Armchair photo tours: A fall day trip in the Connecticut River Valley with a stop at Gillette Castle

A view of the early fall colors in the Connecticut River Valley near East Haddam

Photos by Cheryl Landes

The Connecticut River Valley is a beautiful mix of scenery, history, and wildlife. In the fall, the changing colors enhance the experience.

I joined some local friends on a day trip through the valley one day in early October, when the leaves were starting to change colors. We bought tickets for a two and one-half hour tour with Essex Steam Train & Riverboat in Essex, Connecticut.

Our trip started at the historic Essex Station, built in 1892.

Essex Station in Essex, Connecticut

We boarded a vintage coach, pulled by a steam locomotive, for a ride along the Connecticut River shoreline to the towns of Deep River and Chester. Along the way, we saw cormorants and ducks swimming in the coves and tidal marshlands.

The vintage steam locomotive at Essex Station in Essex, Connecticut

The train stopped at Deep River Landing, where we boarded a riverboat for a one-hour, 15-minute cruise along the Connecticut River.

Boarding the riverboat at Deep River Landing in Deep River, Connecticut

We sailed past rocky cliffs with views of the Gillette Castle through the trees, the Goodspeed Opera House, and the Haddam Swing Bridge.

A view of Gillette Castle (upper left) from the Connecticut River
The Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut
The Haddam Swing Bridge in East Haddam, Connecticut

When the boat returned to the landing, we boarded the train again for our return to the Essex depot.

View the Essex Steam Train & Riverboat route map.

After we left the depot, we took the historic Chester-Hadlyme ferry across the Connecticut River. The ferry started in 1769 and is the second oldest in continuous operation in Connecticut.

The Chester-Hadlyme ferry
The Chester-Hadlyme ferry dock

When we arrived on the other side of the river, we walked the steep trail to Gillette Castle. The 24-room mansion, resembling a medieval-style castle, is the former home of William Gillette (1853-1937), an actor best known for his role as Sherlock Holmes.

Gillette Castle

Today, the castle and the surrounding property is a state park. The castle is usually open for tours, but due to COVID-19, it’s closed until further notice. The grounds are open 8 a.m. until sunset. (We visited the castle before COVID, so we could go on the tour.)

Other activities include camping, hiking, and picnicking. The castle is decorated for the Christmas holiday season.

Inside the Gillette Castle
Whimsical frog figurines inside the Gillette Castle
A stained glass ceiling light inside the Gillette Castle
Left: A view of the Connecticut River from the second floor of the Gillette Castle
Right: A closer view of the stonework at the Gillette Castle

Gillette Castle State Park is also accessible by car; the address is 67 River Road in East Haddam, Connecticut (get directions). Admission is free, except for the castle tours. Learn more at the park’s website.

The Essex Steam Train & Riverboat office is located at the Essex Station at 1 Railroad Avenue in Essex, Connecticut (get directions). Tickets are available online or at the Essex Station, but I recommend buying tickets online, because tours often sell out. For more information about the tours, visit or call (860) 767-0103.

More fall colors along the Connecticut River near East Haddam
Clouds gather before sunset over the Connecticut River near East Haddam

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