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Hammonasset Beach State Park in Madison might as well be on two separate planets between seasons.
The post-Labor Day experience offers a tranquil, seaside getaway, where visitors take advantage of stunning views and beach access, pet-friendly walking trails, programs at the resident nature center, and great birding opportunities. Clamber atop a sand dune to watch a magnificent winter sunset unfold.
Come high season, the tranquility gives way to thousands of sun worshippers and picnickers, drawn to Hammonasset's two miles of beach along Long Island Sound; many of them stay the night in the park's ample camping areas.
With all that space, a summer's day at any of Hammonasset's beach areas - East, West, Middle and Meigs Point - provides an instant switch to vacation mode. Even in its first season in July 1920, Hammonasset attracted more than 75,000 visitors. These days the park annually receives more than 1 million visitors.
Meanwhile, year-round programs at Meigs Point Nature Center - home to a variety of critters - and those organized by the vital Friends of Hammonaset group provide a happy medium between winter solitude and the summertime party vibe for other visitors of all ages. The Friends' plant and Christmas tree sales are a longtime Hammonasset tradition.
Each scenario has its merits, but those who opt for the quieter season won't have to pay the seasonal parking fee, and the wildlife tend to be a little more social in the off-season - humans included. On a recent trip, a visitor encountered a great blue heron, several hooded mergansers, loads of robins, some swans - and a dog on a skateboard. That dog - one of many taking in the afternoon with their people - drew a small crowd to the park's (mostly empty) West Beach parking lot as she skillfully rode her board with little assistance from her human.
Those gathered chatted about the day's birding, the changing season and the crispness of the day, with the relaxed air of those sharing in the wonderful secret of the shoreline in the off-season.
Name of Property: Hammonasset Beach State Park
Town: Madison; 1288 Boston Post Road
Directions from I-95: Take Exit 62 from either side. From the north, take a right off the exit ramp onto Hammonasset I-95 connector; from the south, take a left onto the connector. Park entrance will be 1 mile ahead.
From the east/Rhode Island area: take I-395 south onto I-95 south, Exit 62. Take a left off the exit and go approximately 1 mile. Go straight through the traffic light crossing Route 1 (Boston Post Road).
Where to Park: On-site parking abounds; follow signs after entering park
Description: Connecticut's largest public beach park.
Regulations: The park is open from 8 a.m. to sunset. When the campground is open (mid-May through Oct. 8) the gates are monitored after sunset. Only campers, and fishermen with passes may enter the park. In the off-season, the gates are unlocked at 8:00 a.m. and are locked at sunset.
Pets on a leash are permitted in the picnic areas. From Nov. 1 to April 1, pets are allowed in the campground and on the beach.
Amenities: More than 500 campsites, plus picnic tables and shelters, bathrooms, showers, surf chairs, boardwalks, walking trails, car-top boat launch, concessions (in season).
The Meigs Point Nature Center, located near Hammonasset's East Beach, offers several state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection-run educational programs for children and adults.
Natural Features: More than two miles of beach along Long Island Sound; salt marshes (some protected); and the nearby Hammonasset River, which originates in Durham
Things to note: "Hammonasset" translates to "where we dig holes in the ground" and refers to the place where a settlement of eastern woodland Indians farmed along the Hammonasset River.
Fees: Fees collected from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day; there are separate weekend/holiday and weekday parking fees. Weekday parking rates are in effect on weekends from April 21 through May 22 and from Sept. 10 through Sept. 18. There is also a campsite fee.
Season passes available via DEEP.
Owner: State of Connecticut
Links/More Information/Map: www.ct.gov/deep; email: firstname.lastname@example.org; phone: (866) 287-2757
Meigs Point Nature Center: www.meigspointnaturecenter.org