Here are ways for you and your kids to get outdoors at last, with trips to terrific nature centers and state parks with special kid-friendly features. Also, great ways for the family to ride the rails, get the most out of Connecticut’s children’s museums and take a dinosaur tour.
There’s nothing quite like those first days of spring in Connecticut, when the long winter is over at last and all of nature comes alive once again. Luckily, there are many places in the state where you and the kids can out into the woods and fields, take nature classes or view how animals, including spring newborns, enjoy the spring warmth. There are dozens of nature centers (you can find a pretty comprehensive list right here), but the following offer some special pleasures:
The 118 acres of the Stamford Museum & Nature Center is a wonderland for young (and older) lovers of nature. There’s a museum with 4,000 square feet of exhibition space, an 18-acre working farm, an observatory, nature center, playground and interpretive trail system. Kids of all ages are taken into consideration here, and spring is bursting with events.
Roaring Brook Nature Center in Canton is a member of the Children’s Museum family. You’ll find live animals and mounts of local animals in the main building, a replica of an Eastern Woodland Indian longhouse, a beaver habitat and more. Get outside for five miles of trails and a refuge that’s home to more than 150 bird species. Spring offers many seasonal viewing opportunities of local plants, wildflowers and animal activities.
Manchester’s highly regarded Lutz Children’s Museum oversees the activities at the nearby Oak Grove Nature Center, a 52-acre preserve featuring a pond, covered bridge and walking trails. The museum’s programs onsite include bird searches, bug hunts and the doings many years ago of the local Podunk Tribe of Native Americans.
Kids wondering what they can do to have a positive impact on the future of Connecticut’s wildlife and other natural resources might well benefit (and greatly enjoy) a visit to Sessions Woods Wildlife Management Area in Burlington. Here, the state Department of Energy & Environmental Protection runs regular programs, demonstrations and workshops pertaining to wildlife and natural resource management – as well as miles of hiking trails.
Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center in Mystic is a 300-acre preserve that offers eight miles of trails for hiking, walking and excellent birding near the shoreline. The nature center also offers a museum and small meadow theater, live reptiles, amphibians and birds of prey. There are also on-site picnic areas.
One of the great ways of taking in the Connecticut countryside is aboard one of the many trains that put real pleasure in riding the rails. All of them harken back to an earlier day when the pace of life was slower and “getting there” really was half the fun. And if anyone in the family happens to be a train buff, the pleasure will be more than doubled.
The Danbury Railway Museum operates out of a fully restored 1903 station. You’ll be able to inspect the rolling stock on display, including locomotives, passenger equipment, freight equipment, self-propelled cars and even maintenance equipment. The train rides through the rail yard include a spin on a real operating turntable!
Views of the Naugatuck River Valley are part of the package when you ride out from the Railroad Museum of New England/Naugatuck Railroad Company in Thomaston. The ride begins at the 1881 Thomaston depot, rolls past industrial sites, through forest and then runs across the face of Thomaston Dam, the only train in America that crosses a dam in such a fashion. Many locomotives, railroad cars and work equipment are on display as well.
The thrill of travel under steam power is part of the thrill at the Essex Train & Riverboat in Essex. Here, the excursions run through the Connecticut River Valley, where the broad river and surrounding hills are gorgeous in any season. The Steam Train offers many special events, but perhaps most special of all is the opportunity to take a ride on a riverboat as part of your journey! You’ll board the train at the 1892 Essex Station, meander through the countryside to Deep River Landing, board the Becky Thatcher, take an hour-long cruise on the river, then return to the train for the ride home. Nothing like it.
Trolleys are the rail vehicles that take center stage at The Shore Line Trolley Museum in East Haven. You’ll not only get a great look at the history of travel on city and suburban streets before cars took over, but you’ll also be able to take a three-mile trip through woods and wetlands aboard a vintage trolley car.
There’s also a focus on trolleys at the Connecticut Trolley Museum in East Windsor, and there’s a three-mile journey you can take here – as many times as you’d like for one price. The visitor center includes not just examples of rolling stock, but also a theater where you can watch a short film on trains and trolleys. As an added bonus, this site is also home to the Connecticut Fire Museum, with many examples of vintage firefighting equipment on view.
Have you got some little ones looking to be entertained this spring – really little ones? This itinerary should please them very much. Feel free to pick and choose here, or go all out with a multiday east-to-west museum blowout!
In Manchester, the Lutz Children’s Museum has many displays tailored for young children. Weather permitting, you might first want to go for a hike through the adjacent 52-acre Oak Grove Nature Center, then have the kids explore the museum, where walk-through, hands-on displays take them through Main Street, Farm, Art and Live Animals areas.
The Kidcity Children’s Museum in Middletown describes itself as being “for one-to eight-year-olds and their favorite grown-ups.” There are three floors of fun and activities here, covering dinosaurs, space, trains, farms, sailing and music. There’s a video theater and the magical, mysterious sounding “Toddler Sea Caves.”
Be sure to include a visit to the Imagine Nation Children’s Museum in Bristol, aimed especially at kids age 10 and under. Featured here are multiple hands-on exhibits, many dreamed up by the folks at nearby ESPN, and an original 1940s soda fountain.
Now take a southerly turn toward The Discovery Museum in Bridgeport, home to more than 100 exhibit areas and galleries featuring interactive, hands-on explorations of science for all ages. There’s a full-dome planetarium as well.
Finally, there’s the quite remarkable Stepping Stones Museum for Children in Norwalk. There are always events on the calendar here and a helpful “Exhibits by Age” chart on the website. Children under 10 “will benefit from our fun and educational exhibits which foster exploration, discovery and imagination by learning through play,” the museum says.
Parks Are for Kids!
When it comes to places for kids to get out and enjoy, don’t forget about Connecticut’s state parks! The first park was established in 1913 with the purchase of what is now known as Sheffield Island State Park on Long Island Sound in Westport. Once the precedent had been set and residents saw the benefits of public land ownership, Connecticut’s park system began growing rapidly. Today there are more than 100 parks and forests in the system, many with unique features that kids will love. Below are some examples. Further details on these and all the other parks can be found here.
Sleeping Giant State Park, Hamden. As you take in the views from the stone tower at the top, consider you are located on the hip of what for all the world looks like a . . . sleeping giant. The park offers an impressive network of hiking trails, ranging from expert to nearly child-proof.
Dinosaur State Park, Rocky Hill. A state park located where dinosaurs once roamed the earth? Really? Here you’ll find the fossilized footprints of the giant lizards that crisscrossed the Connecticut River Valley 200 million years ago. Kids can make plaster-of-Paris casts of actual dino footprints to take home.
Gillette Castle State Park, East Haddam. The centerpiece of this magnificent location high above the Connecticut River is a really weird house built by 19th-century actor William Gillette (known chiefly for his state role as Sherlock Holmes). His “castle” is well worth touring, but be sure to bring a picnic to enjoy on the extensive grounds.
Kent Falls State Park, Kent. One of the best hikes in Connecticut runs along this 250-foot waterfall, plunging a quarter-mile down through a thick forest.
Talcott Mountain State Park, Simsbury. As you take in the view from Heublein Tower, be sure to take in the tower itself, in its day one of the most unusual and spectacular summer houses in Connecticut. Views from the 165-foot tower stretch from Mt. Tom in Massachusetts to Sleeping Giant to the south.
Hammonasset Beach State Park, Madison. At over 2 miles in length, this is Connecticut’s longest beach, and its most-attended state park. There are campsites, a nature center, a network of trails and, oh yes, swimming in Long Island Sound once the water warms up a bit.
The Age of Giant Reptiles
You may not normally associate Connecticut with dinosaurs, but think again. There are attractions here that will enthrall any self-respecting junior paleontologist, and provide a little extra learning along the way. Here are a few of the highlights.
The Yale Peabody Museum in New Haven has long been a place where kids felt they got their first feel for how big, varied and interesting dinosaurs actually were. In fact, the Peabody is home to one of the world’s top paleontology collections. Inside the Great Hall, you’ll see a juvenile Apatosaurus skeleton, a mesmerizing and world-famous 110-foot-long mural, “The Age of Reptiles,” painted by Rudolph Zallinger, and a fossil of the largest known turtle species, Archelon.
At Rocky Hill’s Dinosaur State Park, see 500 authentic sandstone dinosaur tracks (one of the largest collections of preserved Jurassic tracks on the continent), explore an arboretum filled with plants from families that flourished during the Age of Dinosaurs, and touch fossils in the Discovery Room. Then your kids can head to the museum’s casting area to make a trip souvenir – a plaster cast of a Eubrontes footprint. For details and tips about the casting process (a change of clothes is a good idea), check the website.
At the Connecticut Science Center overlooking the Connecticut River in downtown Hartford you’ll find lavish displays in more than 150 permanent exhibits. Check out the soaring Pterosaur and hear the roar of the life-like animatronic Dilophosaurus. See a real fossil and find your own in the dig pit and then take a stroll to the Rooftop Garden to meet Julius the Apatosaurus in the children’s garden. The museum’s state-of-the-art theater may even be featuring a dinosaur-themed 3D movie.
You can also spend some time in Montville at The Dinosaur Place, an outdoor park with easy walking trails that lead past 25 life-size dinos crafted from concrete and steel. In Monty’s Playground (named for the massive T-Rex that towers over the parking lot), kids can climb on a 3-dimensional climbing web and an enormous (but not real) Pachyrhinosaurus skull. If it’s raining, or even if it’s not, head inside to Nature’s Art, an activity building where kids can dig for “fossils” in the Bone Zone, pan for gold and search for gems.
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