Connecticut: Nine Free Outdoor Travel Destinations

Gillette Castle, one of the many free attractions in Connecticut.
Gillette Castle is one of the many free attractions to enjoy in Connecticut.  Photos courtesy of Connecticut Office of Tourism.

Free Outdoor Destinations in Connecticut

By Aysia Reed/Marina Renzi/Dana Armstrong

Despite many attractions being closed due to COVID-19, Connecticut still has travel destinations that are safe to visit. From Gillette Castle to Devil’s Hopyard to Clyde’s Cider Mill, these historical destinations are free of charge, and have the benefit of being outdoors.

Connecticut is a great travel destination due to its location in New England. Halfway between Boston and New York, Connecticut is full of whimsical villages, classical shops, and scenic views.

Due to COVID, outdoor destinations continue to feel more safe and comfortable for travelers, and outdoor pursuits are plentiful in Connecticut. The fall foliage is at its peak and leaf-peepers are still welcome. Although you can enjoy the rich colors while driving through scenic routes, there are places where you can get out and revel in the leaves up close.

Devil’s Hopyard State Park

Devils Hopyard State Park
There are many waterfalls to view at Devil’s Hopyard.

Devil’s Hopyard is the quintessential destination for leaf-peeping. The state park is located in East Haddam, Connecticut and holds historical significance. In 1775, the Sons of Liberty attacked a mill owned by British loyalist Dr. Abner Beebe. Some of the remains of Beebe’s mill were found at the base of the Chapman Falls in 2002.

The state park is also known for the Hopyard Folklore, which tells a tale of why there are many potholes at the park. Legend has it that the devil sat on a boulder at the top of the park and played his violin as witches stirred up trouble in the cauldron-like potholes below.

The boulder upon which the devil was known to reside offers an astonishing view of the Chapman Falls and the 1,000 acres of fall leaves that the park has to offer. Visitors can admire several other “mini-falls” and historic highway bridges through the foliage.

Gillette Castle

Gillette Castle is another free outdoor destination, and the park has more than just foliage to treasure. Gillette Castle State Park is located above the Connecticut River in the town of Lyme. The castle was built in 1914 by American actor William Gillette, who is widely recognized as the character of Sherlock Holmes.

Gillette Castle East Haddam
Gillette Castle in East Haddam, Connecticut is an architecture wonder. Each of the castle’s 47 doors contains uniquely crafted wooden latches, and the exterior is made up of locally-sourced fieldstone.

The castle is full of picture-perfect moments due to its breathtaking stone architecture and location that oversees a ledge. The castle is surrounded by three miles of abandoned railroad that once operated around the estate and along the cliffs of the Connecticut River. The grounds offer walking paths around the property and multiple stone-acre bridges that can be traveled over.

B.F. Clyde’s Cider Mill

The oldest steam-powered cider mill in the United States is open and welcoming visitors. The mill resides in historic Mystic and offers free viewings of their cider milling process inside a Victorian-style building. Due to COVID, you cannot actually be inside of the mill this year, but the doors to the building are open and still offer a terrific view.

The cider mill also offers free tastings of their homemade hard cider. If one of the samples stands out, you are welcome to purchase a bottle to take home. They also offer non-alcoholic sweet cider, apple cider donuts, pies, and cookies that you can buy and enjoy on their scenic property. There is sometimes live music at the mill to enjoy as you are sipping on your cider samples or enjoying a sugary donut.

The mill’s location provides easy access to downtown Mystic and Olde Mistick Village, which both offer outdoor shopping venues and parks.

Yale Art Museum

The Yale University Art Gallery is one of the oldest university art museums in America. Admission to the gallery is free and consists of three buildings spanning one and a half city blocks in New Haven. There is an incredible 4,000 works that can be viewed at the museum itself, along with a stunning rooftop terrace and sculpture garden.

Yale Art Gallery
Yale University Art Gallery displays some of its more contemporary pieces.

The gallery showcases amazing works of art from all different time periods including Tang Dynasty China, early Italian pieces, masks from West Africa, and even some modern and contemporary works as well. Some of the best works of art that can be seen are stunning pieces by Degas, Van Gogh, and Picasso.

Submarine Force Library and Museum

Located on the Thames River (of Groton, Connecticut, not London, England), the Submarine Force Library and Museum celebrates America’s naval history. The USS NAUTILUS, a 319-foot 1952 nuclear submarine, presides over the river.

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Visitors can enjoy self-guided tours inside the world’s first nuclear submarine: the USS Nautilus.

In its 26 of years of use, the U.S. Navy logged over half a million miles on the vessel. The navy retired the submarine 1980, and it can now be toured by visitors or rented out for reunions or memorial services.

Admission to the NAUTILUS, the research library, and the museum is free. In the museum, guests can view hundreds of thousands of artifacts, documents, and photographs all related to American submarines and the naval force. A visit to the gift shop is the perfect way to end your visit.

Elizabeth Park Rose Gardens

Elizabeth Park, located in West Hartford, is on the national register of historic places. At the park, visitors can explore over 100 acres of gardens, green spaces, recreational facilities, and walking loops. The park is free to enter and is open 365 days a year from dawn until dusk.

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Elizabeth Park in West Hartford, Connecticut spans over 100 acres and has numerous athletic courts, playgrounds, and walking trails to enjoy in addition to its rose gardens.

Bring some food and a blanket and enjoy a picnic in the beautiful rose garden or tour around the premises for a nice afternoon stroll. There is a dining option as well at the Pond House Café and even some special events throughout the year like concerts, lectures, tours, and workshops.

Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry

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Marionettes are just one of the many types of puppets you can find at the University of Connecticut’s Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry.

The Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry is one of America’s hidden gems located right in Mansfield. Here you can find over 3,500 different puppets from all over the world.

If that’s not enough to spark some curiosity, you can also enjoy an archive of books, manuscripts, posters, drawings, photographs, and audio and visuals about the history of puppetry.

The Institute also offers puppetry workshops for anyone interested in learning more about the history of puppeteering and how to put on different performances.

Olde Mistick Village

If you’re looking for the perfect souvenir to memorialize your Connecticut travels or some quality window shopping, look no further than Olde Mistick Village in the village of Mystic. It is an outdoor shopping center home to over 40 shops and restaurants with quirky names.

Pop on the Block is an organic, gourmet popcorn shop, Penguins, Otters & Others sells sea life souvenirs, and The Cloak and Wand serves up custom-blended potions (flavored sodas and hot chocolates) and other witchcraft and wizardry-themed gifts.

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Mystic, Connecticut’s Olde Mistick Village is ideal for anyone on the hunt for niche gifts and dining experiences.

In late-September, you may even catch the village’s annual Garlic Festival. The festival started in 2007 and boasts an impressive variety of garlic-forward foods and creations from local farmers and vendors. Local bands also perform during the festival for added ambiance.

The Observatory at the Westport Astronomical Society

The Observatory was established in 1975 and since then has brought space a little closer to home for the visitors of Westport. It is a volunteer-run, non-profit organization that strives to bring access to space to the public in an informative and immersive way. Every Wednesday night from 8-10 p.m. the Observatory lends out telescopes for guests to stargaze through. Admission is free, and fun is guaranteed.

Find more to do and see in the state of Connecticut.