This agricultural town in north-central Connecticut is on the eastern lip of the Connecticut River Valley.
In Ellington you can hike up Soapstone Mountain in Shenipsit State Forest for vistas that cover a whole tranche of southern New England.
The town has its own airport, which is licensed for skydiving and just the place to try your first tandem jump if it’s something you’ve always wanted to do.
And while Ellington has a serene, rural ambience there’s much to do nearby, at family amusement centers, a growing number of museums, craft breweries and a NASCAR-sanctioned racetrack.
1. Shenipsit State Forest
The Shenipsit State Forest is 11 different parcels on the east side of the Connecticut River Valley, adding up to over 7,000 acres.
This puts a world of recreation at your fingertips, in remote, rugged woodland strewn with hefty boulders deposited at the end of the last Ice Age.
You can lace up your hiking boots and set off on the Shenipsit Trail, climbing Soapstone Mountain as you go.
In nearby Stafford, Shenipsit is also the setting for Connecticut’s museum of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). This Depression-era initiative met the need for environmental conservation, but also employment for job-seeking young people.
At Camp Conner, the museum is housed in genuine CCC barracks, the last in the state, and shows off original equipment, tools, photographs and other memorabilia from this camp and the other 21 in the state.
2. Soapstone Mountain
A reference point in the Ellington section of Shenipsit State Forest is this peak, 328 meters above sea level.
You can access the summit on the Blue-Blazed Shenipsit Trail, which we’ll talk about below.
You can also drive to within a quarter mile of the peak, although this road is closed in winter.
Whether you walk or drive, what makes the journey worthwhile is the panorama from the top, made even better by a new observation tower that opened in 2018. This is one of only two observation towers in Eastern Connecticut, lifting you over the tree line to see across the Connecticut River Valley.
Turn your gaze towards Massachusetts and you’ll make out the Berkshires in the north-west, while New Hampshire’s Mount Monadnock rears up beyond, some 80 miles to the north.
3. Shenipsit Trail
Starting a little way north-east of Ellington in Stafford and taking in Soapstone Mountain is a 50-mile Blue-Blazed trail, coursing north to south through central Connecticut as far as Meshomasic State Forest in East Hampton.
All on the east bank of the Connecticut River, the path covers rocky, heavily forested terrain that can be traversed on snowshoes and cross-country skis in the snowy winter months.
Although this is officially a hiking route, mountain bikers go wild for the technical twisting path.
If you want to keep your hiking adventure local, you could just walk the trail’s northern section, which begins at Stafford’s Bald Mountain and ends at Grahaber Road in Tolland.
4. Ellington Farmers’ Market
Setting up in Arbor Park on Saturdays from mid-May to the end of October, Ellington Farmers’ Market is in great shape, brimming with more than 30 permanent vendors and another dozen or so guest vendors.
You can shop here for seasonal fruit and vegetables, fish and seafood, cheeses, meats, nuts, eggs, flowers, artisanal sauces, baked goods and many more specialty items, from cannoli to teas, cosmetics and kettle corn.
Needless to say, all this comes straight from the producers, who have forged long-term relationships with shoppers at the market.
To keep things lively there’s a new theme each week, as well as some great live music as you shop.
5. Nellie McKnight Museum
Nellie McKnight (1894-1981) spent most of her life in Ellington and was an important member of the community, serving as the town librarian for almost four decades.
When she passed on she bequeathed her home to the Ellington Historical Society.
In the Federal style, this rather grand eight-room residence dates back to 1812 and was built by the Sexton family.
The most significant changes to the property came in the 1920s after the McKnight family moved in, adding plumbing, central heating, wiring and hardwood floors.
But many striking period features remain, like original fireplaces and masterful wall stenciling in the kitchen from the 1830s.
You can take a look for yourself on Thursday afternoons, May through September.
6. Crystal Lake/Sandy Beach
Under ten minutes east of Ellington’s central business district is Crystal Lake, lined with homes on wooded hillsides, and with a beach on its south shore.
This is open from around noon to 19:00 during the full season between mid-June and mid-August, and there’s nowhere better to be on hot summer days.
The lake opens for a pre-season, starting on Memorial Day, and a post-season ending Labor Day, both with reduced hours.
Sandy Beach is on a curve, sloping gently into the lake’s transparent waters and bordered by a grassy area with a row of pines.
Ellington residences can buy seasonal passes, and daily fees apply to out-of-town guests ($10 per adult, $5 per child).
7. Connecticut Parachutists Inc.
Ellington Airport lies just to the north of town and is one of only two airports in the state to be certified as a parachute jump zone.
So if you’ve always wanted to take that first jump, it will never be easier than in Ellington.
For the uninitiated, tandem skydiving is surprisingly simple, as you’ll be a passenger the whole time and attached to the same parachute system as your instructor: Training takes little more than 30 minutes, and after that you’ll be ready to skydive from more than 3,200 meters.
Connecticut Parachutists Inc. uses all the latest skydiving equipment and has a range of packages depending on how you want to record the experience (hand-cam or pro videographer jumping with you).
8. New England Motorcycle Museum
Just down in Vernon, this museum is the labor of love for die-hard amateur motorcyclist Ken Kaplan, who has put together one of the largest collections in the Northeast.
Over 100 motorcycles are housed in the majestic Hockanum Mill, a 205-year-old textile factory that had been derelict for years.
There are motorcycles from more than 25 different brands here, from Triumph to Indian to Honda, with an entire floor dedicated to Harley Davidsons.
These vehicles are accompanied by masses of memorabilia, including posters, signage, photographs and a vast magazine archive.
The attraction only opened in 2018, and by 2020 a motorcycle-themed restaurant, microbrewery and bar will open on the first floor.
9. Sonny’s Place
Mixing all kinds of family-friendly attractions and activities, Sonny’s Place is a convenient day out a stone’s throw away in Somers.
For a brief run-down you’ve got miniature golf, laser tag, batting cages, go karts, climbing walls, an amusement arcade, miniature bowling, a humungous soft playground, a zip-line and gyroscope.
A wonderful, more recent addition is a 1925 Philadelphia Toboggan Company carousel gradually being restored by the New England Carousel Museum in Bristol.
And when the time comes for a break, the grill at Sonny’s Place makes great burgers with local, farm-raised beef.
10. Powder Hollow Brewery
If you have a thing for craft beer, the choice of small-batch breweries in Connecticut is so big it can be difficult to know where to begin.
A great one sits moments out of town in Enfield, priding itself on brews made with first-rate hops, wheat and barley.
Powder Hollow Brewery was born in 2014 and is open every day of the week, and offers tours for real aficionados.
Of the nine beers on draft in autumn 2019, only two were IPAs, which is good news for people who think there’s more to craft beer than hop-heavy brews.
If you like dark, malty beer try the 1929 Prohibition Porter, Early Morning Oatmeal Stout on Nitro or the roasted brown ale, Black & Gold.
11. Connecticut Trolley Museum
Go west to the Connecticut River in East Windsor and you can visit the country’s oldest museum for electric railroading.
The Connecticut Trolley Museum dates from 1940 and is on a 1.5-mile stretch of heritage railroad where the Rockville Branch of the Hartford and Springfield Street Railway Company used to be.
Included in the entry you’ll get unlimited trolley rides throughout the day, on some beautiful old cars from cities around North America.
Children will adore these three-mile round trips, and can play dress up and entertain themselves at the toy train table in the Visitor Center.
Here’s you’ll also come across a small fleet of stunning cars as you learn about the progress of the electric trolley and its impact on society in the 20th century.
12. Stafford Motor Speedway
If you’re in the mood for high-speed action there’s a NASCAR Whelen All-American Series track on the other side of the Shenipsit State Forest in Stafford.
This oval track has a history going back to 1870 when it was a course for horseracing, and since the 70s has become known as the “home of the SK Modifieds”. There’s an action-packed program of racing every Friday night between from May to September for a hot of categories, and the Whelen Modfied Tour stops here three times a season.
If you’re a newcomer to SK Modified racing get ready for constant lead changes and lots of side-by-side racing.
The speedway can seat 8,000, and offers classic stadium fare bur also lets you bring in your own food.
13. Robert Tedford Memorial Park (Formerly Brookside Park)
This neighborhood park is on Route 140 a couple of miles from the center of Ellington.
Clean and well taken care of, Robert Tedford Memorial Park stands out is for its top-notch sports facilities, including tennis courts, a baseball/softball field , a volleyball court, a football field and soccer field.
There’s a great children’s playground and a pavilion that can be rented.
This park is also the location for some annual events like the Ellington Volunteer Fire Department’s annual carnival in early September, preceded by a parade of fire trucks.
14. Rolling Meadows Country Club
It will come as no surprise that this friendly public course in Ellington’s hills is family-run.
The 18-hole par 72 is set on a plateau, affording marvellous views that open up over the Connecticut Valley.
The front nine and back nine have different characters here, beginning with sweeping, open countryside and forgiving greens, before heading onto narrow tree-lined fairways that require pinpoint accuracy at times.
On the back nine the formidable outline of the Berkshires will hove into view.
Green fees in 2019 were $45 for 18 holes with a cart on weekdays, and $50 on weekends.
You can follow up your round at The Tavern, which has a full bar as well as casual pub dining.
15. Irish Bend Orchard
Between August and October, Wednesday to Sunday, you can drop this fourth generation farm in Somers to pick your own fruit.
The season gets underway with nectarines and peaches, followed by Asian pears and then a whole variety of apples.
All of the fruit at Irish Bend Orchard grows on dwarf trees, making for easy picking, even for children.
You can even give little ones their own child-sized containers.
To make things easier, markers are put up daily to indicate where the ripest fruit can be found.