Go with the Flow - Enjoying Connecticut’s Rivers and Lakes Last Updated 6/17

By Julie Barker

Where are you on the adventure meter: madcap, somewhat gutsy or along for the ride? No matter! You can have a perfect-10 experience on one of Connecticut’s clear and refreshing rivers and lakes. Check out some choices below. And if you’re not seeking thrills but just want a quiet day in nature, here are some suggestions for you, too. 

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Tube the Kingdom

Rolling, shrieking, whooping play! That’s the promise of rivers to tubers. In the heart of Satan’s Kingdom State Recreation Area in New Hartford, you’ll find an always cool, sometimes wild, tubing adventure. A two-and-a-half-mile section of the Farmington River is yours to navigate in brightly colored, highly buoyant inflatables provided by Farmington River Tubing. No paddles here. Use your hands to guide yourself downstream on mainly broad, gentle waters. Three sets of rapids, where—depending on the seasonal water flow and your tubing skills—you can get dunked or swirled, add a dash of excitement. Minimum age of 10 suggested—50 pounds and four feet tall.

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Ride the Rapids

The Housatonic River, beginning a few miles north of a famously picturesque covered bridge at Cornwall, is a favorite spot for river rafting. Clarke Outdoors provides the equipment and van transportation to the start of a 10-mile run that takes about five hours. Navigate around smatterings of boulders and share the river with waterbirds and other wildlife. Note that waters fed by snowmelt and recent rainfall can provide different experiences in the spring and in high summer. In any case, paddle fast as you pass under the historic, red bridge as there’s a short patch of white water and generally an audience at nearby cafes watching you drift by.

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Travel By River and Rail

All aboard for a vintage journey featuring two-and-a-half hours of peaceful enjoyment of Connecticut River Valley scenery. The Essex Steam Train and Riverboat connection is the ticket to this time-honored way to see the lower reaches of the state’s longest waterway, named “one of the last great places on Earth” by The Nature Conservancy. You’ll ride in circa 1920s coaches, your 1940s engine trailing a cloud of steam as it chugs down the shoreline. After a 40-minute ride by rail, you will embark on the riverboat Becky Thatcher for a cruise with narration. If you feel lively enough for an uphill hike, it is possible to leave the boat and tour Gillette Castle.

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Linger on the Lake

For one of the area’s biggest outdoor surprises, head to Litchfield’s Mount Tom State Park. In addition to swimming and hiking, scuba diving in the 45-foot depths of Mount Tom Pond draws a crowd. Formed by a glacier and spring-fed, the lake is inhabited by perch, sunfish, rock bass and trout. No motorboats are allowed to churn these clear waters, with visibility being typically 13-15 feet. Bring your own diving gear and as you wade in, you’ll notice a quick transition from shallow to deep. Go ahead, take the plunge. 

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Paddle and Play

Back on the coast, stand-up paddleboards or sit-atop kayaks are your choice of rentable pleasure craft for tooling about the Branford River, which leads out to Long Island Sound. Take a two- or three-hour guided tour with Branford River Paddlesports to explore the Thimble Islands. The outfitter is within walking distance from the Branford train station and next door to Stony Creek Brewery. Back on dry land, top your day off with a pint of craft beer and a stroll along Branford’s charming riverfront.

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Wet and Wildlife

Dip a paddle and pull it through the water. You’re gliding a few inches above the surface of a mix of saltwater and freshwater in a quiet cove near the mouth of the Connecticut River. Some of the “locals” are resting nearby: grey herons, osprey, cormorants, gulls, ducks and swans alertly watching you in your kayak. With a moderate current, the paddling is not challenging. Your outfitter, the Connecticut River Museum in Essex, provides gear and a map, with the help of which you can identify historic buildings and landmarks. But study the shoreline, too. In these wetlands, you may see a muskrat or river otter’s tail as the animal dives for cover. 

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Fish the Forest

A successful program to return Atlantic salmon to Connecticut’s Salmon River is a coup for fish and humans. Hold your hooks, though. These salmon are protected. Other species, however, find the Salmon River equally hospitable, and one of the best fishing spots is the Salmon River State Forest in Colchester. These cold and clear waters are well stocked with brook, rainbow and brown trout. Fly-fishing warrants a special section of the river north of the covered bridge. Anglers with disabilities get access in two designated areas. 

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Rent a Canoe for Two

The serene waters of beautiful Lake McDonough, lying just to the south of Barkhamsted Reservoir near New Hartford, are a popular destination on summer days, but in a canoe or kayak, you can quickly escape the swimmers. Paddle toward the west and then south, following the pine-forested shoreline, then move silently through shady coves. You’re in the moment now, hearing only the lapping of waves, the whisper of the paddle slicing through water. Main Stream Canoes & Kayaks in New Hartford will deliver and retrieve a rented canoe or kayak.

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Feed Your Need for Speed

Looking for a little faster-paced action on the water? Candlewood Lake in the western part of the state is one of the jewels of Connecticut, and experiencing it from behind a speedboat is one of the biggest summertime thrills. Lakeside Watersports provides safe and affordable instruction and equipment for just about every watersport you can imagine including: wakeboarding, waterskiing, tubing, wakesurfing, and kneeboarding.

 

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Paddle Into the Sunset

In the waterways where the Connecticut River meets the Long Island Sound, you’ll find the Connecticut River Estuary, Canoe and Kayak trail, one of the state’s premier spots for paddlesports, fishing, open water touring and family fun. Start your day picking up gear at Black Hall Outfitters in Old Lyme and enjoy a stand-up paddle at sunset. Afterwards, top your visit with a bite at the A.C. Petersen Drive-In or an overnight stay at the Old Lyme Inn.