When we started hiking together frequently, I quickly learned there are few things more appealing to young boys than waterfalls and rivers. We don't have too many falls in our immediate vicinity so I started a search for these spouts of beauty within driving distance. Time and again, Bash Bish Falls State Park came up as one of the most beautiful and iconic falls in the New England area, so we hopped in the car and made the trip.
Summary: We took a trip to REI today to upgrade to an Osprey Poco Plus carrier and I ended up getting Eli the REI Tarn 18 pack (phenomenal kids pack I'll review later)...needless to say, even after a morning walk, it made us all want to get back out to the woods. I did a quick search and noted the the Heublein Tower, on the Sky's the Limit list, was a few minutes away.
This was our first hike in a series of 10 to 14 hikes across Connecticut as a part of the Connecticut State Parks Sky's the Limit initiative, which is a part of No Child Left Inside. I couldn't wait to get started and we had our sights set on Sleeping Giant State Park since I've heard so many great things about it. Overall the hike took us roughly 2 hours from bottom to top and back again, complete with breaks, scrambles and some goofing around.
Location: Union, CT
Difficulty (for little feet): Medium
Total Duration: 2 hours
Summary: Hiking with kids at Bigelow Hollow brings back great memories. Over 9,000 acres are available for your hiking (or boating) pleasure between Bigelow Hollow State Park and Nipmuk Forest- this is one of the largest unbroken woodlands in Eastern Connecticut. Great for adults and kids alike, you can assemble your own trek ahead of time by reviewing the trail map.
I hooked up with Rob, Director of Young Life, UConn. We did a two hour hike, which included some swimming, and that was just right for our group of kids which totaled six, ranging in age from two to nine. This walk is rated "medium" simply because there is a lot of elevation gain and loss in short spurts. The trail is plenty wide and has good footing, but we made sure to talk frequent water breaks since we had their little legs pumping.
The trail is often covered in pine needles which makes it soft, but there are some rock gardens too...nothing too ominous. Not too many roots to interfere either. The woods are beautiful and spacious, with lots of evergreen and fern foliage. It's a truly pleasant scene as you make your way towards Mashapaug Pond (we took the white and blue blaze trail and stayed right (looking north on the map), which we highly recommend for kids).
The biggest and most rewarding surprise was the water. We followed the blue blaze to the front of a peninsula to a place where the kids could wade. I only expected some rock tossing but the water was exceptionally clean and warm...warmer than our pools...so most of the kids went for a full-on swim. Note: for anyone looking to swim, bring a change of clothes, towels, or some quick-dry clothing. We didn't do this and regretted it, which led to us walking back on the road in squishy shoes. It was still a blast though (For your reference, we parked at the 3rd parking area in from the park entrance.)
You should know that there is a charge on weekends and holidays. So go during the week! Overall, this was a great place to eat, hike and swim and we'll be going back very soon. Next time, we might just drive straight to the boat launch and head over to the swimming area...but there is a lot of great trails so be sure to hit those up, too.
Quotes from the kids:
"It was awesome!"
"My favorite part was the swimming...and the downhills."
"I didn't like the uphills."
"My favorite part was riding on my daddy's back."
Difficulty Level (for Little Feet): Easy-Medium
Summary: If you enjoy a hike that offers a taste of history, Gillette Castle State Park might be worth your time. Along with miles of easy trails in the scenic CT woodlands, you can enjoy views of Gillette Castle overlooking the wide Connecticut River. Take a tour, if you wish, of this house/castle designed by William Gillette and fully constructed in 1919.
There are smooth easy trails that wind along the property in front of the castle but we opted to head down towards the Connecticut river...because, water. I didn't want to spoil the surprise but I was secretly hoping that if we were able to make the descent, I could bring the boys across the river on the Chester/Hadlyme Ferry.
Facing the castle, we went left down a wide dirt path/road that wraps around the back and followed a more narrow trail that looked like it would lead us down to the banks of the CT River. There were some wooden steps and occasional handrails that made the narrow trail feel a bit safer for the four-year-old. As we followed the trail, we caught glimpses through the trees of the river with the ferry crossing back and forth...it was quite picturesque, a good photo op (see top photo).
Once at the bottom, we were pleasantly greeted by a long sandy beach in the shade of the trees. I was really surprised by this. Playing in the mud commenced and I even sat on a picnic table to watch the boys from a few feet away. Boaters and fishers glided up and down the river and we watched the ferry cross 100 yards from our spot. After some snacks and water on giant old fallen trees, we prepared for the next part of our journey.
I put Sammy back in the kid carrier and walked across a grassy area over to the Ferry. To the children's delight, we boarded the ship and heroically crossed the river. The wind was in our hair and we set out sights on the opposite bank. The engine rumbled underfoot and Gillette Castle became a landmark in our sight on the most Southerly Hill of a small range in the area known as the Seven Sisters. We crossed back, bid the ferry adieu, and traced our steps back to the castle. The return hike was a bit strenuous and I carried the four-year-old for a few hundred feet to give him a rest while Sammy enjoyed his free ride on my back. Lucky dude.
I'd like to go back to explore the soft miles of shaded single track that lead you through areas of hardwood and pine flooring, but getting to the river and hoping on the ferry was plenty of adventure for one day. So we chugged more water, headed over to Mystic for some hang time and ice cream, then went home.
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Difficulty Level (for Little Feet): Medium
Summary: This is one of my favorite local trails with or without the kids. My friend first took me a few years ago, promising that I'd see something really unique if I kept my eyes open. Sure enough, about 15 minutes in, I sawthe ghostly remains of an old cotton factory through the trees. Minutes later, we had crossed the rapids to explore the old foundation. A great river walk with some adventure mixed in, what's not to love? (All square pictures are from on of my first hikes there a few years ago). I typically park behind a Tavern right off of Rt. 17, across from the road that takes you towards the historic ferry (Water Street?).
Disclaimer: I really only like to take my dudes hiking where I know there will be friendly water (suitable for wading). I find that for kids under 5 there needs to be a draw besides the hike itself and some vistas. Some place to get wet and throw rocks is a huge plus and 99% of the time my trips take us to a pond, a river, a lake or the ocean (Bluff Point is awesome by the way, I'll write about that later).
That being said, this hike picks up along Roaring Brook which, depending on the season and how much rain we've had, may or may not be roaring. In our case, it was low which meant there were lots of exposed rock bars, perfect for letting the guys dig in the mud and throw rocks for a while. They could wade in and out of the water without any worries for most of the beginning of the hike.
We followed the trail along the river for roughly 10-15 minutes. It's flat packed earth with some roots. The trail then rises and you realize that to your left is a good 50 foot drop to the river below. I told my four year old to hang to my right and I had my 20 month old on my shoulders for this part. If you're hiking alone with your kids, I recommend keeping the younger on your back or shoulders for this part.
After a few minutes there's a sharp, single track decline to your left that beings you back to water-level. You're on a rock and sand bar now that's pretty wide and safe. It hasn't been under water in the many times I've gone. The river is a bit faster here but kids can still wade in a few feet if you're with 'em.
Now you'll see the old cotton factory from the 1800's that burnt down some time ago. It's really one of the most unique things I've seen hiking in the area and is worth some pictures and exploring, if you can get to the other side of the river (there is a way to hike on the other side of Roaring Brook and I'm sure Google can tell you where to pick up the trail for that side).
That's a good stopping point and a great place to break open some snacks and drinks (you did bring a lot of water right?). For the more adventurous, feel free to continue on to that large rock wall you see in front of you upriver. Here you can scramble hand-over-foot and cross a small stream to venture further up the Roaring Brook.
Another few hundred feet over a rock garden and some dried out logs from high waters you'll come to a smaller packed dirt "beach" (pictured above). There's a great swimming hole here (not for kids!) that offers a tremendous view of large rock slabs (the opposite bank rises about 30 feet) and shallow rapids up and down the brook. More rock throwing. If you're alone, you can shuffle along that large exposed rock face behind my kids and sit on the big boulder back there to watch a pretty cool water chute leading into the swimming hole.
This spot is particularly special in the fall, when you can catch the leaves falling and catching spots of light all up and down the river. Mesmerizing.
The rapids here were pretty shallow so we carefully stepped into some of the narrow chutes where Eli could watch leaves disappear through mini-waterfalls and Sam could let the water push against his belly a bit (while I held him of course).
Overall this is a beautiful place but can be a bit spotty for young walkers at parts. It's worth it, if you ask me, but take your time on the rock gardens and keep the kids opposite the drop when the trail rises above the river. Ideal age for this hike is probably 5-7 years old with younger kids on your back. If those spots worry you, it's almost worth it for the first 10-15 minutes along the Roaring Brook!
Finish off the hike with a trip to the historic ferry and a coffee/drink from So. G. Coffee Roasters. Also worth mentioning is Rose's Berry Farm...that's a whole post in itself but get over there for an amazing fresh berry brunch (super early to avoid the line). Let me know if you go and tell me what you think!