Length: About 70 miles, plus side trips.
When to go: Popular year-round.
Nearby attractions: Wadsworth Atheneum (containing fine collections of painting and porcelain), Hartford. Lock Museum of America (keys, locks, and hardware), Terryville. The American Clock and Watch Museum and the New England Carousel Museum, Bristol.
Further information: Litchfield Hills Travel Council, P.O. Box 968, Litchfield, CT 06759; tel. 860-567-4506, www.litchfieldhills.com.
Graced by quaint country villages, inviting woodlands, and rolling fields in the green hills of northwestern Connecticut (or, if you prefer, the foothills of the Berkshires in Massachusetts), this backroad ramble tours a serene landscape that is colored by both innocence and elegance.
An affluent outpost on the banks of the Farmington River, this old gem of a town has long lured admirers of art and architecture. A number of classic white clapboard buildings form part of the exclusive Miss Porter’s School, a Farmington institution for well over a century. Even older is the carefully restored 18th-century Stanley–Whitman House (with an overhanging second story) and its adjacent gardens on High Street. The nearby Hill-Stead Museum, designed in 1898 by one of the country’s first female architects (Theodate Pope Riddle, an early graduate of Miss Porter’s School), houses a fine collection of French and American Impressionist paintings.
2. Topsmead State Forest
Motoring west on Rtes. 4 and 118, a right turn onto East Litchfield Rd. and a right onto Buell Rd. lead to Topsmead State Forest. A belief in the enjoyment to be found in woods, meadows, flowers, and wildlife led Edith M. Chase, another local grande dame, to bequeath her 500-acre estate to the people of Connecticut so that they might enjoy the land as she herself once did. Her antique-filled Tudor-style mansion is open to visitors on alternate weekends, but the real adventure here is having a chance to play lord of the manor in an idyllic outdoor setting. You can hike over open fields, lose yourself amid a 40-acre wildflower preserve, or trace an ancient stone wall as it winds through refreshingly cool, canopied woodlands.
“The only street in America more beautiful than North Street in Litchfield is South Street in Litchfield,” quipped author Sinclair Lewis, who was more than passingly familiar with America’s main streets. He might have added that between North and South streets lies one of the prettiest greens to be found in all of New England. Laid out half a century after the town’s founding in 1720, this deeply shaded sward remains unchanged today but for the ever-increasing height of its oaks and maples.
Litchfield grew rich on mills, tanneries, and foundries, and it grew famous on the strength of its many prominent citizens, including Harriet Beecher Stowe (author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin) and her brother Henry Ward Beecher, the famed preacher, both of whom were born on North Street. On South Street be sure to visit the venerable Tapping Reeve House and Law School, and pause at the green to admire the Congregational Church, with its soaring white steeple.
Travel a few miles to the south of Litchfield on Rte. 63 to a spot where the fine art of cultivation is on display in season at the prize-winning gardens and meticulously landscaped grounds of the White Flower Farm, a mail-order nursery.
4. White Memorial Foundation
From the architectural splendors of Litchfield, the drive swings southwest on Rte. 202 toward the woodlands and wetlands of the White Memorial Foundation, a 4,000-acre nature sanctuary crisscrossed with paths that were first traced by Indians. Deep within Catlin Woods, giant hemlocks intermingle with red maples and white pines, and beavers inhabit the shallow waters of Miry Brook. Both outdoor recreation (hiking, horseback riding, and cross-country skiing) and education (a nature center and museum) are well served in this extraordinary environment.
5. Mt. Tom State Park
From the rustic bluestone lookout tower atop Mt. Tom, the view across the treetops takes in the Catskill Mountains to the northwest and one of Connecticut’s highest peaks, Bear Mountain, to the north. In the park’s lower reaches, you can swim in a bracing spring-fed pond or picnic at the tree-shaded water’s edge. At nearby Lake Waramaug State Park (reached via Rtes. 202, 45, and 341), you can camp, swim, fish, or rent a canoe and explore the hidden coves nestled along the lake’s unusually scenic shoreline.
Veering west at Warren, the drive coasts along Rte. 341 toward the picture-postcard village of Kent on the banks of the Housatonic River. The Appalachian Trail, which cuts through town, remains largely unnoticed by the art and antique lovers who crowd Main Street. For a change of pace, head down to the river, where the serenity is broken only by the subdued oar strokes of the Kent School crew team.
7. Kent Falls State Park
In spring the dogwoods gleam like pale moon drops along Rte. 7 as it gently rises and falls on its journey north from Kent. History lovers should stop at the Sloane-Stanley Museum just outside of town to view its collection of early American tools. A few miles farther on, at popular Kent Falls State Park, you can stroll across a grassy meadow to view the foaming cascades of a gorgeous multitiered waterfall.
8. West Cornwall
As Rte. 7 continues north, it passes through Housatonic Meadows State Park, where the rushing river is often dotted with canoes, kayaks, and fly fishermen. A few miles to the north, a turn onto Rte. 128 leads—by means of passing over a weathered red covered bridge—to the picturesque and diminutive hamlet of West Cornwall.
The last leg of the drive, along Rte. 7 from West Cornwall to Canaan, offers pleasant diversions in the warm months. Fans of sports-car racing flock to nearby Lime Rock (via Rte. 112), and music lovers are lured to Music Mountain (at Falls Village) for the summer chamber-music festival. At the little village of Canaan, you may want to pause at an outdoor café before heading north to the Berkshires or looping back toward lovely Litchfield.
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