A Playground in Our Own Backyard: The Best Places to Hike, Paddle and Have Fun in and Near Southeastern Connecticut

While kayaking with friends in Fishers Island Sound not long ago it occurred to me that all of them had driven a considerable distance to launch their boats at Esker Point Beach in Noank: Ian, from Old Saybrook; Robin, from Wallingford, and Phil, from Hampton, Mass.

I could flatter myself by saying they savored my company but I'm not that delusional.

"This is the best place to paddle," Phi said simply as we slipped past Mouse Island, Whaleback Rock and Ram Island en route to Hungry Point off the eastern tip of Fishers Island. He thought for a moment and continued.

"It takes me an hour to get all my gear together and load the kayak on the car, and almost two hours to drive here. Later, another two hours to drive home, another hour to unload and put things away … that's six hours, just to paddle for a few hours on the sound. But you know what? It's worth it."

Amen.

Like all outdoor enthusiasts I occasionally drive hundreds of miles to climb a mountain, paddle a river, cross-country ski or run a road race – feeling guilty about burning gas and wasting hours on the road instead of enjoying more time in the fresh air.

This is why I find myself returning to some of my favorite haunts closer to home, continuously reminding myself how great it is to hike, paddle and have fun in and near southeastern Connecticut. Here are a few:

– Esker Point, Noank. What makes this kayak launch site so appealing is that from the moment you paddle out of Palmer Cove dozens of destinations beckon, depending on the tides, wind, your energy and skills. You can head east past Noank and paddle up the Mystic River, toward Stonington Borough or all the way to Napatree Point in Westerly; west past Groton Long Point toward Mumford Cove and Bluff Point; south to Fishers Island; or north into the protected cove toward Haley Farm State Park. When I have the time and inclination my favorite trip is an 18-mile circumnavigation of Fishers Island, which can be broken up with a rest stop on Isabella Beach on the Atlantic Ocean side of the island. Just make sure you time the tides right so you're not paddling through the Race or Wicopesset Passage at peak ebb or flood.

– Barn Island, Stonington. This launch site can get busy with power boats, but once clear of the ramp you have much of Little Narragansett Bay to yourself. Paddlers can steer southeast toward the mouth of the Pawcatuck River and take a break at Watch Hill, or head west past Sandy Point to the borough, or south to the tip of Napatree and beyond. And, if the seas are too rough, skip the paddling and hike for miles on Barn Island's trails that meanders through marshes, woodlands and pastures.

– Bluff Point, Groton. Like Barn Island, you have the option of paddling, on the Poquonnock River and out into Fishers Island Sound, or hiking or biking on a variety of scenic trails. Over the years I've probably covered 5,000 miles there and it never gets old.

– Local whitewater enthusiasts have to hang out until spring to paddle nearby, but the wait is worthwhile – the Salmon River in East Hampton, Wood River in Hope Valley, R.I., Shetucket in Baltic and Eigthmile in Lyme all have sporting stretches of rapids that may not be as challenging as the West Branch of Maine's Penobscot, but at least you'll be on the water a heck of a lot sooner.

– Pachaug State Forest, Voluntown. As I've chronicled a few weeks ago, the Mount Misery area is ideal for cross-country skiing, but I frequently enjoy biking, running or simply hiking there – particularly through the rhododendron sanctuary.

Elsewhere, nearby Green Falls Pond is one of my all-time favorite destinations. If you want to paddle you have to drive to the north end to launch near the beach, but the best hiking route is off Sand Hill Road, which follows a stream through a valley dense with evergreens. You can extend your walk on a path that circles the pond, or hook up with the Narragansett Trail and continue east all the way to Rhode Island.

If you head west you can follow the path all the way to Lantern Hill on the Ledyard-North Stonington border, passing two of my favorite local places en route: Bear Cave and High Ledge.

– Speaking of Rhode Island, the Long Pond/Ell Pond preserve in Hopkinton seems more like Maine or Vermont than the Ocean State, with steep ledges, lush evergreens and spectacular views. I suggested this destination to a friend who moved recently to Rhode Island, and she later raved that it was one of the best places she's ever hiked.

The aforementioned Napatree Point in Westerly can be reached not just by kayak but from a parking lot in Watch Hill, and simply put there is no place within 100 miles to walk on the beach. I always take friends visiting from out-of-town there to impress them.

East of the Thames River, Rocky Neck in East Lyme, Nehantic in East Lyme/Lyme and Cockaponset state parks in Haddam all have great trails but I haven't spent as much time exploring them as I'd like. I'm making it a New Year's Resolution to get out there more often and promise to give them their due in the future.

I do enjoy kayaking in the lower Connecticut River, mostly before the cigarette boats and Jet Skis emerge from hibernation. My favorite voyage there is from Elys Ferry Road in Lyme to Gillette Castle in East Haddam, particularly in winter when eagles abound. Some years I've seen as many as 30 perched on the ice or roosting in trees along shore, and one flew about 10 feet over my head.

Anyway, if you love the outdoors and live in the area, I'm preaching to the choir – you already know all the best places to have fun.

Every so often, though, we need to remind ourselves that, as Dorothy observed in "The Wizard of Oz," there's no place like home.

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