15 Best Things to Do in Vernon (CT)

Written by Veronique Raes
Updated on
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On the east side of the Connecticut River Valley, the town of Vernon is only 15 minutes from Hartford via I-84. But when I walked Vernon’s trails it seemed impossible to me that a big city could 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.

In the 1960s, Vernon absorbed the city of Rockville, a former manufacturing powerhouse famed for its textiles. There are clues of this heritage all over this corner of Vernon, once known as Loom City.

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

The Tower on Fox HillSource: illstudio / shutterstock
The Tower On Fox Hill

This octagonal Romanesque Revival tower stands at 72 feet in Rockville’s Henry Park. It’s located on the site of an earlier tower that was here for a brief time in the late-1870s.

The replacement was a Works Progress Administration project during the Great Depression. It was 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 I could make out 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 220 feet long with paved random flagstones.

2. Valley Falls Park

Valley Falls ParkSource: Jeff Holcombe / shutterstock
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 center, 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 burned. The foundations have been excavated and I spent a few minutes studying these remnants. 

Disappearing off into the woods is a whole series of trails. These range in difficulty, crossing streams, wetland, meadows and scenic lookouts. Naturally, the foliage is enchanting in fall, and the little waterfall is a super photo opportunity.

3. The City of Rockville, CT

Vernon absorbed the former city of Rockville in 1965, and it’s a compelling area to explore. One aspect that intrigues is the industrial history, as this was a prominent textile producer, dubbed Loom City in the 19th century.

Much of the old city is an enormous historic district, covering more than 500 acres and boasting almost 850 historic buildings. I’ll talk about a couple of the more prominent ones later in my list. 

For traces of that manufacturing heritage, there’s Florence Mill (1864), and the site of Saxony Mill (1836), now a public park. Also check out the stately Memorial Building (1890), home to Vernon’s town hall and the Civil War Museum, which I’ll come to later. 

For extra insight, Vernon Historical Society has published a downloadable self-guided walk around Rockville.

4. New England Motorcycle Museum

New England Motorcycle MuseumSource: New England Motorcycle Museum / facebook
New England Motorcycle Museum

Opened in 2018, the New England Motorcycle Museum has scores 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, one of Rockville’s textile factories.

This grand building was constructed back in the 1810s. The space has been sympathetically restored and is flooded with natural light.

It’s heaven for a motorcycle fanatic like me. 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. You’ll also find a staggering archive of motorcycle magazines.

5. Vernon Rails to Trails Park

In Vernon nine miles of tree-tunneled 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. It follows the railbed 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. To get oriented, you’ll find 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. This shoots off to the north for 4.1 miles on the course of an old industrial line laid down in 1862.

6. Spare Time Entertainment Vernon

Spare Time Entertainment VernonSource: Spare Time Vernon and City Sports Grille / facebook
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 center. Spare Time is 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 4,000-square-foot laser tag arena with ambient music, LED lighting, fog and other special effects. Elsewhere the center’s arcade has more than 80 state-of-the-art machines.

When I was in town there was an all-you-can-bowl offer for under $10, Sunday to Wednesday.

7. New England Civil War Museum

New England Civil War MuseumSource: New England Civil War Museum / facebook
New England Civil War Museum

One of the head-turning buildings in the picture-perfect center of Rockville is the former Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) Hall. At the Town Hall, this was established 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 on weekends, 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. What I found most compelling was a diary kept by a member of the 56th Massachusetts Regiment.

8. Connecticut Parachutists Inc.

Connecticut Parachutists Inc.Source: Connecticut Parachutists / facebook
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 check 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 14,000+ feet.

If you’re in luck with the weather the views are out of this world. You’ll 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. If you want to make it extra special you can even be joined on the jump by a professional freefall photographer.

9. Aussakita Acres Farm

Aussakita Acres FarmSource: Aussakita Acres Farm / facebook
Aussakita Acres Farm

A great idea for families with children aged ten and up, Aussakita Acres Farm is open for events from April to mid-November. On these days there are farm tours and 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 fuss over. 

If I had to pick one event for grownups to attend it would be goat yoga. This involves a yoga class in the presence of 30 mischievous and attention-hungry goats.

10. Mar-Lea Miniature Golf & Driving Range

Mar-Lea Miniature Golf & Driving RangeSource: My Lit'l Eye / shutterstock
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. Quirky decorations include a lighthouse, castle, windmill, church, barn, and treehouse.

The price point is great too, at just $7 for 18 holes when I compiled this list. More serious golfers can work on their iron play at the driving range which is set against a wooded hillside.

11. Hockanum River Trails

Hockanum River TrailsSource: Ellington hockanum River Trails / facebook
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. This network of loops and point-to-point paths will help you see the Vernon and Manchester townscapes in a new light. There are more than three miles of orange-blazed linear trails in Vernon.

The 1.4-mile Dart Hill North Trail is one of the hilliest and most scenic walks in the system. You can pick it up at a water treatment plant on Windsorville Road and head south to Dart Hill Park.

Southwest of Vernon, Union Pond is served by the trail, and is a cherished natural escape for me. 

Ideal for birding, the pond is a habitat for waterfowl and wildfowl like cormorants, Canada geese, ducks and gulls, as well as occasional great egrets and great blue herons.

12. Dart Hill Park

Dart Hill ParkSource: Vernon Patch / facebook
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 when I was in town was the park’s fitness trail, with hydraulic equipment. Those stations were installed in the late 2010s. Meanwhile at the center of the parking area is a little wildflower meadow to encourage bees.

13. Arts Center East

Arts Center EastSource: Arts Center East / facebook
Arts Center East

Vernon has a vibrant community arts center established in 2012 and supporting a rich local scene. 

Arts Center East puts 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 theater performances, live music, dance and lots of things for children to enjoy. I arrived in time for the exceptional annual photography exhibit, and was stunned at the standard on show.

The dainty Arts Center East Building is in the Colonial Revival style and went up in 1927. It initially served as a school for orphans and later as a regular kindergarten before falling into decline.

14. Vernon Historical Society

Vernon Historical SocietySource: Vernon Historical Society / facebook
Vernon Historical Society

For interesting perspectives on the town’s 200-year past, the Vernon Historical Society maintains a small museum. This is open every Thursday, and on the second and fourth Sunday.

The museum is a repository for items of local historical interest. Most of all I was absorbed by works by eminent artists from the area, like Charles Ethan Porter and Gustave A. Hoffman.

One of the big dates in the society’s calendar is the Annual Book & Media Sale. This event takes place over two weekends in late April/early May, and features 15,000+ books, all carefully organized by category.

15. The Shoppes at Buckland Hills

The Shoppes At Buckland HillsSource: The Shoppes At Buckland Hills / facebook
The Shoppes At Buckland Hills

There are retail units along I-84 in the southwest 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. The spectrum of chain restaurants here includes 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. Here I’m taking Apple, Anthropologie, Banana Republic, Pottery Barn, Old Navy, and Sephora.

In between the malls there’s a raft of standalone restaurants, from Wendy’s to Red Robin. For some entertainment, Cinemark’s Buckland Hills 18 XD and IMAX multiplex is no more than a couple of minutes from Vernon.

15 Best Things to Do in Vernon (CT):

  • The Tower on Fox Hill
  • Valley Falls Park
  • The City of Rockville, CT
  • New England Motorcycle Museum
  • Vernon Rails to Trails Park
  • Spare Time Entertainment Vernon
  • New England Civil War Museum
  • Connecticut Parachutists Inc.
  • Aussakita Acres Farm
  • Mar-Lea Miniature Golf & Driving Range
  • Hockanum River Trails
  • Dart Hill Park
  • Arts Center East
  • Vernon Historical Society
  • The Shoppes at Buckland Hills