15 Best Things to Do in Mansfield (CT)

Written by Veronique Raes
Updated on
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This small town in eastern Connecticut has little villages, scenic roads winding into upland countryside and remnants of mills from the 18th and 19th centuries.

The landscape is dotted with public natural spaces linked by paths like the Blue-Blazed Nipmuck Trail. I don’t think it’s a shock, but the colors in fall are nothing short of dreamy. 

Elsewhere, the presence of the University of Connecticut in Storrs lends Mansfield real cultural cachet.

UConn’s Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts books plenty of big artists and ensembles. In the same vein, the William Benton Museum of Art has a celebrated collection of American art and expertly curated exhibitions.

The Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry is another feather in UConn’s cap. It holds one of the three largest collections for this artform in the country.

Let’s explore the best things to do in Mansfield:

1. Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts

Jorgensen Center for the Performing ArtsSource: Ken Wolter / shutterstock
Jorgensen Center For The Performing Arts

The presence of UConn gives Mansfield the kind of performing arts venue I’d expect to find in a big city.

Constructed in the mid-1950s, the Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts can seat more than 2,600 people. It’s the largest college-based presenting program in New England.

Up to 30 nationally and internationally renowned artists and ensembles appear at the center each year.

The selection is eclectic too, ranging from classical music to world music, classical and contemporary dance, comedy and family entertainment.

For a taste, violinist Ray Chen, the famed Imani Winds quintet, and the Sophia Philharmonic were booked when I was in town.

2. William Benton Museum of Art

William Benton Museum Of ArtSource: William Benton Museum Of Art / facebook
William Benton Museum Of Art

UConn’s well-regarded art museum opened in 1967 at the regal Collegiate Gothic building that had been designed in the 1920s as the university’s main dining hall.

The museum’s collection goes back to 1933. Then the Connecticut Agricultural College (as UConn was previously known) president Charles Lewis Beach bequeathed his collection to the university, and has grown down the decades.

Today it stands out for its amazing cache of American art. There are works by Ellen Emmet Rand, Ernest Lawson, Henry Ward Ranger, Childe Hassam, Thomas Hart Benton and Charles Harold Davis.

This is complemented by European luminaries like Gustav Klimt, Georges Braque, Edward Burne-Jones and Käthe Kollwitz.

In all there are 6,000 paintings, prints, watercolors, drawings, sculptures and photographs.

A selection from this inventory is constantly on show, along with short-term exhibitions covering individual artists, regions of the world, or themes. I called in for the exceptional Prints and People Before Photography, 1490-1825, showcasing the museum’s exceptional collection of prints.

3. The Adventure Park at Storrs

The Adventure Park At StorrsSource: The Adventure Park At Storrs / facebook
The Adventure Park At Storrs

Active family fun awaits at this high ropes attraction in verdant mixed woodland in Storrs.

The Adventure Park has nine separate high ropes trails, with elevated transitions to overcome, from bridges to cable ladders to 28 different ziplines. 

There are 80 unique challenges and 100+ treetop platforms at the Adventure Park. So the fun will last as long as you have the energy. 

Harnesses and equipment are provided. There’s also a safety briefing showing you how to climb and use the park’s ziplines.

My ideal time to be here is in the evening for Glow in the Park, when the facility is illuminated with thousands of LEDs.

4. Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry

Ballard Institute And Museum Of PuppetrySource: Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry / facebook
Ballard Institute And Museum Of Puppetry

The University of Connecticut runs a Puppetry Arts Program, unrivaled in the United States and set up by the great puppeteer Frank W. Ballard (1929-2010). 

In Storrs the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry is maintained by the university. It boasts one of the three largest puppetry collections in the country, and I don’t think you need to be an enthusiast to appreciate it.

Among 2,500 pieces from all ends of the earth there are body puppets, shadow puppets, marionettes, rod puppets and glove puppets, along with intricately crafted sets and props.

Selections from this reserve are presented in the museum’s exhibitions. Elsewhere, the institute’s research library holds books, clippings, scripts, posters, audio and footage charting the history of puppet theater around the world.

There’s also a very active calendar at the institute. You can catch performances, puppet workshops for a variety of disciplines, mask-making and more.

5. Mansfield Drive-In Theatre

Mansfield Drive-In TheatreSource: jjbers / Flickr
Mansfield Drive-In Theatre

The largest of Connecticut’s last surviving drive-in movie theaters is right here in Mansfield.

Opened in 1954 and showing films in the spring and summer months, the theater has 950 berths and three screens 110 feet wide. 

Each screen has an evening double bill for new Hollywood releases. When I wrote this article, adult tickets were $13 at the gate.

A snack bar serves classic movie theater fare like popcorn, soft drinks, hot dogs, pizza and burgers.

The site doubles as a highly popular flea market on Sunday mornings, trading in a large hall and with dozens of vendors out in the open air. 

Head here for anything from glassware to ceramics, musical instruments, old signs, furniture and collectibles.

6. Mansfield Hollow State Park

Mansfield Hollow State ParkSource: morrowlong / Flickr
Mansfield Hollow State Park

Right after WWII the Natchaug River was dammed by the United States Army Corps of Engineers. This gave rise to a 500-acre lake for public water supply.

As it’s a reservoir, swimming isn’t allowed at Mansfield Hollow Lake, but fishing, non-motorized boating, and kayaking are on the agenda. 

Meanwhile the dense forest on the west shore is primed for hiking, horseback riding, mountain biking and cross-country skiing on a wide choice of well-tended trails. In fall I adore the views of the foliage reflected in the water. 

The southeastern leg of the Blue-Blazed Nipmuck Trail passes through the park on its way through 34.5 miles of forests in the northeast of the state.

7. J. Robert Donnelly Husky Heritage Sports Museum

Huskies fans or anybody interested in the world of varsity athletics will find something to love at this museum on UConn’s Storrs campus.

Every aspect of Uconn’s intercollegiate athletics is documented at the Husky Heritage Sports Museum. This means more than a century’s worth of uniforms, pennants, archive photography, vintage balls and trophies.

The experience begins with the National Champions’ Gallery, celebrating the squads in four different sports that have gone the distance. When I wrote this article the men’s basketball team had just claimed their fifth NCAA championship.

But the most dominant of these are the all-conquering women’s basketball teams put together by Coach Geno Auriemma. They claimed five titles in a window between 1995 and 2004. 

One of the stars from that time, Rebecca Lobo is honored with a life-size cut out, along with 10x NBA All-Star and UConn alumnus Ray Allen.

You’ll also see their names on 88 oversized banners paying tribute to 88 of Connecticut’s All-American stars, from 17 different sports.

8. Connecticut Repertory Theatre (CRT)

Connecticut Repertory TheatreSource: Connecticut Repertory Theatre / facebook
Connecticut Repertory Theatre

Although it belongs to the University of Connecticut on the Storrs campus the Connecticut Repertory Theatre is not to be taken lightly from an artistic point of view. It serves as a cultural touchstone for Connecticut and New England.

Productions are designed, directed and cast with visiting professional artists, to create the perfect learning environment for students.

At three auditoriums, including the Jorgensen Center’s 485-seat Harriet S. Jorgensen Theatre, the CRT offers a subscription series of six plays and musicals each season. In all, they sell more than 20,000 tickets each year.

The CRT is also the main platform for UConn’s acclaimed Puppet Arts Program.

The last show I caught here was Tatty Hennessy’s A Hundred Words for Show, performed with remarkable nuance.

9. Mansfield Center Cemetery

Mansfield Center CemeterySource: en.wikipedia.org
Mansfield Center Cemetery

A rare slice of early Mansfield history sits at the corner of Storrs Road and Cemetery Road.

The Mansfield Center Cemetery, on the National Register of Historic Places, dates back to 1693 and its final burial took place in the 1870s.

The site is hailed for its quantity of delicately carved markers (some 180). They were crafted by some of the masters of the trade from across colonial New England.

These sport a rich variety of funerary symbols, as well as cherubim and geometric patterns. I enjoyed seeing how  they become more elaborate as you work your way through the decades.

The oldest marker is for one Exercise Conant, dated 1722.

10. UConn Forest

UConn ForestSource: LangSun14 / shutterstock
UConn Forest

North and east of the Storrs campus and contained by the Fenton River is a massive tract of woodland belonging to the university. The good news is that the trails at UConn Forest can be accessed by the public.

The Nipmuck Trail weaves through this property. As well as idyllic streams and peaceful woods I spent time tracking down some abandoned sites.

On high ground near the Horsebarn Hill access point you’ll find the rather eerie remnants of a ski lift. Leading up from the Fenton River, this goes back to the 1960s when there was a short-lived ski station here.

Close to Gurleyville Road you’ll happen upon more curious vestiges at a series of long abandoned wire cages. These were erected for animal breeding experiments in the 70s and 80s.

11. Eagleville Preserve

Eagleville PreserveSource: Lyzzette Rivera Montes / facebook
Eagleville Preserve

This spot on the Willimantic River in Mansfield has some compelling industrial history to uncover on a light one-mile loop.

Much of the trail is on a riverside terrace, and in spring you’ll hear the calls of migrating birds and frogs in vernal pools.

The preserve is on the site of a large early 19th-century cotton mill. This was one of the first in the state, and the foundations of which are under the parking lot.

The river dam was constructed as a reservoir for the millrace to power a waterwheel, which was in operation until the mill turned to steam power at the of the 19th century.

Something I learned on my visit was that rifle parts were manufactured here in the Civil War. Then after the business failed in the Great Depression the mill was repurposed for making rubber soles, before finally closing in the 1950s.

A footbridge traverses the now calm millrace, in a beautiful setting. To the east where the race meets the river there’s a beautiful tract of oak forest on what used to be farmland.

12. Nathan Hale Homestead

Nathan Hale HomesteadSource: Jennifer Yakey-Ault / shutterstock
Nathan Hale Homestead

A weekend trip well worth making, the childhood home of Connecticut’s state hero is within a comfortable drive west in Coventry.

Nathan Hale (1855-1876) was famously hanged by the British as a spy in the Revolutionary War. He was just 21, and was apprehended on an intelligence-gathering mission to New York City.

His supposed last words were, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country”. The present house at the Nathan Hale Homestead was raised in the year of his death and can be visited for tours, Fridays and weekends May through October.

Within, I was impressed by the trove of Hale family possessions. These were amassed by the 20th-century antiquarian George Dudley Seymour.

Out on the property you’ll learn how the farm fueled the Hale family’s wealth. Meanwhile to the north and south are the Nathan Hale State Forest’s 1,500 acres of woodland.

13. Connecticut Eastern Railroad Museum

Connecticut Eastern Railroad MuseumSource: jjbers / Flickr
Connecticut Eastern Railroad Museum

A fine idea on a summer’s weekend, this railroad museum is at the site of the old Columbia Junction Freight Yard in downtown Willimantic.

What you’ll find is a length of track with an absorbing array of rolling stock and a reconstructed roundhouse with foundations dating back to 1892. Look out for the Chaplin Station building, dating from the early 20th century and relocated at the museum in the 1990s.

As for locomotives there’s an EMD SW-8 from 1950, an EMD FL9 from 1960, and a Metro-North Railroad SPV (Self-propelled vehicle) from 1981. 

I was especially taken with the Alco S-4 Locomotive, built in 1955 and once running the Central Vermont Railway. Another fun touch is the 1850s-style pump car that you can try out.

Keep an eye on the calendar for family events, like Train or Treat at Halloween.

14. Cassidy Hill Vineyard

Cassidy Hill VineyardSource: Cassidy Hill Vineyard / facebook
Cassidy Hill Vineyard

This vineyard over the town line in Coventry produces a selection of highly-regarded wines. Growing on the property are red and white grapes like Merlot, Catawba, Cayuga White, Traminette, Vidal Blanc.

Cassidy Hill has picked up a few awards in recent years. For instance, the Pink Catawba Rosé won Connecticut Wine Society’s 2018 Amenti del Vino “Best in Show”. 

I can’t get enough of the setting, which could not be more picturesque. The vineyard’s hilltop log cabin winery endowed with far-off views over rural Eastern Connecticut.

April to December you can visit to sip wine on the porch or a bench under the “Thinking Tree”. This is a dignified solitary mature maple next to the vines.

In summer you can while away a Friday evening of wine tasting here with the Friday night concert series.

15. Diana’s Pool

Diana's PoolSource: ctwaterfalls.com
Diana’s Pool

There’s a wonderful but lightly trafficked natural sight on the Natchaug River just next door in Chaplin.

Walled by deciduous woodland and rocky banks, Diana’s Pool is between a pair of small cascades, one filling it and the other draining it.

I found that the prettiest of these is the lower falls. This has a magical curtain of water, plunging from little more than three feet up.

The scene is glorious in fall, against the profuse vegetation on the river’s edge. Both the upper and lower falls are little more than a minute on foot from the parking area.

15 Best Things to Do in Mansfield (CT):

  • Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts
  • William Benton Museum of Art
  • The Adventure Park at Storrs
  • Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry
  • Mansfield Drive-In Theatre
  • Mansfield Hollow State Park
  • J. Robert Donnelly Husky Heritage Sports Museum
  • Connecticut Repertory Theatre (CRT)
  • Mansfield Center Cemetery
  • UConn Forest
  • Eagleville Preserve
  • Nathan Hale Homestead
  • Connecticut Eastern Railroad Museum
  • Cassidy Hill Vineyard
  • Diana's Pool