About this Itinerary
From the bucolic landscape of Yale University’s New Haven campus, over several scenic bridges, through quaint New England towns, past historical canal locks and rural Connecticut farmland, the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail (FCHT) offers a delightful ride through the heart of the Nutmeg State. A work in progress, the trail currently covers 40 miles, in three sections, but will someday stretch continuously from New Haven to Northampton, Massachusetts, following the route of the former canal that once carved through this landscape.
Completed in 1835, the Farmington Canal was in its time, the longest canal in New England. Businessmen in New Haven sought to replicate the success of the Erie Canal, and constructed the canal over a ten year period beginning in 1825. Unfortunately, its completion coincided with the rise of the railroad and after only 12 years, and considerable expense, the canal was abandoned and a rail bed was laid over the top. The Canal Railroad was destroyed in a flood in the early 1980s and never replaced. In the 1990s, movement was made to turn the abandoned rail line into a rails-to-trails route and construction began in the southern section outside of New Haven. Today, the trail runs from New Haven to the Massachusetts border, but with a gap from Cheshire to Southington and another gap from Southington to Farmington (in between there is a four-mile stretch of completed trail.) There is no safe on-road connection through these gaps, so for this itinerary we will break up the ride and bike 16 miles of the southern section on day one (32 roundtrip) and 20 miles of the northern section on day two (40 miles roundtrip) and omit the 4 miles of trail in Southington.
Our base for this itinerary is the historic town of Farmington, located roughly halfway along the FCHT. Rich in history, the downtown village area contains a number of colonial estates, and other noteworthy buildings. The town was known as ‘Grand Central Station’among escaped slaves as several properties were safe houses on the Underground Railroad. Today, Farmington is well known as an affluent suburb of Hartford with quaint shops and fine restaurants as well as the home of Miss Porter’s School, a prestigious school for girls. Located in downtown Farmington, stay at the Farmington Inn. Close to restaurants and shops, the hotel features classic New England charm with modern amenities such as free wifi and a complimentary buffet breakfast. To reach the hotel from Bradley International Airport, take I-91S to I-84W to exit 39 onto State Highway 508. Merge on to CT-4/Farmington Avenue in Farmington and look for the hotel on your left.
Bike rentals are available in Farmington at Central Wheel. Located about three miles north on Farmington Avenue, this full service shop rents road, mountain and hybrid bicycles, as well as offering repair services.
After a hearty breakfast at the Farmington Inn, drive to the FCHT trailhead in Cheshire, located 17 miles away. To reach, follow Farmington Avenue to I-84S. Take exit 26 for CT-70 toward Cheshire/Prospect and turn left on CT-70E. Follow for about 3.5 miles and turn right on Willow Street and right on Cornwall Avenue and look for the parking lot and trailhead on your left. Our route today takes us about 16 miles to New Haven and back (32 miles roundtrip). With full water bottles, head out south on the trail. Note that water fountains are not plentiful on the trail, but on this southern section there are numerous convenience stores, restaurants, and grocery stores that are easily accessible.
Shortly after setting out, pass Lock 12, a charming park with two restored locks, a lock keepers house and a beautiful stone bridge. These remnants of the canal’s past are a nice introduction to the trail and a reminder of the function this route once had. Farther along, at about 5.5 miles, come upon Sleeping Giant State Park, which announces itself in the form of dramatic rock-faced cliffs. Look closely to see how the two mile mountaintop resembles a sleeping giant. Stop to take a 1.5 mile hike to the stone observation town on the peak of Mt. Carmel and on a clear day, get a spectacular view of Long Island Sound and New Haven. To reach the park entrance, turn left at the intersection with Mt. Carmel Avenue and look for signs across from Quinnipiac University. Before this intersection you will bike along the back of some shops. Among these is Cheshire Cycle & Repair. While the shop does not rent bicycles, they do offer repair services, should this be necessary. If you need to grab a cool drink or some food, stop in to Tonino’s Pizzeria, located trailside at this intersection, before continuing south toward New Haven.
At around the 12-mile marker you will approach the Hamden/New Haven town line. The section from Hamden through New Haven is more urban and, as noted above, there have been robberies committed against trail users in this area. Efforts have been made to increase patrol presence and many people bike and walk along this route every day without problems; however, all trail users should be alert. As is true on any trail, use your judgment and do not proceed if you feel unsafe.
The trail ends on Temple Street on the campus of Yale University, two blocks north of the New Haven Green. There are a number of restaurants within close proximity to the trailhead, from fast food to coffee shops to sit down establishments. Options include Clarks, which serves sandwiches, burgers, pizza and salads and is located one block east at 68 Whitney Street. On Chapel Street, one block from the Green, find a Panera Bread for a hearty salad or sandwich; or located next door, B-Natural which also has a selection of sandwiches as well as a smoothie and juice bar with an extensive menu of tantalizing choices.
Before returning to the FCHT, stop by the Yale University Art Gallery at 1111 Chapel Street to peruse the collection of Italian paintings, African sculptures, modern art and American decorative arts. The museum is free and open to the public every day except Mondays. If time does not allow for exploration of the galleries, at the minimum, bike past to take a look at the amazing architecture of the three buildings that comprise the museum. In addition to two neo-gothic structures, the modern glass and concrete building next to them is designed by famed architect Louis Kahn and is considered to be his first masterpiece. Stretch your legs a bit more and spend time wandering Yale’s beautiful campus before returning to the FCHT and biking north toward Cheshire.
Today’s ride takes you 20 miles north through farm land and a rural landscape to the Massachusetts border. The trailhead in Farmington is located about 2.5 miles from the inn and is easily biked. To reach, turn left on Farmington Avenue from the hotel and take the first left on Garden Street. Follow this road until it ends and take a right on Meadow Road. Bike for slightly less than one mile and look for the trailhead on your right. (Meadow Road will veer off to the left, but continue straight on Red Oak Hill Road.) If you decide to drive to the trailhead, look for the driveway to Tunis Meade Park and park in the lot there. The trailhead is just past the parking lot on Red Oak Hill Road.
This section of the trail is shaded and provides a nice respite from the heat and sun. On nice days, expect to see some crowds here, but as you continue north, you shouldn’t encounter a lot of traffic. Trailside businesses are less frequent on this section than they are on the southern route, so plan accordingly and be sure to set off with full water bottles.
In Avon, find Biker’s Edge just off the trail near Ensign Drive. This shop does not rent bicycles but does offer service, should that be necessary. Farther along in Simsbury, if you need lunch, located trailside, stop in at Benny’s for a quick sandwich, sub, or pizza (you will come upon the back of the store at around the 10-mile marker.) If you are not in the mood for pizza, continuing further along, the trail winds behind several shopping complexes offering a variety of other choices including Plan B Burger, which features gourmet burgers and salads. Turn left on Phelps Lane and look for it on your left. Also just off the trail in Simsbury, look for the little red building that houses Kane’s Market. This gourmet shop offers a rotating menu of specialty sandwiches, snacks and cold drinks, and is a fun place to wander around to pick up snacks.
At the Massachusetts border it is possible to connect with three additional trails to travel almost continuously off-road for about 24 miles to Northampton, Massachusetts, which is the original route of the Farmington Canal. If you opt to do this, stay on the trail, which becomes the Southwick Rail Trail, and continue along connecting to the Columbia Greenway Rail Trail and the Manhan Rail Trail to reach Northampton.
At the end of the FCHT there are no trailside adjacent businesses, however, if you bike less than two miles into Massachusetts, you will find Red Riding Hood’s Basket Cafe. This cafe is located on the Southwick Rail Trail in a renovated early 1900s general store which still retains the original tin walls, tin ceiling, antique serving counter, and pot-bellied stove. Opening hours vary, so call ahead before riding specifically to the cafe, but they cater to bicyclists on the trail so have longer hours in the warm weather and are open seven days a week. In addition to sandwiches, also find fresh baked goods and ice cream on their menu. Head south and return to 22 miles to Farmington.
As a side excursion for dinner, you could venture to nearby South Windsor to enjoy fine dining in a restored mill at one of the most picturesque restaurants in the area, Mill on the River. Featuring a New England influenced menu with dishes such as jumbo sea scallops, lobster ravioli and shrimp scampi (but with non-seafood options as well), this charming spot offers spectacular view of the river within an exquisitely renovated former grist mill. Or end your day’s adventures with a terrific meal at the Piccolo Arancio, located next to The Farmington Inn. A fine-dining restaurant featuring the flavors of all the regions of Italy, this elegant spot is the perfect place to relax with a glass of wine at the end of a long day of biking. Try one of their homemade pasta dishes, risotto, or seafood, and top off with a ricotta cannoli or limoncello crmon brûlée.
For those interested in riding the missing four miles in Southington, the southern trailhead is located about 16.5 miles from Farmington (there is no parking at the northern trailhead). To reach it, take I-84W and take exit 29 on the left for CT-10 toward Milldale. Turn right onto CT-10S, then right onto Clark Street and right on CT-322 W; take a left at the first cross street onto Canal. Look for the parking lot and trailhead on your left. The trail runs through residential and light industrial areas, and provides no shade. There are several trailside adjacent businesses throughout the route, although no on-trail amenities.
After your ride, you should have plenty of time left in the day to visit some local attractions. The Hill-Stead Museum in Farmington is a 33,000-square foot Colonial Revival mansion designed by Theodate Pope Riddle, one of the country’s first female registered architects. The property was built as a country house for Theodate’s parents and today is a museum that, in addition to being of architectural interest, houses an important art collection, including works by Cassatt, Degas, Money, Manet and Whistler. The property was opened to the public in 1946 and is one of the few remaining early 20th-century Country Place Estates. Tours of the museum and house are by guide only. In addition, visitors may walk the garden trails or participate in a number of events hosted at the site throughout the year.
Step back to Colonial times with a visit to the Stanley Whitman House. This living history museum allows visitors to experience what life was like in Farmington in the 1700s. Tour the circa 1720 National Historic Landmark House, the oldest 18th-century structure in town; see objects from everyday life; participate in a cooking demonstration; and wander the grounds to see the flower, plant and herb gardens.
Farther afield, tour The Mark Twain House & Museum, a National Historic Landmark in nearby Hartford. Home of the great American writer and his family from 1874-1891, this is where Twain wrote Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Prince and The Pauper, and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. The building is example of Picturesque Gothic architecture and features 25 rooms including a glass conservatory, a library, a billiard room and a dramatic grand hall. Tour the home and visit the museum with special exhibits about Twain.
While in Hartford, you can also explore an exciting art collection showcased in five distinct buildings at the Wadsworth Athenaeum Museum of Art. Founded in 1842 by Daniel Wadsworth, one of the first major American art patrons, the museum contains a collection of nearly 50,000 pieces that span 5,000 years. Highlights include the Morgan collection of Greek and Roman antiquities and European decorative arts, a collection of Hudson River School landscapes, modernist masterpieces, the Serge Lifar collection of Ballet Russes drawings and costumes, and much more. Comprised of five buildings, each reflects a different architectural style from gothic revival to late modernist.
End the day on a delicious note at Truffles, a bakery in Farmington that features a seeming endless array of delectable sweets such as cookies, cakes and chocolates, but also serves a tempting dinner menu. Offering dinner Wednesdays through Saturdays, enjoy such dishes as fresh salads sourced from local farms, homemade soups, lobster panini and lobster mac n’ cheese. This casual dining spot is the perfect place to a fast, but tasty dinner.