Folded into the Connecticut Valley on the west bank of the river, the small town of Rocky Hill has much to offer.
The oldest operating ferry service in the whole of the country departs from the riverbank for Glastonbury between the start of April and the end of November.
Rewind 200 million years and the tracks of a carnivorous dinosaur have been preserved down the ages in brownstone, and can be admired under a Space Age geodesic dome at Dinosaur State Park & Museum.
Rocky Hill has volumes of human history dating back almost 400 years and presented at the Academy Hall Museum, but the town is also close to largest historic district in the state, at Old Wethersfield, just ten minutes away.
Let’s explore the best things to do in and around Rocky Hill:
1. Dinosaur State Park & Museum
Some 200 million years ago an early carnivorous dinosaur similar to a Dilophosaurus walked across the sandy shore of a lake in what is now Rocky Hill.
Those tracks were preserved in brownstone to be revealed once more when the site was quarried in the 19th century.
There are about 2,000 individual prints in the state park, around a quarter of which are displayed under a geodesic dome that was put up in the 1960s.
Inside you can study the tracks, see dioramas evoking Rocky Hill in the Jurassic era and check out displays of other fossilised tracks from around Connecticut.
The outdoor space at Dinosaur State Park also needs to be explored for its arboretum growing 250 cultivars of conifers, to give a sense of what Mesozoic-era woodland might have looked like.
2. Rocky Hill-Glastonbury Ferry
The oldest continuously running ferry crossing in the United States links Rocky Hill on the west bank of the Connecticut River with Glastonbury on the east.
This service has existed in some form since 1655 when it was a raft propelled by a pole.
That was replaced by a horse on a treadmill, followed by a steamship, which in turn was switched out for the current barge and towboat system.
For drivers, the ferry saves a long detour via Hartford or Middletown, and is a godsend for cyclists who aren’t permitted to use the Putnam bridge in Wethersfield.
There are services from the beginning of April to the end of November.
As of autumn 2019 the rate was $6 per vehicle and $2 for cyclists and pedestrians.
3. Still Hill Brewery
One of the great things about Connecticut in the 21st century is that there’s a craft brewery for every town, and sometimes more than that.
Rocky Hill’s own purveyor of quality beer is Still Hill, which opens the doors to its industrial home from Thursday to Sunday.
The brewery has forged links with some great local food trucks so there will normally be good food to go with your pints or flights.
When we put this list together in autumn 2019 there were 10 beers on tap, with a contingent of citrusy IPAS, as well as stouts, a brown ale and a Czech-style pilsner.
4. Quarry Park
Rocky Hill is named after this basalt landform that became a quarry, exploited from the end of the 19th century to the post-war period.
The old quarry is tiered, with ponds in the lowest pockets, and distant panoramas of Hartford, the Connecticut River and Glastonbury visible from the highest point near the north end of the rise.
On the trails in the park’s 84 wooded acres you’ll stumble upon some of the decaying quarry buildings.
The most intact these is the old compressor house, but there are also some ghostly arcades, all daubed in graffiti.
5. Rocky Hill Historical Society
The museum for the Rocky Hill Historical Society is inside a handsome Federal-style academy building from 1803. Academy Hall is one of just a handful of surviving school buildings in the state from the early 19th century.
You’ll find it in a row, sandwiched between the town office building and the Rocky Hill Congregational church.
The building served as a school of some description until 1941 and was finally leased to the Rocky Hill Historical Society 20 years later.
The museum, open Tuesdays and Saturdays, selects from the society’s vast inventory of artifacts, including tableware, agricultural implements, jewelry, toys, dolls, period costume, Native American finds, military uniforms, paintings, tapestries and sports gear, for the briefest introduction.
6. Rocky Hill Ferry Park
One of the best ways to idle away an hour or two in summer is down by the Connecticut River watching the ferry shuttling to and fro.
Ferry Park is a small parcel of greenery, with dreamy views over to Glastonbury.
There’s a boat launch here, and in summer Shad Row is open for business.
This is a BYOB eatery specializing in New England-style seafood, ranging from chowder to rolls, wraps, po’ boys and salads.
7. Elm Street Historic District
On Elm Street between Silas Deane Highway and Grimes Road you’ll be on a Colonial-era roadway that was laid down in the 17th century, leading off from the Rocky Hill-Glastonbury Ferry.
This section of the road, from No. 18 to 191 is a Historic District added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1998. As you make your way you’ll see a real cross-section of New England architecture styles, including Colonial Revival, Tudor Revival, American Foursquare, Craftsman/Bungalow and a smattering of Queen Anne and Italianate houses from the Victorian period.
The oldest building of all lies at the intersection of Chapin and Ashwell Streets and has been here since 1769.
8. Codeword Escape
Rocky Hill has its very own highly-rated escape room attraction.
For the uninitiated, escape rooms require a series of puzzles to be solved, using individual skill and teamwork, within an hour time limit.
Often you simply have to get out of the room, but often there’s a specific mission to complete.
Codeword Escape has two rooms: Movie Theater Mayhem and Curse of the Golden Touch.
At the former you have to battle against time to recover a priceless award stolen from a movie theater, while Curse of the Golden Touch tasks you with finding a Midas-style king’s magic lamp to turn his daughter from gold to human again.
A helpful game master will be on hand for any queries and for little clues if you ever get stuck.
9. Cora J. Belden Library
Rocky Hill is rightly fond of the homey Cora J. Belden Library, praised as one of the best in the region, and run by warm, accommodating staff.
Like all the best local libraries, this place is a point of reference, with programming for adults, teens and children.
There are summer reading programs, book clubs, all sorts of fun activities for children and twice-weekly movie screenings (Monday and Friday) for classic films and recent releases.
A nice touch for people who need some peace is that the children’s section, with books, LEGO, toys, puzzles and computers, is on a separate floor to the stacks for grownups.
10. River Highlands State Park
There’s natural drama just down the Connecticut River in Cromwell, at this wood-shrouded state park on the high west bank.
The cliffs at River Highlands reach a height of almost 50 metres, which makes for some marvellous vistas especially when the foliage is gone in winter and early spring.
The woodland is dominated by white pine, beech and oak, and the loftier vantage points can be found to the north and south of the park.
On the way to these lookouts you’ll venture along trails tracing the edge of bluffs, crossing streams and dipping down to the water’s edge.
There you’ll find an unusual geological feature known as the “Blowhole”, where you can hear the hum of the wind as it rakes along the bluffs.
11. Old Wethersfield
The largest historic district in the state of Connecticut is ten minutes by car from downtown Rocky Hill.
Old Wethersfield is spread over two square miles, with 1,100 buildings, the earliest going back to the 17th century.
Some 100 of Old Wethersfield’s buildings date from Colonial times, and another 100 have been here since before the Civil War.
You can dive right into this history at the Webb Deane Stevens Museum, preserving a row of three houses, two of which have ties to George Washington: His Revolutionary War headquarters were at the Webb House in May 1781, and he dined at the Silas Deane House in 1775.
12. Elm Ridge Park
Although this space isn’t quite as scenic as the other parks on this list, it’s a hive of activity year round for its multiple facilities.
Just for a quick rundown, there are two little league baseball fields, a softball field, outdoor pool + wading pool, a basketball court, a volleyball court and a skatepark.
In winter Elm Ridge Park has a skating rink, while there’s a fabulous newly updated playground/sandbox, a pavilion, two charcoal grills, a gazebo, the Veteran’s Memorial Amphitheater and dog park.
Check the events calendar, as there are outdoor movie screenings on the main field in summer, as well as concerts throughout the season.
Then, towards the end of October is the annual Fallfest at the amphitheatre, with rides, live music, fun competitions and fireworks.
13. John Robbins House
Along Old Main Street you’ll come what is held as one of the best examples of brick-built Georgian architecture in Connecticut.
A private residence, the John Robbins House, completed around 1767, is 2.5 storeys tall and composed of bricks fired from clay recovered from a local field.
There’s a gambrel roof with elongated chimney stacks at each end, and a fine Palladian window above the main entrance.
An intriguing detail is the pair of circular windows just below the roof on the side elevations.
The house was built by John Robbins, who bought the plot from the Duke of Cumberland.
In its earliest days Robbins ran a tavern here, known as the Duke of Cumberland Inn.
14. Center Cemetery
This moody old cemetery sits on a triangular plot between Main Street and Dividend Road.
It’s the burial place for many of Rocky Hill’s early ministers, and frequently recurring family names like Merriam, Robbins, Goodrich and McNamara go back to Rocky Hill’s foundation.
The earliest interment an unnamed baby, the daughter of Benjamin and Mary Deming, who died in 1731. You can take a stroll and read grave markers, most of which are still legible, and cast your eye over the elaborate stonework on the crypts and obelisks.
A couple of the more noteworthy burials are Susan Webber (d. 1952) who survived the sinking of the Titanic, and Calvin Chapin, who was a fifer in the Revolutionary War.
15. Van Vleck Observatory
During the academic year you can swing by Wesleyan University’s Van Vleck Observatory on Wednesdays for a night of wonder.
Starting at 20:00 there’s a topical half-hour presentation by a member of the astronomy department, often dealing with a new discovery or breakthrough.
If the weather’s good this will be followed by the chance to peek through two of the observatory’s three telescopes.
The fine observatory building deserves a mention as it’s more than a century old and was named for Wesleyan University’s two-time president John Monroe van Vleck (1833-1912), a prominent mathematician and astronomer.
An impact crater on the moon, on the north-eastern rim of the Gilbert plain, was also named for van Vleck in 1976.