Difficulty: 3 out of 10 (flat, sandy, rocky stroll with the potential for going the full Gilligan and getting stranded on a desert isle)
Highlights: Beach, marsh boardwalk, hermit crabs, awesome island, magical ocean walkway that opens up twice daily (and also disappears twice daily)
Distance: 2.6 miles, partial loop
Approximate roundtrip time: 2 hours (or 4 hours, if you bring my kids)
Total ascent: 127 ft
Max elevation: 45 ft above sea level
This hike is for you if: You want to walk on a magical highway of shells and rocks to an island just off the coast of Connecticut.
Super-cool Google Earth flyover of hike route:
Google Terrain Map of hike route:
BIG FAT SHOWSTOPPING WARNING: The hike documented on this page is NOT open to the public from May 1 – August 31, so that herons and egrets can nest in peace. (If the island’s a-squawkin’, you can’t come a-walkin’.) These dates shifted slightly from 2016 to 2017 (which is why they don’t match the photo below) so you may want to verify them on the official Silver Sands DEEP page before you go).
There’s still plenty of nice, beachy stuff to see here all year, but if you want to visit the main event, be sure to check your calendar first.
ONE MORE BIG FAT SHOWSTOPPING WARNING: You can only do this hike if you begin just before low tide, so that you have time to walk around the island and get back to the mainland before the walkway disappears (the tide comes in fast and the current can apparently be quite strong). If you attempt to just stroll out there without checking the tide charts first, be sure to pack a volleyball so that you’ll have someone to talk to while you’re stranded on the island. (We showed up about 90 minutes prior to low tide, and that seemed about right.)
There’s a very informative sheet posted at the trailhead with the title: “IF YOU REALLY REALLY NEED TO WALK TO CHARLES ISLAND…SAFETY TIPS.” Please click this image for a blown-up version of that sheet, and read it carefully to make sure your visit to Silver Sands is memorable for the right reasons.
Potential cheapskate alert: As of this writing in October 2016, parking at Silver Sands is plentiful and free (though it likely fills up on nice weekends). There is some serious discussion about ending the whole “free” thing, though, so prepare yourself for that eventuality.
Pooch proclivity: Pets are prohibited on the beach and boardwalk, even if they have awesome personalities. Harumph. (Pets kept on a leash are permitted in the picnic areas.)
Background you can feel free to skip: “I don’t even care that it’s not in the Hudson Valley. I’m totally writing this one up,” I said to my wife after our first (but definitely not our last) visit to Silver Sands State Park in Milford, Connecticut.
“You definitely should,” she replied.
After spending a day exploring Silver Sands, which is closer to many places in the Hudson Valley than some of the most popular Catskill hikes, it’s difficult to understand how we’ve lived here for fifteen years without ever hearing anyone mention this place. What gives, everybody?
We found this place because we didn’t make it to Cape Cod this year and wanted to smell some salt water before winter. Silver Sands State Park makes a very respectable stand-in for the bay side of Cape Cod, with long stretches of flat mud/sand beach and shallow tidal pools. As far as the kids were concerned, we might just as well have been at Cape Cod – they didn’t seem to notice the difference. (And sorry for your temporary loss of freedom, hermit crabs.)
If you can nail the timing to take the walk around Charles Island, too, well, it’s hard to think of a better way to spend a day trip.
All that being said, don’t expect pristine conditions – this is a crowded place, and you will likely notice some litter left behind by some of your less considerate (and apparently hula-hooping?) fellow humans.
And the beach itself is not a white-sand-type situation – there are rocks and shells everywhere, in addition to stretches of very fine mud/sand. In some spots, you’ll be walking exclusively on shells, which is pretty cool (and crunchy). The walk around Charles Island is also very rocky. Be sure to square your footwear situation accordingly – leave the flip-flops at home.
So while this place isn’t exactly in the Hudson Valley, it deserves a spot in your rotation of very cool locations within day-trip striking distance. (And if Milford, CT, would like to be added as an honorary Hudson Valley location, we can offer New Paltz as a great honorary coastal destination in exchange.)
If you decide to give it a whirl, have a great trip! But be sure to check the calendar and the tide charts before you go.
1. From the parking lot (see “Directions to the trailhead” below), head toward the ocean (technically, it’s the Long Island Sound, but we wanted to see the ocean, so I’m going to keep calling it that), stopping at the kiosk to see if you can learn anything. (Feel free to stop at the porto-potties along the way, too. We’ll wait here.)
2. Venture past the kiosk toward the ocean, along the wide, paved path, and hop on the marsh boardwalk when you get there. What a cool place, right?
Do your best to focus on the gorgeous ecosystem you are effortlessly strolling above, and not to focus so much on any red Solo cups floating around in the marsh. (And if you see someone littering here, I believe there’s a sign somewhere that says it’s okay to toss them into the marsh, too.)
3. As you near the sand, you’ll notice that you could turn to your left or your right to continue exploring the boardwalk. (If you go right, there’s apparently another worthwhile destination called Walnut Beach less than a mile up that way, and a nice pedestrian bridge over the marsh. We’ll have to explore those spots next time – after circling the island and splashing along the shore, our kids were too wiped to do much of anything else.)
4. Keep venturing straight here onto the mixture of sand, rock, and shell that makes up this beach, stopping to check out the DANGER sign that reiterates the really-bad-ideaness of venturing past this point at any time other than just before low tide.
5. Assuming the calendar and tidal situation both agree that it’s a good idea, let’s be about it! It took us about 30 minutes to reach the island, travelling at little-kid, stop-and-pick-up-every-shell-along-the-way pace.
Did you know that you’re walking on a tombolo right now? Me neither! (From Wikipedia, a tombolo is: “a deposition landform in which an island is attached to the mainland by a narrow piece of land such as a spit or bar.”) I just learned that word while writing this trail guide. Feel free to use this opportunity to impress your fellow tombolo-travelers with your awesome vocabulary.
6. When you reach the island, you’ll find some educational signage, then you can choose to circumnavigate to the right or left. We chose to go right and didn’t regret it.
Wave goodbye to the landlubbers back on the mainland!
7. Stick to the well-worn (though otherwise unmarked) trail around the perimeter of the island, and just enjoy the stroll.
It took us 40 minutes to go all the way around, including stops to pick up random bones.
Dude, LOOK OUT! Here comes Mommy with the hand sanitizer!
8. Hopefully, when you round the corner back to the starting point, the pathway to the mainland is still visible. If so, enjoy the stroll back! If not, time to unpack your volleyball and strike up a conversation.
9. I’m not sure how long the trip back to the beach should take, because as we approached the shoreline, we stepped off the trail to the right, exploring the very wide beach and tidal pools there. This is the spot that, to us, sure felt like a decent stand-in for the mud flats at Cape Cod.
From the beach, you get a nice perspective looking back at the tombolo, too. (Bang! Another vocab point scored!)
What a nice place.
At low tide, the SWIM AREA buoys look comically out of place.
But even as we stood there, we watched the tide rolling in, eating up the beach with each little ripple. In another 30 minutes, the wide beach had all but disappeared, getting swallowed from both sides as the tidal pools filled back up.
10. When you’re done frolicking and harassing the hermit crabs, walk back to the boardwalk and cross the marsh to the parking lot.
Hello again, car! Nice to see you again! Kind of. Does this mean we have to leave the beach now?
Hope you enjoyed your quasi-Hudson-Valley adventure today! May your return home be traffic-free. (And if you’re still stuck on the island, may your spearfishing be bountiful.)
Directions to the trailhead: From most points in the Hudson Valley, you’ll need to hop on I-84 East. From there, I highly recommend you pop “Silver Sands State Park, Milford, CT” into your GPS navigation device of choice. I started to write out the directions here, but there are many turns, many ever-changing potential traffic situations, and you should really let Google tell you the best way to get there.
You can also get directions by checking out the Silver Sands State Park entry on the HiketheHudsonValley.com Google map.
Sorta nearby address for your GPS: This hike has its own address. Far out!
1 Silver Sands Park Way
GPS coordinates of parking area: 41.20116, -73.06922 (Clicking will open in Google Maps or the Apple Maps app, depending on your browser/device.)
Related resources: If you’re looking for actual facts and/or useful information, visit these resources:
- The official State of CT homepage for Silver Sands State Park
- A nice Silver Sands write-up from ConnecticutExplorer.com (that, as a bonus, taught me the word “tombolo”)
- An informative article on potential changes to Silver Sands from the New Haven Register
- Some helpful Yelp reviews for the park
- The brief but informative Silver Sands Wikipedia entry
- An excellent reminder from the New Haven Register of what can happen if you are not very, very careful here: 2 adults, 8 children rescued off Charles Island sandbar in Milford
More Silver Sands pictures from the hike’s Flickr album:
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