you are feeling fit and up for a challenge, the view of Campbell Falls is worth the effort.
Plus, added benefit:
You can also tell people you walked from Connecticut to Massachusetts. The trails are on one side of the state line and the falls are on the other.
Gillette Castle State Park, East Haddam
The site of this stately historic stone castle is something to behold. Against the backdrop of this state park, the medieval architecture is very unexpected. Gillette Castle is without question one of the most unique attractions in Connecticut.
The castle is the brainchild of William Hooker Gillette, an early 20th-century actor famous for his role as Sherlock Holmes. Built in 1914, the castle was his home on the 184-acres estate on a promontory overlooking the Connecticut River.
Following his death in 1943, the estate sold the acreage and castle to Connecticut, providing a major attraction for visitors. The castle boasts 24-rooms with exquisite details such as hand-carved doors and built-in couches you’ll discover at every turn. The mansion also offers spectacular views overlooking the Connecticut River.
Of course, the grounds are also spectacular with beautifully landscaped details. You can explore for long along walking paths, over stone-arch bridges, and around the lovely pond.
All these details culminate in a very unique state park experience in an undeniably picturesque location, providing the perfect site for this interesting take on modern medieval architecture.
Take the ferry back across the Connecticut River (weather permitting) to reach one of the cutest towns in Connecticut, Chester. And be sure to help yourself to a well-earned cone from Honeycone Craft Ice Cream while perusing the quaint shops there.
This list of summer activities lends itself quite well to a warm-weather excursion.
Mount Tom State Park, Litchfield
Mount Tom State Park is a local attraction for all sorts of water activities.
In the summer, of course.
The freshwater lake is the ideal spot for unwinding and enjoying some good old-fashioned American fun whether you:
- Pack a lunch to enjoy by the cool waters
- Take part in water sports
- Or hike the trails to the stone tower lookout standing 1,325-feet above sea level
The hike to the tower is an easy one, for an effortless walk with a big payoff.
The Connecticut summer isn’t the only time visitors come to Mount Tom. As you can imagine, the fall offers a breathtaking display of crimsons, golds and oranges best viewed from the stone tower.
As a bonus, Mount Tom State Park is located in the lovely town of Litchfield. After a day of outdoor activities, you’re sure to find plenty of places to grab a bite to eat, stroll the streets or have a drink.
Rocky Neck State Park, East Lyme
This park is home to over 700 acres of trails on the calm waters of the Sound.
The lovely beaches are the main attraction, offering a beautiful place to dip your toes in the cooling waters. The boardwalks, meanwhile, offer a lovely way to view the Sound and surrounding area.
You can rest at the Ellie Mitchell Pavilion, take a swim in the rock-free waters off the shore, or walk barefoot in the sand. All while enjoying the cool breezes off of the Sound.
You can also venture into the park where you can hike the trails or hunt for Baker’s Cave. A young man is rumored to have hidden in Baker’s Cave to avoid military service during the Revolutionary War.
Plan to spend the whole day at Rocky Neck or make it an evening visit after dinner so you can witness the spectacular sunset over the Sound.
Sleeping Giant State Park, Hamden
The mountaintop spanning two miles is thought to resemble a “sleeping giant,” which is how the park got its name.
The mountain and its distinct shape is hard to miss in most of Hamden.
Sleeping Giant State Park boasts giant views and over 1,465-acres to explore. The most popular trail is a short 1.5 miles leading to the stone observation tower at the peak of Mount Carmel. The charming tower features castle-like architecture in hand with what many would say are the best views of Long Island Sound.
The trails lead to other impressive vistas, with varying levels of difficulty so just about anyone can find a trail they can manage.
Of course, it tends to be the most challenging trails that lead to the best rewards.
If you consider yourself somewhat of a spelunker, the park also has multiple caves.
A big destination for leaf peepers, Sleeping Giant’s many vistas provide fantastic treetop views to take in the vibrant autumnal colors.
It’s no wonder that this state park is one of the best things to do in New Haven, CT.
Dinosaur State Park, Rocky Hill
Not to be confused with Jurassic Park; this is a unique area with an impressive, often awe-inspiring spot to explore a 200-million-year-old fossil trackway.
By this, we mean the footprints of an actual dinosaur that left a trail hundreds of millions of years ago. The footprints were most likely created by a Dilophosaurus, providing evidence that massive prehistoric creatures once roamed Connecticut.
Take that, Young Earth Creationists.
It is one of those life experiences that can boggle the mind, and get you thinking about your own existence. If things get a little too deep, you can visit the park’s arboretum and interactive exhibit center or venture out on some of the park’s other nature trails.
You’ll feel you’ve stepped back millions of years while exploring the otherworldly landscape of swamps, forests and traprock ridge formed by molten lava.
A 15-minute drive from downtown Hartford, Dinosaur State Park deserves to be on your itinerary of the best attractions in Hartford, Connecticut.
What about amusement parks in CT?
To this writer’s knowledge, the only amusement park in Connecticut is also the oldest.
As in, the oldest in the entire country.
Lake Compounce first opened in 1846. That makes it the oldest continuously-operating amusement park in the United States.
This amusement park has one of the oldest roller coasters in the world, Wildcat. Which sounds absolutely terrifying to this writer.
And yet it also hosts much newer roller coasters, including one that wins awards as a wooden coaster.
During the Halloween season, Lake Compounce hosts haunted attractions, like:
- Nighttime coaster rides
- A haunted house
- And ample decorations
It’s one of the best fall festivals in CT, and worth a trip.
And around December, Lake Compounce decks itself for the holidays. It’s one of the best things to do in Connecticut in December.
Discover even more parks and things to do in Connecticut
This list of CT state parks is only a sampling of the 139 parks you can visit.
Connecticut offers a wealth of natural, well-preserved sites where you can:
- Enjoy the great outdoors
- Forget your woes
- And connect with nature
Whether it is:
- Sun and fun on a sandy beach
- Thrills at the amusement parks in CT
- Taking in fall leaves from a stunning vista
- Or simply hiking the calm, green forests of the state
There is something for everyone at CT state parks.
Looking for even more to do here?
Pick your favorite activities by season:
If you’re traveling with your best friend, check-out our dog-friendly guide to Connecticut.
Or explore the master list of outdoor things to do in Connecticut.
And be sure to see the ultimate guide to the most unique activities, attractions, and things to do in Connecticut.