A number of area attractions highlight the historic culture of the area and provide special educational programs for both adults and children. One of the finest exhibits is the Submarine Force Museum and historical ship Nautilus tour, highlighted on Page 40 of this guide.
Other historic attractions highlight early Native American history in the area, colonial and maritime living along the New England coast, the American struggle for independence, and steam locomotive and riverboat travel. Since nearly all of the attractions offer special events, rotating exhibits and educational programs throughout the year, you are encouraged to call or visit their websites to find out the latest information.
Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center
110 Pequot Trail (Route 214),
The world’s largest and most comprehensive Native American museum and research center offers an array of engaging experiences for young and old, from life-size, walk-through dioramas that transport visitors into the past, to changing exhibits and live performances of contemporary arts and cultures.
The 308,000-square-foot complex has permanent exhibits depicting 18,000 years of native and natural history in thoroughly researched detail, while two libraries, including one for children, offer a diverse selection of materials on the histories and cultures of all native people of the United States and Canada.
Exhibits let you experience life as it was for Native Americans before and after arrival of early colonialists. By the early 17th century, just prior to European contact, the Pequots had approximately 8,000 members who inhabited 250 square miles around what is now New London County. However, the Pequot War (1636-1638) — the first major conflict between colonists and an indigenous New England people — had a devastating impact on the tribe.
When the Pequot War formally ended, many tribal members had been killed while others were placed in slavery or under the control of other tribes. Those placed under the rule of the Mohegans eventually became known as the Mashantucket (Western) Pequots. By the early 1800s, there were only 30 to 40 Pequots remaining on the ever-shrinking Mashantucket reservation, but by the 1970s, tribal members began moving back, hoping to restore their land base and community, develop economic self-sufficiency and revitalize tribal culture.
The ceremonial groundbreaking for the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center took place in 1993 in a ceremony marking the 10th anniversary of federal recognition of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal National. The new facility opened in 1998 and is on the Mashantucket Pequot Reservation — one of the oldest, continuously occupied Indian reservations in North America — where many tribal members continue to live.
The museum is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday. Last admission is at 4 p.m. The museum is closed on Independence Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. Call 800-411-9671 for additional information, or visit the museum’s website at www.pequotmuseum.org.
Mystic (Exit 90 off Interstate 95)
Founded in 1929, Mystic Seaport is our nation’s leading maritime museum, housing the world’s largest collection of historic ships, including the Charles W. Morgan — the last surviving wooden whaler in the world. Wander a recreated 19th-century seafaring village which is alive with the sights, sounds and smells of maritime America.
You’ll be able to see Sailors working aloft on a square rigger, hear tales of fishing the North Atlantic, enjoy a performance featuring the African heritage of maritime music and watch a whaleboat demonstration.
At the preservation shipyard, skilled crews use traditional tools and techniques to preserve the museum’s unparalleled collection of historic wooden vessels.
Village exhibits, representing the 1800s and early 1900s, include a general store, print shop, cooperage, drugstore, school house, church and many other shops found along the Atlantic coast. Signal flags outside many of these exhibits indicate they are staffed by professional educators of Mystic Seaport who will be able to answer any questions you may have.
Other exhibits take you on a remarkable journey through seafaring lives, past and present; provide a spectacular scale model of the Mystic harbor between 1850 and 1870; and allow you to explore a shipsmith shop — the only manufactory of whaling industry ironwork known to have survived from the 19th century.
Mystic Seaport is open most of the year, with varying hours depending on the season. Demonstrations and exhibits change with the season, so it’s worthwhile to scan their website for details at www.mysticseaport.org.
55 Coogan Blvd., Mystic
(Exit 90 off Interstate 95)
Mystic Aquarium provides a wonderful variety of sea life, ranging from New England’s only Beluga whales to African penguins and California sea lions. However, what really makes this aquarium unique is the documentation of undersea exploration being performed by the Sea Research Foundation’s Dr. Robert Ballard and his team. The “Titanic — 12,450 Feet Below” exhibit showcases Ballard’s discovery and exploration of the Titanic. Hands-on activities, stunning re-creations and captivating imagery make the exhibit a must-see.
As a research institute, the aquarium offers a wide range of age-specific educational programs and tours for students of all ages. For college-level students, it offers a one-of-a-kind, hands-on internship program and a renowned veterinary program.
Mystic Aquarium and Institute for Exploration is open daily, except for Thanksgiving and Christmas. For hours of operation and exhibit information, visit www.mysticaquarium.org.
Essex Steam Train and Riverboat
Railroad Avenue, Essex
(Exit 69 off Interstate 95 to Essex)
Return to the glory days of steam from the comfort of a restored vintage railcar and get an unobstructed view of the unspoiled beauty of the Connecticut River Valley from aboard a three-deck riverboat.
Operated by the Valley Railroad Co., visitors have an opportunity to view the New England countryside by steam locomotive and riverboat. Special events include fall foliage trips; Santa Specials with Mr. and Mrs. Claus direct from the North Pole; and the North Pole Express — nighttime steam train rides with live readings of Christmas stories, sing-alongs and holiday surprises.
Other events sponsored by the Valley Railroad Co. include a guest engineer program, where you get an opportunity to get your hand on the throttle of a steam engine for an hourlong excursion along the Valley Railroad; Caboose Weekends, when Friends of the Valley Railroad bring out their bright red caboose for a special fundraiser; and the three-day Hot Steamed Jazz Festival. The three-deck riverboat Becky Thatcher is also available for evening charters from May through October.
Details and a schedule of activities can be obtained by calling 860-767-0103 or by visiting their website at http://essexsteamtrain.com.
Children’s Museum of Southeastern Connecticut
409 Main St., Niantic
(Exit 72 off Interstate 95, 2.5 miles)
The Children’s Museum of Southeastern Connecticut is an interactive, hands-on, educational opportunity for children up through fifth grade. It is designed to engage, encourage and challenge children in the arts, sciences, safety, health, culture and history.
Kids can pilot a fishing boat or become an architect with giant foam blocks. Don’t miss Toddler Land for younger visitors and the global village, a celebration of diverse cultural heritage. The museum has a tree house, a climbing wall, a kid-sized zip line, a real two-person research submarine and many exhibits that change regularly for your enjoyment.
The Children’s Museum offers a variety of hands-on, educational programs for children and families. Both on-site and off-site programs are available. On-site programs are scheduled year-round and are created for specific age groups. Off-site programs are held at schools, child care centers and libraries.
Hours vary by season. For more information on hours, specific program topics and admission fees, call the museum at 860-691-1111 or visit their website at www.childrensmuseumsect.org.
State Parks and State Forests
More than a dozen state parks and state forests in New London County provide outdoorsmen and women a wide range of activities. Enjoy hiking, camping, picnicking, saltwater and freshwater fishing, swimming, boating, horseback riding, biking, snowmobiling and cross-country skiing. Two of the parks also have historic forts and one offers tours of a historic mansion.
The Connecticut Department of Energy & Environmental Protection website provides extensive information on every park site to include activities available, facilities, history, directions and fees. For a full list of state parks and state forests in the county and state, visit their website at www.ct.gov/deep.
Bluff Point State Park in Groton is the last remaining significant piece of undeveloped land along the Connecticut coastline. Jutting out into the waters of Long Island Sound, this wooded peninsula that measures 1.5 miles long by 1 mile wide encompasses more than 800 acres. It offers hiking, saltwater fishing, shell fishing and mountain biking and has a boat launching facility. Parking at the park is free, but because of its Coastal Reserve designation, access to the bluff is by foot or nonmotorized vehicle only.
Fort Griswold Battlefield State Park in Groton adds a touch of reality to your Revolutionary War history lesson. This is the historic site where, on Sept. 6, 1781, British forces, commanded by the infamous Benedict Arnold, captured the fort and massacred 88 of the165 defenders stationed there. The Ebenezer Avery House, which sheltered the wounded after the battle, has been restored. A Revolutionary War museum also depicts the era. There is no parking fee at the park.
Haley Farm State Park, also in Groton, provides hiking, biking and jogging trails through a scenic old shoreline farm. The Haley Farm Bike Trail, which is wheelchair accessible, is part of a 7.5-mile, town-owned bikeway routed from Mystic to Groton on local roadways. There is no parking fee at the park.
Fort Trumbull State Park, in New London, offers tours of an 1800s fort, a walking trail and spectacular fishing opportunities from a one-of-a-kind fishing pier boasting over500 feet of shore-based access to the major game fish of Long Island Sound. Saltwater anglers will find a unique combination of sport fish, including striped bass, bluefish and weakfish as they feed on a variety of baitfish found at the mouth of the Thames River. In addition to 24-hour access, the pier offers bright lighting and individual pole holders for angler comfort. Fort Trumbull and the visitor center are open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday from May 21 through Columbus Day. There are no fees for parking or visiting the park grounds. A per-person charge applies for the visitor center exhibit and fort tour.
Rocky Neck State Park in East Lyme offers 160 camping sites in both open and wooded settings, saltwater fishing and swimming, picnicking and hiking. The camping season runs from May 1 to Sept. 30. Clear waters and stone-free beaches with expanses of white sand make it ideal for swimming. Bounded on the west by a tidal river and the east by a broad salt marsh, Rocky Neck was known to both Native Americans and colonists as a place with abundant fish and wildlife. Today, the osprey is a frequent early summer visitor. In the fall, cranes, herons and mute swans wade among cattails and rose mallow. Seasonal changes provide opportunities to fish for mackerel, striped bass, blackfish and flounder. There are fees for weekend, holiday and weekday parking, as well as camping fees, at the park.
Harkness Memorial State Park in Waterford offers tours of an early 1900s mansion, set on 230 seaside acres along Long Island Sound. The Roman Renaissance Classical Revival-style mansion has 42 rooms along with carriage house. Lush gardens flank the mansion on both the east and west lawns, and an Alpine rock garden adds to the beauty and splendor of the seaside panorama. The mansion is open for tours weekends and holidays from Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day. The first tour of the day starts at 10 a.m., and the last begins at 2 p.m. There are separate weekend, holiday and weekday parking fees at the park.
Hopeville Pond State Park in Griswold provides 80 campsites along with freshwater pond fishing, swimming, hiking and bicycling. The camping season begins in mid-April and ends Sept. 30. Facilities include boat launch, picnic tables and bathrooms. The park is located along the Pachaug River that was once a major fishing ground for the Mohegan Indians. Later colonialists built a sawmill, gristmill and woolen mill at the site. There is a weekend and holiday parking fee and a campsite fee at the park.
Day Pond State Park in Colchester offers trout fishing in a stocked pond, swimming, hiking and picnicking. The pond, which is the central feature of the park, was originally constructed by a pioneering family to turn a large waterwheel that powered the family sawmill. Park visitors today will find only stone foundations as reminders of those colonial times. There are no parking fees at the park.
Pachaug State Forest in Voluntown is the largest state forest in Connecticut, encompassing 24,000 acres that are open for camping, hiking, fishing, horseback riding, boating and winter sports such as cross-country skiing and snowmobiling. The Pachaug River, running from Beach Pond to the Quinebaug River, runs through the center of the forest. Old cellar holes and miles of stone fence winding through the woods give evidence of the once farmed and pastured forest.
There are two main recreational areas in the Pachaug State Forest. The Chapman Area offers year-round activities and includes off-road, backpack and horse campsites, all available on a first-come, first-serve basis. Three separate trail sections pass through this area. Beachdale Pond, located in this area, is stocked with trout and has natural bass, pickerel and bullhead fishing. The Green Falls Area has 18 wooded campsites that are available from the third Friday of April until Sept. 30. Four hiking trails pass through this area that also offers freshwater fishing, picnicking and hunting. Picnic areas and boat launch sites are available at both areas. Campsite fees are charged at both locations. Nehantic State Forest in Lyme is the first state forest in New London County. Purchased in 1925, the land is mostly covered with a second growth of hardwoods with a number of good trout streams in the forest. The state forest offers hiking, swimming and picnicking. A boat launch is available. There are no fees at Nehantic State Forest.