There are few activities as New Englandy as a meandering autumn drive through a magnificent canopy of yellow, crimson, and orange, and there are few areas better suited to this as the stretch of countryside that runs from Northeastern Connecticut to South Central Massachusetts. Designated by Congress in 2014 as “The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor,” the 1,100-square-mile swath is so named because, in a nighttime aerial or satellite view, it is singularly dark, bookended by the brightly-lit sprawl between New York and Boston. More than 84 percent of its 707,000 acres are forest and farmland. Replete with quaint 18th- and 19th-century town greens, homesteads, churches, and mills, in Connecticut, it’s home to 171 properties and districts listed in The National Register of Historic Places. Connecticut state historian Walter Woodward calls the region a “still-beautiful, still-rural, history-proud, and heritage-rich old New-England getaway.”
Perhaps the most-traveled route in Connecticut’s Northeast corner is Route 169. Deemed a National Scenic Byway, Connecticut marks the course beginning in Lisbon, passing through Canterbury, Brooklyn, Pomfret, and ending in Woodstock. The foliage is dense, often draping over the road, and the deep greens of hemlock and pine accent the vibrant colors of red maple, black birch, northern red oak, and sweet birch. You’ll see evidence everywhere of the area’s agricultural past (and present), and will likely find yourself driving behind or past a tractor at some point. Whether you are on 169 or crisscrossing it on byways such as Route 12 or Route 171 that take you to Thompson, Putnam, or Eastford, you’ll get a view not just of foliage, but of history.
If you prefer to leave your car behind, between Nipmuck State Forest, Bigelow Hollow State Park, Natchaug State Forest, and Pachaug State Forest, there are more than 75,000 acres of public land. This month, The Last Green Valley celebrates the 30th anniversary of “Walktober,” when you can choose from 125 guided walks (“Stories in Stone Walls,” “The Great Thompson Train Wreck”). CTBikeRoutes.org has a searchable system for creating road cycling itineraries, and the Quiet Corner chapter of the New England Mountain Bike Association identifies local trails. The Quinebaug and Shetucket river systems provide plenty of scenic paddling and canoeing opportunities (see the TLGV website). Finally, the Connecticut Audubon Society’s Grassland Bird Conservation Center and its adjoining Bafflin Sanctuary offer 1,000 acres of stunning habitat land, 10 miles of trails, and an opportunity to observe up to 213 species.
What follows are just a few of the many notable destinations in Northeastern Connecticut’s Last Green Valley. In all cases, call ahead to check days and hours of operation, as these may be reduced or subject to change because of COVID-19.
Brooklyn Antiques, Arts & Refinements
Overlooking the Brooklyn Green Historic District, where buildings date from 1750 to 1850, Michelle Pappas’s charming establishment focuses on 19th-century functional and decorative wares, all labeled and dated with careful cursive on cardstock tags. Her treasures include a mortar and pestle, pewter measures, and a cranberry sorting board, all dating from 1850 to 1890.
7 Putnam Place, Brooklyn. 860-412-0329, www.facebook.com/antiqueshopinBrooklynCt
Crossing the border between Brooklyn and Pomfret on Route 169, you can’t miss the 200-acre Lapsley Orchard on the east side of the road. The moment you pull into in the small grassy lot across the street, the aroma of apple cider doughnuts deep-frying on-demand will beckon you. In addition to Lapsley’s apples and vegetables, the 400-square foot enclosed farm stand features such delightful products as elderberry syrup and maple walnut brittle from 19 different local producers.
403 Orchard Hill Road, Pomfret Center. (860) 928-9186, www.lapsleyorchard.com
Sharpe Hill Vineyard
At the end of a pebble driveway, Sharpe Hill Vineyard’s parking lot sits at the base of a dazzling 700-foot slope of grapevines, immediately transporting you to a small European winery. Self-guided vineyard walks are paused for the moment, but you can still get a glimpse of the gorgeous 100-acre estate from its periphery. Sharpe Hill grows four varietals of grapes — Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, St. Croix, and Vignoles. Visit the Tasting Room to sample (or buy) 14 different types of wines. Finally, step into the adjacent wine garden, a lovely, secluded courtyard where you sit at tables beneath the branches of weeping cherry trees.
108 Wade Road, Pomfret. 860-974-3549, www.sharpehill.com
Fort Hill Farms
Each autumn, visitors flock to Fort Hill for their (seven-acre!) corn maze. This year’s design is an elaborate monarch butterfly. If you’re adventurous, you can navigate the maze with flashlights under the stars. The milk from the farm’s 200 milking cows is used for Cabot Cheese and The Farmer’s Cow milk and ice cream, which you can purchase at the Lavender Creamery, as well as fragrant dried lavender, grown organically on the farm.
260 Quaddick Road, Thompson. 860-234-1153, www.forthillfarms.com
Soleil & Suns Bakery
Owner Bill Beausoleil baked with his mom as a kid, but, he says, it was when his sister got an Easy-Bake Oven that he found his calling. A former baking team leader at Whole Foods, he opened his place in 2012, and sells a selection of pastries, cookies, muffins, pies, and artisan bread. Whenever possible, he sources his ingredients locally, and so you’ll taste Lapsley Orchard apples in his apple pie. If you like a little heat, try the Antipasto Bread, made with Kalamata olives, cherry peppers, and whole garlic cloves. For a sweet treat, the white chocolate raspberry muffins are pretty heavenly. Call a few days in advance to reserve pies.
35 CT-171, Little River Plaza, Woodstock. 860-928-4977, www.facebook.com/SoleilBakeryLLC
Woodstock Creamery at Valleyside Farm
There is something incredibly tranquil and ageless about the view at Valleyside Farm. The parking area sits at the top of a slight hill, bordered behind and to the side by a series of weathered red barns and farm buildings, and a few sleepy cows. Looking beyond, you’ll see the lush green meadows extend until they meet the forest. Not much has changed on this land since King George III deeded it to the Young family’s ancestors in the early 18th century. Eleven generations later, the farm remains a family business. Go inside the Creamery or use the drive-through window to purchase local ice cream, Rhode Island “coffee milk,” and farm-raised beef, chicken, and pork (ardent home-cooks will be pleased to discover marrow bones and lard!). You can also find Woodstock Creamery’s own yogurt, milk, and labneh (a spreadable cheese made from yogurt). Whatever you do, don’t leave without trying its take on the medieval Icelandic “skyr (rhymes with “ear”),” available in flavors such as maple, fig plum, and toasted almond cherry. It has a dense consistency, tastes much milder than yogurt and is quite delicious.
210 Child Hill Road, Woodstock. 860-630-5139, www.facebook.com/WoodstockCreameryatValleysideFarm
Founded in 1889, Buell’s Orchard is a family-run, fifth-generation farm, growing 16 varieties of apples on 100 acres of orchards. Head to the orchards to pick your own and relish the scenic views. Buell’s farmstand is filled with pumpkins, mums, baked goods, and a refrigerated room with apples, vegetables, and if you’re lucky, concord grapes. This month you can also visit the Pumpkin Patch.
108 Crystal Pond Road, Eastford. 860-974-1150, www.buellsorchard.com
The Last Green Valley website is an excellent resource for activities, events, history, and more. thelastgreenvalley.org
Jocelyn Ruggiero can be reached at jocelyn@jocelynruggiero. Follow her on Twitter @jocelynruggiero.