The quiet, rural town of Colchester was incorporated at the turn of the 18th century and grew up around a picturesque town green.
Three centuries later it’s reassuring that most of the life in Colchester Center coalesces at this space, which is protected as a historic district.
In amongst the 18th and 19th-century houses and monuments are shops, cafes, restaurants and local amenities.
There’s natural beauty all around the town, at waterfalls, ponds and lakes.
Hiding here are compelling historical fragments, at one of the last remaining covered bridges in the state and the vestiges of mills that once littered the countryside.
1. Salmon River State Forest
The Salmon River is thought to the be the longest river and largest watershed to have both its source and mouth in the state of Connecticut.
At the Salmon River State Forest, spreading across a massive 6,000 acres, you can hike the banks and explore its many tributaries.
The Salmon River Trail is a Connecticut Blue-Blazed trail, almost seven miles long and found almost entirely within Colchester’s town lines.
And while the forest may feel almost primeval, your walk will take you past streams that were almost clogged with industry in the 19th century.
During low precipitation at North Westchester, the paper mill had to run by day and the grist mill at night.
2. Day Pond State Park
Day Pond, east of Salmon River State Forest, was the scene of similar industry.
In the Colonial era the pioneering Day family established a sawmill, damming a pond to turn a large overshot waterwheel.
Only the foundations of this enterprise survive, but still give a sense of what it might have been like some 300 years ago.
The pond is stocked with trout, and a good place for less experienced anglers to learn the ropes.
You can also come swimming in the summer, and there’s a little beach to relax on.
Winding off into the woods are some five miles of hiking trails.
3. Colchester Village Historic District
The oldest part of Colchester converges on a cute town green, laid out around the town’s original meeting house.
Bordering the green on pedestrian-friendly streets are homes, commercial buildings and civic buildings, mostly from the 19th century.
From the early 1800s you’ll see the Greek Revival Colchester Federated Church and the Bacon Academy, the first secondary school in the region, completed in 1803. One sight testifying to Colchester’s 19th-century industrial development is the Wheeler Block (1872) at 40 Norwich Avenue.
Designed in the Second Empire style with a refined mansard roof, this building housed commercial businesses on its ground floor and a Masonic lodge above, before being used as a town hall from 1936 to 1991. Over the street from the green at 9 Hayward Avenue, stands the Hayward House (1775), which from the 1840s was the home of inventor Nathanial Hayward.
4. Priam Vineyards
Founded in 1998 and producing wine since 2003, Priam Vineyards grows, blends, ages and bottles its wines at this 20-acre estate on a painterly hillside.
The vines, all European varietals, do well in a microclimate in the hills of New London county, benefiting from a consistent breeze and mineral-rich, gravelly soil.
The winery, powered entirely by solar energy, is built into the vineyard, taking advantage of the naturally cool temperatures in the wine cellar.
The tasting bar, tasting room and patio are open all year, Wednesday to Sunday between May-December and Friday to Sunday, January to April.
There will be something new to taste whenever you come as the 16 hand-crafted wines complete their ageing periods at different times.
5. Comstock Covered Bridge
On the west side of Salmon River State Forest is one of only three remaining covered bridges in Connecticut.
The advantage of structures like these was that the roof would protect the bridge’s timbers from rain and preserve them for longer.
Comstock Covered Bridge was completed in 1840 and has two spans over the Salmon River, one covered and one open.
The main covered span has a triangular gabled roof and is walled with vertical board siding.
These days the bridge is restricted to pedestrians, and has gates at either limit.
In the 1920s a truck crashed through the floor and the restoration was carried out in the 30s by the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps, installing the gates.
6. Mooween State Park
Acquired by the state in 1989, this 600-acre parcel of dense woodland was initially home to the Native American Mohegan Tribe, which broke away from the Pequots in the 17th century (Mooween means “bear”). Later the land was deforested and used for grazing, until the 1920s when a summer camp for boys, Camp Mooween was set here until the 1960s.
There are faint traces from this time, in the shape of the stone chimney of the main hall and concrete foundations, all being swallowed by nature.
Trails wend their way through the woodland to the shore of Red Cedar Lake, primed for fishing and non-motorized boating.
7. Colchester RecPlex
The town’s go-to for outdoor recreation has a whole complex of baseball/softball fields, as well as a tennis annex, a lighted basketball court, a skate park and several lighted horseshoe pits.
For children there are three different playscapes, each aimed respectively at ages 3-5, 5-12 and 12 and up.
June through September wee ones can also cool off at the splashpad, which has a designated period for children with special needs on Saturday mornings.
Given the amount of competitive baseball that takes place at the RecPlex in summer, there’s also a concession stand called The Dugout, for hotdogs, burgers, cheese steaks, fries and the like.
And on top of all this you can make use of free wireless internet throughout the park.
8. Fat Orange Cat Brew Co.
A true small-batch craft brewery, Fat Orange Cat Brew Co. is based on a farm and is only open seasonally on weekends.
The brewery’s beers are made with pure well water sourced on the property, which is on the Salmon River watershed.
This is such a homespun operation that the choice of beers on tap fluctuates by the weekend, and is published on the website.
When we put this list together in September 2019 there were eight to choose from, including a guava and passion fruit sour ale, three New England IPAs with tropical notes, a white stout, and a pale ale and gose, both spiced up with jalapenos.
9. Lebanon Green Vineyards
Also local, Lebanon Green Vineyards cultivates vitis vinifera as well as French hybrid vines for blended wines.
Over time Lebanon Green has experimented, searching for the right varieties to thrive in rural Connecticut’s harsh winters.
You can call in Friday to Sunday for tastings at a rustic repurposed shed.
Among the whites are Patriot White (Cayuga White, Chardonnay Riesling), Liberty White and Freedom White (both Cayuga and Chardonnay). Reds include the fruity and dry War Office Red and the smooth Revolutionary Red (Cab Franc, Saint-Croix), while Wayland Blush is a refreshing rosé produced from Riesling, Cayuga and Saint-Croix.
On Saturdays you can bring a picnic basket and enjoy some live music alfresco.
10. Devil’s Hopyard State Park
At Chapman’s Falls on the Eightmile River is a 1,000-acre state park for hiking, camping, birding, fishing and bicycling.
The big draw is the waterfall, dropping 20 meters over ledges of Scotland schist.
In the 19th century these falls powered “Beebe’s Mills”, and before that this is thought to have been the site of a mill that was owned by British Loyalists, but was sacked by the Sons of Liberty in 1775. To support this story, a large fragment of broken millstone was discovered at the foot of the falls in 2002. Also make sure to hike the orange trail to Vista Point cliff, a scenic lookout 53 meters above the Eightmile River.
Trace the course of the river and you’ll happen upon three historic highway bridges, each on the National Register of Historic Places.
11. Cato Corner Farm
You can support a local business and buy some world-class cheese at Cato Corner Farm.
The milk for the cheese come from a herd of 45 pasture-fed Jersey cows, raised without growth hormones or unnecessary antibiotics.
Something interesting about the farm’s range is that you can taste the changes in the cows’ diet between summer when they’re in pasture and winter, when they move inside, feeding on local hay and producing a much richer milk that goes into semi-soft cheeses like “Hooligan”. There are 16 cheeses in all: Look into Bloomsday, a firm cheese, balancing cheddar-like acidity with a little sweetness, and Black Ledge Blue, which goes great with dessert wines and pears, and melts beautifully on a steak.
The farm’s little shop is open Fridays, Saturdays (10-4), and Sundays (11-4).
12. Lake Hayward
This lake off the northern tip of Devil’s Hopyard State Park is named for Nathaniel Hayward (1808-1865). He invented the process of vulcanization, together with his more famous one-time partner Charles Goodyear.
Hayward later moved to Colchester to open a shoe factory, and bought land on the shore of what would later be renamed Lake Hayward.
This stunning 174-acre body of water is drained by the Eightmile River, and has upscale private homes on its shores with their own jetties.
But if you have a non-motorized boat/kayak you can use the public launch on the northern shore at 15 Fedus Road.
The north and east shores are a little wilder, and as you paddle you may see beaver lodges and wading birds like herons.
13. Blue Slope Country Museum
A working farm but also a rural museum, Blue Slope has also has a whole program of events and activities throughout the year for all ages.
There are wagon rides pulled by two giant Belgian draft horses, square dances, craft shows, horse-driving clinics, campfires and an annual concert.
The museum is open by reservation, presenting a large array of antique farming implements and offering insights about rural life and the ecology of New London County.
If you come on a typical day you can also request a private tour of the museum’s collection.
14. Zagray Farm Museum
This farm in Colchester is also dedicated to New England’s agricultural history, opening its gates for Spring, Summer and Fall shows in May, June and October.
At these events you can check out tons of vintage machinery in the form of tractors, cars, trucks, bulldozers, an epic stationary engine, a working sawmill from 1873 and the 1938 32E14 Fairbanks Morse diesel engine.
Those heavy-duty machines are fired up for demonstrations, and you can also step inside a working antique machine shop and a foundry.
On top of all that are wagon rides, tours of a 1930s farmhouse, a swap meet area and a host of vendors, among them food trucks for breakfast, lunch and sweet treats.
15. Gallery Cinemas
Right by the Colchester RecPlex, Gallery Cinemas is a well-supported local multiplex with small, intimate rooms.
You won’t find the sort of scale and luxuries of the big cinema chains, but there’s a lot to love.
Firstly, you may not be able to watch a first-run movie cheaper, especially if you take advantage of the $6.25 movies all day on Tuesdays.
All the auditoriums have cutting-edge sound systems, while the concessions are also recommended.
You can get pretzels freshly baked by the order if you don’t mind waiting, while the popcorn is also excellent, and you’re able to serve your own melted butter.