Centennial SoJourn spotlights state parks in an 11-day trek

A century ago, Albert M. Turner traveled across Connecticut, surveying lakes, hills and ocean shoreline to decide which spots should be included in the state's new parks system.

Beginning Thursday, Aug. 15, a group of hardy hikers, bikers and canoers will traverse nearly 200 miles of the state over 11 days as part of the centennial celebration of the state parks Turner helped to create.

The Centennial SoJourn (for Summer Outdoor Journey) will begin at Quaddick State Park in Thompson with a 22.5-mile bike ride. The journey will end on Sunday, Aug. 25, at Sherwood Island State Park in Westport, the first state park in Connecticut.

Since 1913, when $20,000 was appropriated to fund a State Parks Commission, the state parks have grown to 107 facilities that draw an estimated 8 million people a year. Turner, who pushed particularly to preserve public access to the coastline, might feel somewhat vindicated if he were alive today.

"I think that Mr. Turner would be thrilled that the state continues to support his vision of protecting those things that define Connecticut, that are important to the history of Connecticut," said Pamela Aey Adams, the former director of the state parks system and chairwoman of the Centennial Committee.

The SoJourn is designed to connect the public to as many state parks as possible, with overnight camping at 11 sites, including Gillette Castle in East Haddam, Dinosaur State Park in Rocky Hill, and Hammonasset Beach State Park in Madison, which attracts more than 1 million people a year.

"The entire journey is meant to highlight the state parks and why being outdoors is good for you and healthy," Adams said.

The advantages of state parks are many - a recent study commissioned by the Friends of Connecticut State Parks concluded that these state properties add $1.6 billion to the economy each year. That includes parks-related jobs and ancillary purchases of such items as camping equipment, firewood, bicycle rentals and fishing equipment.

"It's another reason to really pay attention to the parks," Adams said, calling it "clean money." "This is a great way to bring money into the state of Connecticut."

But you don't have to make a huge investment to enjoy the state parks system. If you want to hike, bird-watch or kayak, you can visit many of the parks for free. If you're interested in history, you can explore local sites such as Fort Griswold in Groton, where British forces overran the patriots in 1781, and Fort Trumbull in New London, a 19th-century fortification that was the site of both Coast Guard and Navy facilities.

A visit to a state park provides the opportunity to leave the suburbs or city behind. You might see great blue heron, eagles, quail or bobwhites; blooming Mayapple or rhododendron; and any number of mammals, including deer, red fox, and fisher cats, Adams noted.

Besides providing passive recreation for adults, the state parks are a great way to introduce children to nature, she said.

For a $50 registration fee, riders on the SoJourn will be provided food and camp sites each evening, and their bikes will be transported from site to site when they use alternative transportation, such as a ride aboard a steam train at Connecticut Valley Railroad State Park in Essex. Events and programs will keep them busy, including Dinosaur State Park Day on Aug. 18.

Some people may elect to drop in and out of the SoJourn as time and convenience permits. Adams well knows that 11 days is a big commitment because she herself won't be able to participate.

But Adams, who lives in Colchester, encouraged residents to explore the parks in their backyards even if they can't find the time for the SoJourn.

"It's good for your health, it's good for your mental stability, it's good for the state of Connecticut," she said.

To register for the SoJourn, contact Diane Joy, assistant director of state parks, at diane.joy@ct.gov or 424-3973.

• Bluff Point State Park in Groton (Depot Road, off Route 117). Hike the trail to the bluffs, which offer dramatic (and breezy) views of Long Island Sound. Free.

• Stoddard Hill State Park in Ledyard (near the junction of routes 12 and 214). This park is small, only 55 acres, but it offers both a car-top boat launch to the Thames River and a trail to a former Native American lookout. Free.

• Beckett Hill State Park in Lyme (Route 156). If all you want to do is hike, this undeveloped property is suitable. Free.

• Fort Trumbull State Park in New London (East Street, south of Bank Street). The grounds offer interesting views of Thames River traffic and the busy Groton shoreline opposite. Walking the grounds is free; admission is charged for the visitor center and fort tours.

• Fort Griswold Battlefield State Park (Park Avenue). The fort's monument is a recognizable landmark, but how much do you really know about the Revolutionary War massacre that took place here? You can park for free to tour the grounds and visit the war museum or the nearby Ebenezer Avery House (admission by donation), where battle victims were carried. The park includes restrooms.

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