On the east side of the Connecticut River Valley, the town of Vernon is only 15 minutes from Hartford via the I-84. But when you walk Vernon’s trails it will seem impossible that a big city could ever be so close.
Arcing through the town, the Vernon Rails to Trails Park is a narrow strip of nature on the paved trackbed of a 19th-century railway.
There’s also 19th-century heritage at Valley Falls Park, once the scene of a textile mill and now a place to wander, swim and relax in summer.
Another textile mill dating back more than two centuries houses the New England Motorcycle Museum, showing off some 200 bikes from 25 different brands.
Let’s explore the best things to do in and around Vernon:
1. The Tower on Fox Hill
This octagonal Romanesque Revival tower stands at 22 metres in Rockville’s Henry Park on the site of an earlier tower was here for a brief time in the late-1870s.
The replacement was a Works Progress Administration project during the Great Depression, constructed as a Vernon memorial for all wars.
Starring on Vernon’s town seal, the Tower on Fox Hill is the highest man-made point in the town and commands knockout panoramas west over the Connecticut River Valley.
On the horizon Talcott Mountain, Mount Holyoke and Mount Tom on the Metacomet Ridge 20 miles away on the other side of the valley.
Leading to the tower is a ceremonious promenade 67 metres long with paved random flagstones.
2. Valley Falls Park
Held as one of the loveliest town parks in the state, Valley Falls Park is a hilly, nature-rich escape for hiking, swimming and fishing.
There’s a pond at the centre, set in deep woods and traced by a beach area patrolled by lifeguards in summer.
Opening out next to the beach is a grassy area where picnic tables sit under the cover of a gazebo.
The park also has a lot of history, as the site of a mill from colonial times until 1877 when the last building burnt down.
The foundations have been excavated and labelled with an interpretive plaque.
Disappearing off into the woods is a whole series of trails, ranging in difficulty and crossing streams, wetland, meadows and scenic lookouts.
3. New England Motorcycle Museum
Only opened in August 2018, the New England Motorcycle Museum has more than 100 motorcycles from over 25 different manufacturers.
It’s the labor of love of lifelong enthusiast Ken Kaplan, who found the perfect venue at the abandoned Hockanum Mill, a textile factory.
This grand building was constructed back in the 1810s and has been sympathetically restored and is flooded with natural light.
There’s an entire floor dedicated to Harley Davidsons, and another just for dirt bikes.
Some of the many brands on show are Indian, Triumph, BMW, Rokon, Honda, Kawasaki, all combined with memorabilia for famous motorcycling events and personalities, and a staggering archive of motorcycle magazines.
When we compiled this list in summer 2019 a restaurant, bar and microbrewery were in the pipeline.
4. Vernon Rails to Trails Park
In Vernon nine miles of tree-tunnelled railroad lines have been converted into greenways for hiking, cycling, jogging, horseback riding and cross-country skiing.
The main 5.1-mile trail begins at the Vernon-Manchester town line and curls east towards Bolton on the trackbed of the old Hartford, Providence and Fishkill Railroad, laid down in the middle of the 19th century.
The path is part of the 21-mile Hop River Linear Park Trail that extends from Manchester to Willimantic and has trail maps in Vernon at the Church Street and Tunnel Road parking lots.
The trail grazes Valley Falls Park, and at Warren Avenue you can join the Rockville Spur, which shoots off to the north for 4.1 miles on the course of an old industrial line laid down in 1862.
5. Spare Time Entertainment Vernon
Parents with restless teenagers or anyone in need of inspiration for a night out with friends should look into this entertainment centre, part of a chain with locations around the United States.
The anchor at the Vernon branch is the 25-lane bowling alley, with five lanes reserved in a special VIP area.
There’s a 370-square-metre laser tag arena with ambient music, LED lighting, fog and other special effects, while the centre’s arcade has more than 80 state-of-the-art machines.
From 15:00 to closing time on Tuesdays there’s 50% off laser tag and all arcade games.
6. New England Civil War Museum
One of the head-turning buildings in the picture perfect centre of Rockville is the former Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) Hall, constructed in 1890 for Union Army veterans from the Civil War.
The GAR’s Thomas F.
Burpee Post #71 met here until 1934, and their heir, Alden Skinner Camp #45 of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, continue to meet once a month.
This makes it the oldest GAR building to be in continuous use.
The free museum, open once a week on Sundays, has been around since the hall was built, but was only officially recognised in the 1990s.
There’s much to delve into, like authentic rifles, muskets and swords, as well as a diary kept by a member of the 56th Massachusetts Regiment, wartime correspondence, an extensive library and historic GAR uniforms.
7. Connecticut Parachutists Inc.
A little way up from Rockville is Ellington Airport, one of two Connecticut airports certified as a parachute jump zone.
If it’s something you’ve been hoping to tick off, you could try Connecticut Parachutists Inc.
for your first skydive.
You won’t need any skydiving experience to take part in a tandem jump, leaping from a plane at 4,300 metres.
If you’re in luck with the weather you’ll be able to see as far as Long Island Sound and can trace the Connecticut River down to Hartford.
For a memento you can pick from a range of video packages, and can even be joined on the jump by a professional freefall photographer.
8. Aussakita Acres Farm
A great idea for families with children aged ten and up, Aussakita Acres Farm is open by appointment from April to mid-November, offering farm tours and a all sorts of animal experiences.
A tour lasts for about 90 minutes and entails a visit to the farm’s paddocks to meet, feed and interact with goats, ponies, pigs and alpacas.
If you visit earlier in the season there will be lots of piglets, goat kids and baby alpacas to make a fuss of! Younger children are welcome on special 45-minute sessions, while the farm also organises goat yoga in the presence of 30 mischievous and attention-hungry goats.
9. Mar-Lea Miniature Golf & Driving Range
There’s more family fun at this smartly landscaped miniature golf course off the Boston Turnpike to the south of Vernon.
Mar-Lea is great for younger and inexperienced golfers for its relatively straightforward but whimsically designed holes, with a lighthouse, castle, windmill, church, barn and treehouse.
The price point is great too, at just $6 for 18 holes.
More serious golfers can work on their iron play at the driving range which is set against a wooded hillside.
10. Hockanum River Trails
The Hockanum River rises at Shenipsit Lake in Rockville and flows for more than 22 miles through Vernon, Ellington, Manchester and East Hartford before entering the Connecticut River.
The Hockanum River Watershed Association has made the banks of the river as accessible as possible, and this network of loops and point-to-point paths will help you see the Vernon and Manchester townscapes in a new light.
There are 2.5 miles of orange-blazed linear trails in Vernon.
The 1.4-mile Dart Hill North Trail in Vernon is one of the hilliest and most scenic walks in the system, beginning at a water treatment plant on Windsorville Road and running south to Dart Hill Park.
South-west of Vernon, Union Pond is served by the trail and a habitat for waterfowl and wildfowl like cormorants, Canada geese, ducks and gulls, as well as occasional great egrets and blue herons.
11. Dart Hill Park
On the Hockanum River Trails, Dart Hill Park is a compact and well looked-after community park with a helping of amenities.
There’s a big tract of grass for kite-flying and picnics, while the gazebo offers some respite on hot summer days.
This sits right beside the newly updated playground.
Another recent improvement is the park’s fitness trail, with hydraulic equipment, while at the centre of the parking area is a little wildflower meadow to encourage bees.
12. Rockville Farmers’ Market
In the shadow of the GAR Hall in Rockville there’s a little Farmers’ Market trading on the Courthouse Plaza every Thursday from mid-May to mid-October.
Several farms from the Vernon area are represented, selling organic fruit and vegetables, eggs, free range pork, condiments, cheeses, bread, pastries, honey, pickles, jams and jellies.
As you’d expect all of these items are grown or produced by the vendors, who will be happy to answer questions about their wares.
The market is open from 10:00 to 13:00.
13. Arts Center East
Vernon has a vibrant community arts centre established in 2012 and putting on temporary exhibitions, as well as all kinds of classes for painting, sketching, watercolors, pastels, art journals and calligraphy, for a brief list.
The events calendar is also crowded, with theatre performances, live music, dance and lots of things for children to enjoy.
The dainty Arts Center East Building is in the Colonial Revival style and went up in 1927, serving as a school for orphans and later as a regular kindergarten before falling into decline.
14. Vernon Historical Society
For interesting perspectives on the town’s 200-year past, the Vernon Historical Society maintains a museum, open Thursdays and Sundays.
This is a repository for items of local historical interest, most famously works by eminent artists from the area like Charles Ethan Porter and Gustave A.
In summer 2019 there was an exhibition of rarely seen items to coincide with the 3rd revision of the children’s book, “Vernon, Our Town” (first published in 1967), with archive photographs and artefacts from day-to-day life down the years.
15. The Shoppes at Buckland Hills
There are retail units along the I-84 in the south-west of Vernon, but if you stay on towards Hartford for a couple of minutes you come to a whole enclave of malls and entertainment amenities.
The largest of these is The Shoppes at Buckland Hills, for Barnes & Noble, Foot Locker, GameStop, H&M, JCPenney and the like.
Next door The Plaza at Buckland Hills is mainly given over to dining, and has a spectrum of chain restaurants like Five Guys, Olive Garden and Taco Bell.
Then, just to the north, the open-air Promenade Shops at Evergreen Walk is a bit more upscale, home to Apple, L’Occitane, Clarks, Banana Republic, Old Navy and Sephora.
In between the malls there’s a raft of standalone restaurants, from Wendy’s to Red Robin, and Cinemark’s Buckland Hills 18 and IMAX multiplex.