Valley Falls Park: Vernon, CT

Name: Valley Falls Park

Location: Vernon, CT 

Difficulty level (for little feet): Easy

Summary: Valley Falls Park is minutes from where I live and I was totally surprised at what a great place it is to bring the kids for a quick jaunt. Easy hiking and you can make it as long or short as you want based on the trails you choose. There's a beach area with trails taking off from the left and the right. We went to the right, across a small red bridge, and chose to follow the stream rather than loop the pond.  

 easy path for little feet

easy path for little feet

Elijah's favorite part was the scramble we saw immediately to our right. He raced up, hand over foot, while I timed him. Sam could freely walk these gentle trails, too. There are occasional spurts of tree roots but other than that this was a hike doable for two-years-old and up. The tree cover kept us nice and cool and there were plenty of spots to go off into the nearby stream to dig for treasure. 

Based on a google search, it looks like there are some waterfalls on one of the trails but we didn't get that far. It's worth going back to explore sometime and is a great easy trip for people in the area. Not sure I'd drive any distance for this hike, even though it was pleasant. Plus, you can take a dip at the end in the pond if you want.

Side note: I think they charge $5 per car in the summer but we were there early enough to avoid the fee. I'm not a big fan of paying to get into nature so if this bothers you, there are plenty of other places to check out!


Gillette Castle State Park: East Haddam, CT

Name: Gillette Castle State Park

Location: East Haddam, CT (67 River Rd, East Haddam, CT)

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.

 playing in the shade

playing in the shade

 climbing the giant fallen trees

climbing the giant fallen trees

 cooling off in the Connecticut River

cooling off in the Connecticut River

 boys will be boys

boys will be boys

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. 

 photo ok on the ferry, picture by the operator

photo ok on the ferry, picture by the operator

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.

Have something to add? Leave it in the comments!

Bluff Point State Park: Groton, CT

Name: Bluff Point State Park

Location: Groton, CT (Depot Rd, Groton, CT)

Difficulty Level (for Little Feet): Easy

Summary: I went to Bluff Point years ago and rode the single track inland on my bike but never got to this view. Years later, I was totally impressed by the result of our trek! I always love heading down to the CT shoreline and this was no disappointment.

As you can see in the picture above, the end to this walk/hike is a stunning beach with crystal clear water (at least when I went in early spring). This is an easy family-friendly hike with the only challenge being that it's a bit of a long haul if you have one kid in your arms and the other on your back (Eli was particularly tired this day). I encourage my kids to try to push to the end but sometimes, they're just tired. I guess they are only like...3 feet tall, so that's okay!

The parking area puts you right at a great shallow inlet with calm water and picnic tables. So bring a picnic to start if you want (see below). You'll probably see some people walking around with buckets and funny looking rakes, those are people digging for clams. Might be something to look into someday. The hike to the bluff is about  1.5 miles-ish. So it's a decent way for little feet.

The main path is wide and hardback with gentle rolls but no serious incline or declines. Might want to bring a kid carrier for this one just because of the distance. This isn't a secluded spot...lots of other families, bikers, dogs, etc. but surprisingly, not a lot of people went to the end of the trail where your view opens to see the whole bluff. Beautiful. And the entrance to the beach is about 30 feet of just little crushed shells...very cool. Kids can play on the beach for a while here. Pop open some snacks and water and relax. Bring the camera too for this one.

When you've returned to your car, follow the road straight out to Dairy Queen for some refreshments. Nearby is Harkness State Park (25 minutes) and the USS Nautilus. Head over to Mystic or just make a day of Bluff Point...you really can't go wrong!

Enders State Forest: West Granby, CT

DSC_4557

Name: Enders State Forest Location: West Granby, CT 

Difficulty Level (for Little Feet): Medium/Hard

Summary: This place is so incredibly cool. There are 6 or 7 cascading waterfalls along a mile or so of trail. We parked in a large lot after driving through some extremely scenic roads in Western, CT on 20 and 219. What a great way to start the morning. There is about 20 feet of dirt that takes you to a wide hard pack trail. We went left and could immediately see the first waterfall below us. Some rather sketchy single track leads down to each part of the cascade as you follow it, and some single track parallels the larger path above, but I wouldn't recommend that with the kids. Stay on the large path until you see the waterfall you want to check out, then slowly head down.

Since one of my guys is pretty young, I have to balance what is fun and adventurous vs. what is safe and still enjoyable. So we settles for a slow and wide part of the river between two of the waterfalls. There the boys could explore, throw rocks, look for buried treasure, all a safe distance from any drop or rapid water. Some of the waterfalls are scenic drops and others are more chute-shaped like this one below. Still beautiful though...This next photo is from the bottom, in a ravine. We played on that dirt patch by the massive boiler but the bugs were a bit too much so we retreated back upstream to calmer, less buggy waters.If you have kids that love waterfalls and cool nature, this is a place worth checking out. Not to mention, it will be fun for you as the parent. I haven't seen many more beautiful places than this in Connecticut. It's really quite scenic. Just make sure you're wearing the right shoes so you have grip when you're heading off of the main trail down to the falls. Again...this is a hike where the younger feet should stay on your back when you're off of the main trail or you're at a quiet part of the brook.

In terms of local spots to check out post-hike...I'm not super familiar with this area so we headed a bit more west on 219, over to 318 and saw the gorgeous Saville Dam, creating the Barkhamsted Reservoir (drool over this view) and spent some time at People's State Forest where we somehow just popped out onto this great little beach on a slow moving river. Total bonus score for that day...those pics are below.

If you hit either of these spots up, let me know how you liked them! I can't wait to get out this way to explore more of the parks in Western, CT.

Cotton Hollow Nature Preserve: Glastonbury, CT

Name: Cotton Hollow Nature Preserve Location: Glastonbury, CT (493 Hopewell Rd, Glastonbury, CT 06033)

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.

Playing on an exposed rock bar in the shallow Roaring Brook
Playing on an exposed rock bar in the shallow Roaring Brook

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.

This is the drop from the trail to the brook
This is the drop from the trail to the brook

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.

11695947_10205003988834557_846583255460467217_n

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!

Day Trippin': New Site!

DSC_6376-2
DSC_6376-2

New website. No pressure.

Actually, I'm serious. This is the first project I've taken on in a while that is just for fun. There's no connection to business, no clients to please, n o schedule to maintain, just a lot of posts about trips that I take with my family around Connecticut and lower New England.

The plan is simple: tell you about the trips we take and whether you should check out some of the spots for yourself. Most of the reviews will cover hiking trails, parks, waterfalls and stuff away from the TV and computer screen. But there will be museums, aquariums, and kid-friendly spots that are worth checking out, too.

This whole thing started when I found myself unemployed near the beginning of 2015. While searching for a new job I had all this time with my two boys and I decided to make the most of it. I've always been an outdoorsy type myself, and if I had my druthers, my kids will inherit that love for the wild and all that comes with it. I vowed to take the kids to at least one park per week, and without being too strict, we've been doing that pretty well since March.

I believe there are a lot of restrictions and fears around raising kids these days. The age of information sharing has everyone afraid of what's in the air, what's in the food, and what other people will think about your kids and your parenting. Enough already. Let your kid poke the bug with a stick. They'll be okay...really. The only parenting input that I will ever EVER talk about here is the need to get the hell away from the screen. Our kids needs to see the world, breathe the air, play in our rivers, learn about the trees and which leaf is a Maple vs. and Oak.

Okay, that being said, let's kick this off with our most recent trip to a local favorite spot of mine, Cotton Hollow nature Preserve in Glastonbury, CT.