The Stamford, Connecticut, is a fantastic microcosm of New England. Thanks to being so close to New York City and its diverse population, it’s become a thriving hub in its own right.
But there’s always a little bit of competition with the area’s main hub.
And one thing Stamford has always wanted was a park system to make other cities jealous.
And thanks to some serious foresight, Mill River Park, once a polluted, abandoned riverfront, is now a thriving public space open to the public. The park provides much-needed green space in Stamford’s commercial district.
It’s easy to forget you’re in the middle of a city, sitting by the Mill River on a nice day.
History of Mill River Park
Stamford has changed dramatically over the years, from:
- Its beginnings as a Puritan outpost
- To its current status as the headquarters of major corporations
And Mill River suffered many of the consequences of that growth over the centuries.
The Mill River’s name is actually Rippowam River, given by local Algonquin inhabitants who once lived here.
Stamford’s first Puritan settlers dammed the river in 1642. They named the lower nine miles Mill River Park, after the gristmill constructed at the dam.
The Sad State of Mill River
For much of the 20th century, underutilized lawn spaces, paths, and benches lined the channelized Mill Pond. Unfortunately, another prominent feature of the park, the river, was a barrier and an eyesore. Thick concrete walls prevented access to the water and jeopardized the river’s flow and drainage systems. With excessive amounts of:
- And trash
A network of stagnant pools of brown muck choked with invasive aquatic plants and blooming algae accumulated behind the dam.
A Massive Update to the Rippowam River
Mayor Dannel Malloy discovered a copy of Stamford’s first master plan in 1997. The master plan called for a park along the Mill River’s banks, which kicked off the park’s beginnings. A commission produced the Mill River Corridor Plan, aiming to reclaim and create an open green space in the heart of Stamford as a gathering place. The plan called for the restoration of seven acres of existing land and the creation of 19 acres of new open space.
Stamford worked with the Army Corps of Engineers to remove the historic Mill River Dam in 2000. The river flowed freely for the first time in almost 400 years. The final plan, commissioned in 2005, achieved some major goals:
- Improving public access to the river
- Reestablishing wetland habitat
- And restoring the stream channel to allow migrating fish to return
In the first round of updates, volunteers and workers planted 400 trees and thousands of shrubs in the park. These new native:
- And bulbs
Have added a stunning array of seasonal colors and textures to the park. They also attract a variety of native birds, reptiles, and small mammals.
As part of the park’s first phase of renovations in 2010, playgrounds, a water feature, and a concert stage were all installed. The park’s second phase, completed in 2013, included the construction of a new pavilion as well as more sculptures and works of art. Besides completing a new section of the river walk, the park debuted a brand-new playground in 2017.
Mill River Park features and amenities
Mill River Park’s features and amenities include playgrounds, trails, gardens, and sculptures, to name a few.
Some of the major spots to checkout on your afternoon stroll through the park include:
- The Grand Steps, a collection of boulders and plinths that draw you to the river’s edge.
- Another notable feature is the Great Lawn, a large green carpet that provides adaptable open space for large events as well as a setting for waterfront entertainment.
- You’ll find benches and seating areas along the pathways and overlooks, perfect for quiet reflection and resting.
- As a celebration of local geology and history, the city preserved historic stone walls and stone ruins uncovered during the project.
Mill River Playground
The Mill River Playground was built by 1,500 volunteers from various businesses and organizations over the course of seven days. A team of students, teachers, and parents worked together to create five wildlife murals on six-inch tiles. They are now on display at the playground.
Walking and biking trails
The park’s 1.5-mile trail allows visitors to explore its natural beauty and enjoy breathtaking views of the Mill River and its surroundings. The trail is wheelchair accessible and ideal for biking, running, and walking. Sculptures and pieces of art along the trail add to the unique experience.
5 of the Best Things to Do at Mill River Park
Since its opening, the park has been a model for redefining modern life and serving as a haven for visitors young and old. During your own visit, here are some of the best things to do at Mill River Park!
1) View the Vibrant Plant Life
Mill River Park is a unique habitat that supports dozens of native plants in downtown Stamford. As you stroll through the park, you’ll see an abundance of wildflowers along with many more local flowers, like:
- The Indian Paintbrush
- False Indigo
- Wild Geranium
- Or Golden Tickseed
You also won’t want to miss the fantastic display of Connecticut cherry blossoms in the springtime.
2) Search for Wildlife
The park isn’t just a home for plants. If you keep your eyes open, you may find a wide array of lovely birds, mammals, and reptiles. Frequent sightings include rabbits, beaver, squirrels, turtles, and swans. If you’re lucky, you may also find the beautiful monarch butterfly or the northern redback salamander.
3) Brownstein | Selkowitz Carousel Pavilion at Mill River Park
Take a ride on the brand new carousel at Mill River Park! The beautiful structure includes:
- 30 hand-crafted carousel horses
- Retractable walls
- An inviting patio
- And the Rich Pantry for snacks and light meals
4) Mill River Park Fit Club
Stay in shape or try something new at one of the Mill River Park Fit Club classes. All lessons are absolutely free, open to anyone, and are held in the beautiful outdoors. You may choose from Mill River Park in Stamford yoga, Zumba, BollyFit, pilates, or boot camp. Yoga and Tai Chi classes are also available at the park. Check the class schedule to find the one that is perfect for you!
5) Steven & Alexandra Cohen Skating Center
The ice at the Steven & Alexandra Cohen Skating Center is more than 9,000 square feet. That makes it larger than the rink at Rockefeller Center!
Remember that competitiveness?
The ice skating rink is open every day during the winter.
Adult skate admission is only $10 during the week, while child admission is $8 for those under the age of 12, and adult admission is $12 on weekends. Each pair of skates will cost you $4 to rent.
Make reservations in advance by purchasing timed tickets online. A limited number of guests enter the ice rink every 30 minutes. Those who show up and buy tickets on the spot may not be admitted.
Events and Programs
There is always something fun going on at Mill River Park! From dinners, corn hole tournaments, or holiday celebrations, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to enjoy the park and make lifelong memories. Take a look at the calendar of events to find your favorites!
Visitors can enjoy live music, fitness classes, and educational programs as well as festivals and markets.
Throughout the year, the Mill River Collaborative organizes extra programmatic events such as films, concerts, and fairs. Throughout the summer, guests can enjoy live music and other entertainment on the park’s stage.
For visitors of all ages, the park also offers educational activities such as:
- Nature walks
- Bird watching
- And environmental education
Led by knowledgeable naturalists and park staff, these programs provide an opportunity to learn more about the park’s natural resources and the surrounding ecosystem.
Sakura Matsura Cherry Blossom Festival
With the park revamp, one of the few things the community cared about in the area were the cherry trees lining Rippowam River. Junzo Nojima, a Japanese-American restaurateur who lived near Mill River Park in Stamford, gave the trees to the city as a gift after the war.
To honor that heritage, the Mill River Collaborative and the Japan Society of Fairfield County organized the Sakura Matsura Cherry Blossom Festival. When the park began renovations, a few of the more than 100 cherry trees that once lined the river were taken to a nursery. Once fully grown, they made their way back to their original location along the walkways.
A total of about 100 trees annually adorn the park with soft pink blooms, making it the largest Japanese cherry blossom park in New England.
This Connecticut cherry blossom festival is one you shouldn’t miss!
Winter events at Mill River Park
Mill River Park’s winter activities include the All-New Holiday Stroll. This illuminated showcase brings the magic of the season to life. Within this walk-through experience, you’ll find:
- Massive three-dimensional ornaments
- A candy cane arch
- A 16-foot gingerbread house
- A 12-foot Santa
- Massive, dazzling stars
- And gold and silver reindeer, ready to fly
Before you go ice skating at the rink, take the Holiday Stroll. Kids are free with the purchase of an adult admission ticket to the Holiday Stroll.
More things to do in Stamford, CT, aside from Mill River Park
Mill River Park in Stamford is a must-see if you’re looking for a place to relax, play, and enjoy the scenery.
Mill River Park’s completed 15.5 acres are bound by:
- West Broad Street
- Washington Boulevard
- Tresser Boulevard
- Main Street
- And Mill River Street
The final master plan calls for a network of trails connecting a greenway with the Kosciuszko, Southfield, and Scalzi parks.
Many of our guests love to visit Stamford to experience the fine arts, visit the museums, and dine at the popular restaurants. Some more great attractions within walking distance of Mill River Park include:
- Bedford Street and Atlantic Street
- The Palace Theatre
- The Avon Theatre
- Ferguson Library
Don’t forget to download the free Visitor’s Guide to Stamford for the best activities, attractions, and things to do!