WHY GO: The small towns of the Litchfield Hills CT sure do pack a punch. And are also, happily, supremely romantic. Especially around Fall Foliage season.
Where are Connecticut’s Litchfield Hills?
In Northwest Connecticut, the towns of Goshen, Hartland, Harwinton, Litchfield, Morris New Hartford, Norfolk, North Canaan, Roxbury, Salisbury, Sharon, Warren, and Washington make up the Litchfield Hills CT.
As you drive scenic roads around these rolling hills, you’ll stumble on stores and vineyards that dot the landscape like day lilies. Be sure to pick up some Connecticut wine!
Do you like to putter around in the garden? Perhaps, find some rare and exotic type of flora to flaunt back home? Are you a lawyer or American history fan diving deep into the country’s very first Law School (with a surprising first student)?
Are you a rock hound searching for the most exotic stones thrown up by Mother Nature? Do you go out of your way to follow a hiking trail to a waterfall? Or to photograph antique covered bridges? Head up to Litchfield Hills CT where you can indulge in all of these passions.
This getaway brings you from Litchfield to Goshen to West Cornwall to Kent. Indulge in flowers and antique shops, an authentic and still in use covered bridge, and a mining museum that will knock your socks off. Continue to Washington CT and more Litchfield Hills on this foray into Northwestern CT – to the southwest.
And/or continue farther North to the lake country of Connecticut’s Northwest Border.
What to Do in the Litchfield Hills CT
TOUR: Tapping Reeve House and Law School – America’s First Law School – Litchfield CT
While attending the College of New Jersey (now Princeton) in the 1760’s, Tapping Reeve was so clever and astute, he was asked by the college founder and president, Aaron Burr, Sr., to tutor Burr’s young children, Aaron and Sally.
After obtaining his law degree in 1772, Reeve moved to Litchfield CT, where he both practiced and taught law. His first student was Aaron Burr. And, he ended up marrying Sally.
After a brief orientation in the Museum entrance, you’ll receive the “Traveling Papers” of an actual student: if male, for the Law School; if a woman for the nearby Litchfield Female Academy. This provides quite the intimate and personal experience.
The Reeve and Burr story is intricately intertwined with 50 years of Tapping Reeve Law School history on a captivating self-guided tour of the House and School Museum. Each room of Tapping and Sally’s former home is displayed as different parts of a student’s life, with actual quotes from letters and diaries.
Over a thousand young men and women from over twenty states made the sometimes-arduous journey to this remote Connecticut town. Several stories are told in a 15-minute introductory video, illuminating the differences in backgrounds and political thought, post American Independence.
The Federalist (strong government) – Democrat (States Rights) divide was just as nasty, it seems, as it is today. Law student, Asa Bacon, wrote home to his parents, “There is more party animosity here than you can imagine.”
Sally Burr Reeve was sickly for most of her short life – and Tapping lovingly made her as comfortable as possible. Incredibly, he built an addition onto their home from which Sally could watch, through a window, the goings on in the one-room Law School – a few feet away from their home. Open mid-April through Nov. Tues-Sat. 11-5, free.
TASTE: Litchfield Distillery
If you’ve never tried Maple Bourbon, or Bourbon infused Maple Syrup, you’re missing out. Litchfield Distillery aged their bourbon in barrels, and then used the barrels to store maple syrup, and, in that flavor infusion circle of life, used those to create their Maple Bourbon. But, you’ll find every kind of spirit in this growing more popular by the day craft distillery.
Local farmers do the growing, and the Litchfield Distillery does the batching. “And you get a little share in this luscious little section of Connecticut called Litchfield County” if you come in for a taste and tour. Open Mon-Fri 1-5, Sat 11-5, Sun. 11-4. Tours on the hour – sign up online.
WALK: White Memorial Conservation Center, Litchfield
Drive two miles from the center of town to amble through woods and on boardwalks at the 4,000-acre White Memorial Conservation Center. “Environmental visionaries,” the never-married brother and sister team, Alain and May White, founded White Memorial over 100 years ago, in 1913.
The Whites, recognized as pioneers in land conservation, are credited with bringing back the Mallard and Wood Duck from the brink of extinction. A considerable number of events, 35 miles of trails and an inventive museum can keep you engaged for hours.
Most intriguing is a full-wall exhibit on “The Art of Taxidermy,” a step-by-step guide to the art of preserving wildlife for all eternity. Museum open Mon-Sat 9-5, Sun 12-5, $6 adults, $3 kids. Grounds and trails open 24/7.
SHOP: White Flower Farm, Litchfield
Yep – it’s that White Flower Farm – the one that comes to your mailbox every Spring and Fall in the form of a drool-over catalog. And yes, you can actually visit this 200-acre nursery and purchase the best of the lot right from the source.
The name of the Flower Farm has nothing to do with the White Memorial Foundation a few miles away. It actually got its name from the perennial all-white garden – known as the Moon Garden, first planted by William Harris and Jane Grant, two writers from New York City, who moved here in the 1930’s.
Pick up a self-guided walking tour brochure and visit the gardens and three greenhouses. They are stocked with everything you need to create a harmonious and colorful yard. If you can’t find your way here, White Flower Farm will ship anywhere within the continental United States. Open April – October 9-5:30 daily.
SHOP: West Street, Litchfield
Unless you have deep pockets, you’ll be happy just to window shop along this alcove of a street. Tucked amid the horsey, preppy (e.g. the upscale men’s R. Derwin) and antique shops is the highly regarded and rated West St. Grill (see below).
TASTE/WINE: Haight-Brown Vineyard, Litchfield Hills
One mile from Litchfield Center, you’ll find Connecticut’s oldest winery and worth a stop if only to pop into the tasting barn for a sip. Open Mon – Thurs 12-5, Fri- Sun 12-6.
TASTE/WINE: Sunset Meadow Vineyards, Goshen
Specializing in wine made from domestic Cayuga Grapes, Sunset Meadow has won Double Gold for it’s slightly sweet “Blustery Blend.” Come in for a taste or for the incredibly refreshing Wine Slushy. It’s shaved ice for adults. Open May-Oct Mon/Thurs/Fri 11-5, Sat 11-6, Sun 11-5, Weekends 11-5 other times of year.
SHOP: Thorncrest Farms Milk House Chocolate, Goshen
I admit, the joke about getting chocolate milk from a chocolate cow is pretty lame. But drive a few miles up a dirt road, and you’ll discover a farm that produces milk chocolate confections nearly straight from the udder, which is (sorry), udderly unique. Drop in to check out the bovines and pick up one cool hostess gift. Open Thurs – Sat 10-5, Sun 10-4.
SHOP: Nodine’s Smokehouse, Goshen, in Litchfield Hills
This little shack sits behind the house where all the meat smoking used to be done until visitors discovered how good it was. Now, all the smoking is done in a larger facility miles away.
But the end products (hams, birds, cheeses, fish) are sold in this tiny store. You can also get sandwiches, beef jerky, Nodine’s Special Stuffed Breads, and other picnic items to take to the perfect picnic spot of your choosing. Open Mon – Sat 9-5, Sun 10-4.
DRIVE: West Cornwall Covered Bridge
Only one car at a time can clack across this authentic wooden bridge. Get to the other side, park and take advantage of the views from small parks on either side of the structure for optimal photos.
DO: Canoe, Raft or Kayak With Clarke Outdoors, West Cornwall
You’ll find river rats at the ready to help you plan your river adventure. The “Wild and Wooly” Clarke Outdoors has been doing this for years.
They will guide groups or let you find your way. Clarke folks will drop you off at put-in and pick you up at take-out point on the scenic, and not too rapid Housatonic River. Six and 10 mile trips. $60 per canoe weekdays ($70 per canoe weekend) for 2 adults include canoe, kayak ($40/$45 per single kayak), or raft ($35 pp), plus all equipment and shuttle. RSVP Necessary – check website for instructions.
HIKE: Kent Falls State Park, Kent
The multi-tiered Falls are just a short walk from the parking lot, but plan to hike a bit up and around the falls on well-marked trails.
The grounds are peppered with picnic tables and grills – so if you’re here around lunchtime and have sandwiches in the cooler, there’s no cooler spot to dine al fresco than within view of cascading water.
Of all the attractions in the Litchfield Hills, this 12-building complex on 8 acres, is the least known yet most worthy of attention.
With rare and unique rocks, minerals, industrial machinery, and the whole of Cream Hill School, this museum complex is a must-see. To top it off, it’s run solely by “weekend warrior” volunteers who love to tinker with last century’s technology.
Start at the Welcome Center by an antique Dodge Station Wagon
Begin at the tiny building that serves as the Welcome Center. You can’t miss it with the 1919 Dodge Station Wagon in front. Please deposit a “donation,” since the compound is free to explore.
Head right to the Mining Museum, presided over by passionate geologist, John Pawloski. Pawloski talks about rocks the way Neil DeGrasse Tyson discusses the stars.
Pawloski’s passion for Connecticut’s rocks and minerals is so well known, road and construction crews all over the state call him whenever they unearth something unusual.
For example, builders discovered the largest copper nugget in CT while excavating Sleeping Giant State Park’s golf course in 1995. It is prominently on display here.
Connecticut – Cradle of America’s Mining Industry
Pawloski considers Connecticut the “cradle of America’s mining industry.” Iron, Tungsten, Copper, Graphite, Gold, Granite – and even the first new mineral discovered in North America – Columbite, containing rare earth – have all been found and mined here.
“The geology of Connecticut is extremely complex, resulting in mineralogy that is as well,” Pawloski says.
Connecticut played leading a leading role in the use of rocks and minerals. The Salisbury Furnace provided iron ingots for most of the cannonballs, cannons, anchors, and ship chains (including chains for Old Ironsides) used during the Revolutionary War.
Connecticut-born Simon Ingersoll invented the world’s first rock drill in 1871. Although the company bearing his name, Ingersoll-Rand, found fame and fortune, Simon never got rich off of his invention.
Best Display of Rocks in CT
The Mining Museum features the best display of CT rocks in the state, including the ever popular fluorescent Minerals Room. It’s got dioramas on blasting, mining and a flume for gold mining. Most exciting for kids is the Mine Dump outside where they can choose a cool rock to take home for free.
Continue on to the Industrial Building that houses the steam engines that drove local factories from the 1860’s to 1930’s, with flywheels up to 14 feet in diameter.
This museum complex runs on volunteer power. Professionals, like Civil Engineer Robert Burton, are not only knowledgeable but are infectiously passionate about all aspects of these machines.
A tour here incorporates politics and history. The fact that women worked outside of the home (mostly farms) for the first time – earning their own money, newly independent- paved the way for Women’s Suffrage movement.
Cream Hill Aggie School
Next, explore the 1846 Cream Hill Agricultural School, which was located in North Cornwall CT. It was moved here, complete with furnishings, books and school records, in 1993.
Between 8 and 24 students lived and studied at Cream Hill School each year between 1846-1869. Most enrolled at Yale or Harvard after graduation.
The classroom has been reassembled exactly as it was left. Upstairs, find a jumble of books and records – some originals from the late 1700’s and early 1800’s, in former dorm rooms. These are just waiting to be identified and preserved. A project for UCONN History or Library Science interns, perhaps?
There’s a Blacksmith Shop, tractors, and even a narrow gage train engine – Hawaii #5 – that hauled sugar cane on the Big Island.
Keeping all this antique machinery in working order is time consuming. Volunteers at the saw mill and machine shop on site are kept busy fabricating missing or broken parts.
Plan for at least half a day here, especially if you are into rocks, minerals, blasting, mining, antique working engines, two hundred year old books, and an endless narrative about geology and industry in CT. Check website for hours and fees.
TOUR: Eric Sloane Museum and Kent Iron Furnace, Kent
Next to, but not part of the Antique Machinery and Mining Museum, the Eric Sloane Museum is homage to artist Sloane, originally established for the Stanley Tool Company’s 125th Anniversary. It tells the story of Connecticut’s craft and building heritage and operates as a State Archeological Preserve. Check website for hours and fees.
Where to Eat in the Litchfield Hills CT
EAT: West Street Grill, Litchfield
Duck into this comfy lemon yellow and ginger red space to nosh on pate, frittata, homemade soups and other French Country delectable’s. On a no-carb diet? Pish-posh. Order the “Peasant Pharm Bread” anyway. Swoon now, calculate the number of minutes required to work it off later.
EAT: Meraki Kitchen, Litchfield
This counter service spot on a busy main street is one of the most beloved cafes in Litchfield for its clean, locally sourced food. The flavorsome vegan Cauliflower Bahn Mi made me deliriously happy. But there are plenty of other vegan and non-vegan options as well.
EAT: Locals recommend in Litchfield Hills CT
Kingsley Tavern, Bulls Bridge Inn, and J.P. Gifford in Kent, and The Village Restaurant in addition to the venerable West Street Grill in Litchfield.