Under the stars: Campers in Connecticut find unique experiences

Most state campgrounds, like commercial facilities, cater to people in cars and recreation vehicles, but those looking to get off the beaten path may take advantage of a number of shelters and primitive campsites available free on a first-come basis.
Most state campgrounds, like commercial facilities, cater to people in cars and recreation vehicles, but those looking to get off the beaten path may take advantage of a number of shelters and primitive campsites available free on a first-come basis.

As darkness fell, the glow from a nearby campfire filtered dimly through the walls of our tent, while my son Tom and I settled in our sleeping bags, savoring the stillness.

Whip-poor-will! Whip-poor-will!

The melodic call echoed through the woods, and soon a chorus swirled around us. A flock perched on branches just above our tent, and the birds serenaded us to sleep with their lovely lullaby.

I've spent countless nights camping — on remote mountaintops, tiny islands, even in snow caves — but that evening of the whippoorwill concert stands out as among my favorites.

Our campsite, near Mount Misery in Voluntown's Pachaug State Forest, is among some 1,400 across the state maintained by the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection in a variety of settings ranging from woodlands to beaches to islands.

Tom and I had ridden our bikes about 20 miles to the Mount Misery campground but could have driven there by car, as did the dozen or so other campers at the park.

Not so when Tom and I camped once on Selden Island in the Connecticut River after arriving by kayak. The island, part of Lyme's Selden Neck State Park, is accessible only by water. Formerly the site of a farm and stone quarry, it was cut off from the mainland by a huge spring runoff in 1854, and today includes four state campsites available to boaters.

Most state campgrounds, like commercial facilities, cater to people in cars and recreation vehicles, but those looking to get off the beaten path may take advantage of a number of shelters and primitive campsites available free on a first-come basis. In eastern Connecticut these include the Dawley Pond, Dry Reservoir, Legend Wood and Peg Mill shelters at Pachaug State Forest in Voluntown; and the General Lyons, Knowlton Brook and Nipmuck Trail campsites in Natchaug State Forest near Eastford.

All are located on or near various blue-blazed trails maintained by the Connecticut Forest & Park Association (www.ctwoodlands.org/), a private, nonprofit organization that oversees some 825 miles of hiking trails in 88 towns throughout the state.

Most of these campsites have limited facilities, and shelter space may not be available, so backpackers should carry their own tents. Not all have water supplies.

There also are four public camps with fireplaces and pit toilets along the Connecticut River for kayakers and canoeists at Hurd, Gillette Castle, River Highlands and Selden Neck state parks.

Information on riverside campsite availability can be obtained by calling (860) 526-2336. Reservations must then be made by mailing a written request at least two weeks before an intended stay to Supervisor, Gillette Castle State Park, 67 River Road, East Haddam, CT 06423.

At the other end of the spectrum, some state parks, such as Hammonasset Beach in Madison, have campgrounds with hookups for recreational vehicles, as well as hot showers, a food concession and other amenities.

The campground at Rocky Neck State Park in East Lyme, with 160 wooded and open sites, does not offer RV hookups but does have a concession, dumping station, bathrooms and showers.

Another state-owned facility in eastern Connecticut, the Salt Rock Campground in Baltic, has 71 tent and RV sites that include utilities, bathrooms, showers, a dumping station and in-ground swimming pool.

State park campgrounds typically fill up on weekends so it's always a good idea to call ahead.

Reservations are available online from May 1 to Sept. 1 at reserveamerica.com or by calling toll-free 1-877-668-CAMP (2267) during the following hours:

8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

8 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. on Thursdays and Fridays.

9 a.m. to noon on Saturdays and Sundays.

During off-peak season, reservations may be made from 9 a.m. to noon Monday through Friday.

Reservations, which require a two-night minimum, are accepted from one day to 11 months before arrival. They are not accepted at most campgrounds before Memorial Day Weekend or from Labor Day through Sept. 30, when campsites are offered on a first-come, first-served basis.

There is a $9 charge just to make a reservation; the actual fee for camping ranges from about $17 a night for Connecticut residents for a basic site to $50 or $60 a night for rustic cabins available in some parks. Most state campgrounds opened April 15 and are available through Oct. 1, but DEEP does offer some off-season camping at various sites.

For a full list of state campsites check the DEEP website, www.ct.gov/deep.

Want to camp with some homestyle comforts?

These local sites cater to families

For die-hard backpackers, camping means hiking far from the madding crowd, pitching a tent, munching on granola, filtering water from a stream and sitting around a campfire while the stars (and mosquitoes) come out.
But not all who call themselves campers really want to stray too far from civilization, especially if it means sleeping on the ground, trudging through mud or digging a latrine.
Most of today's commercial campgrounds not only make it easier on adults by offering hot showers, flush toilets, heated cabins, electricity and even Wi-Fi, but also cater to kids by providing playgrounds, game rooms and activities like bicycling, hayrides, fishing and fireside storytelling.
Largely rural eastern Connecticut, with a mix of dense forests, rolling pastures, dairy farms, quaint villages and scenic shoreline, is dotted with such family-oriented attractions.
Among them:

301 Chesterfield Road, East Lyme; www.aceshighrvpark.com
Located on 93 wooded acres, Aces High is situated among three ponds, one of which is stocked with trout. New campground sites offer electric, water, sewer, and cable TV hookups.
Activities planned this season include a Cinco de Mayo party, Mothers' Day and Fathers' Day weekends, fishing derby, jewelry and fashion shows, craft fair, barbecue, wine-tasting, sand-castle contest and chili cook-off.
For reservations: Call toll-free
877.PUL.THRU or 860.739.8858. The fax number is 860.739.7207.

135 Lake Road, Bozrah;
This 200-site facility has an Olympic-sized swimming pool, 2-acre pond for fishing and swimming, recreation hall with video games and pool tables; mini-golf, and basketball and tennis courts.
Four- and six-person cabins also are available.
For reservations, call 860.859.1020.

Nowakoski Road, Jewett City; www.campersworldcampground.com
This 150-site campground next to Hopeville Pond offers swimming, boating and fishing, among other activities. Events planned this season include pig roasts, karaoke, a polka dance, potluck suppers and an ice cream social.
For reservations call 860.376.2340.

21 Bailey Pond Road, Voluntown
Situated near the shores of 83-acre Bailey Pond, Circle C offers boat storage and rentals, swimming and bass fishing, as well as activities ranging from hayrides to horseshoes.
It has water, electric and cable hookups, a laundry, convenience store and dumping station. During the season there are dances, hot dog roasts, a Hawaiian luau and karaoke.
For reservations: 800.424.4534 from 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; email: circlec@comcast.net

75 Cook Hill Road, Griswold
Countryside, which offers sewer hook-ups and electric service at its 108 sites, has a swimming pond and a separate, stocked pond for catch-and-release fishing, as well as paths for hiking and bicycling.
In addition to a laundromat and recreation room, the campground has Wi-Fi service.
Reservations: 860.376.0029 or toll-free 866.247.8316

47 River Road, Preston
Located on the Quinebaug River and containing more than 180 campsites, Hidden Acres offers swimming, tubing and fishing.
It also has a craft shop for painting ceramics, as well as activities including volleyball, bingo, shuffleboard, badminton, horseshoes and sing-alongs.
There is free cable and free Wi-Fi.
Events planned this season include a dance contest, pirate party, lobster dinner and fishing tournament.
Reservations: 860.887.9633; email: info@hiddenacrescamp.com

118 Pendleton Hill Road, N. Stonington
Located on the 250-year-old site of one of Connecticut's first farms, Mystic KOA offers everything from secluded tent sites to a three-acre field for groups, as well as cabins.
Amenities include a pool, snack bar, fishing, mini-golf, bike rentals, outdoor movies, free on-site catch-and-release fishing, an interactive dog park, cable TV and Wi-Fi service.
Mystic KOA also offers trailer sales, certified trailer service and parts and accessories.
Reservations: 800.562.3451 or 860.599.5101;
email: mystic@koa.net.

96 Ekonk Hill Rd, Voluntown
Adjacent to Pachaug State Forest, Nature's Campsites offers canoeing and fishing, as well as a swimming pool, video arcade, basketball court and playground.
Each weekend features children and family activities, including
hayrides and music.
Reservations: 860.376.4203

38 Bozrah Street Ext. Bozrah
Located on a 32-acre lake with private beach, Odetah has a swimming pool, Jacuzzi/spa, mini-golf, tennis, basketball, shuffleboard, horseshoes and beach volleyball. Rowboat, kayak, canoe and paddleboat rentals are available, along with fishing.
Full hook-ups are available, along with free hot showers, a Blu-Ray movie theater and free Wi-Fi.
Events this season include a Western Weekend, Christmas in July and Family Competition Weekend.
Reservations: 800.448.1193

157 Doyle Road, Oakdale
The 41-acre campground, with beach and wooded sites for RVs and tents, as well as furnished cabin rentals, has 870 feet of frontage on Gardner Lake. There are boat docks and a launch.
Reservations: 860.859.0682.

39 Alexander Road, Salem
The 157-acre campground offers a variety of children's activities: arts and crafts, candy bingo, kickball, mini-golf, scavenger hunts, nature walks and hayrides. For adults there are Friday night movies, dances, poker runs, live entertainment and karaoke.

45 Camp Ground Road, Mystic
Recently acquired by Sun RV Resorts, the 130-site facility has undergone a major renovation, with a new pool, Internet cafe and other amenities. With sites for RVs as well as tents, the campground offers catch-and-release fishing, miniature golf, recreation room, volleyball court, horseshoes, a playground, arcade, laundromat and store.
Reservations: 888.886.2477

42 Pierce Road, Preston
The 160-acre campground accommodates tents, RV trailers, and park models and also offers log cabin rentals. Campsites offer full hook-ups, including more than 60 channels of free cable TV and Wi-Fi.
Strawberry Park offers three large swimming pools, two whirlpool spas, a recreation center, arcade, grill and creamery.
Strawberry Park hosts a popular Bluegrass Festival May 30-June 2 as well as a “Blast from the Bayou” Cajun Zydeco Festival from June 6-9.
During the summer, every day there are more than 30 scheduled and supervised activities for all ages, including bingo, bonfires, dances, kickball, horseshoes and volleyball.
Reservations: 860.886.1944; email: camp@strawberrypark.net

- Steve Fagin


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