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Unfold the state's official highway map, and you'll find conspicuous splotches of dark green and light green scattered over a white background. They represent state parks and state forests, and there are more than 100 of them.
Some are well known, like Hammonasset Beach State Park in Madison, which is visited by 1.5 million people a year. Others, like Above All State Park in Warren, are virtually unknown.
More than 8.3 million visits were made to these parks and forests last year, and countless thousands more visited private and federal properties like those owned by the Nature Conservancy or the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
But it is probably fair to say that for most people, most of Connecticut's parks and preserves, whether public or private, are an unexplored frontier.
One barrier is a lack of information about many of them.
People may know from the state map that there is a state park in Torrington where you can swim and that there is a state park in East Haddam where you can picnic and fish. But how is the swimming? What is that park like? Will children enjoy it? And how about the fishing? Trout? Or sunfish?
Starting today, we'll take you to these parks and try to answer those questions. Each month in Cal, we'll review one park, preserve or nature area, publicly owned or privately owned.
We'll visit places like Hammonasset and Sherwood Island in Westport, of course, because even though they are popular for sunbathing and swimming, they have other lesser-known attractions, too. Hammonassett, for example, is a bird-watcher's paradise.
But we will emphasize the lesser-known parks, places like Whittemore-Larkin Bridle Trail, and some of the newly acquired parklands that aren't even on the map yet. Or we'll visit places like Rock Spring preserve in Scotland, a little-known gem owned by the Nature Conservancy.
We'll explain what facilities are provided, what to look for and what to bring. Are there bathrooms? Is drinking water available? How about bathhouses? A covered picnic shelter?
Can you fish there? Do you want to fish there? Swimming? Is it a great place to hike? Can you buy a hot dog and a soda? Is there any danger you need to worry about? Is there a special view, a colony of wildflowers or a picnic spot to die for? We'll let you know.
We won't be awarding stars to the parks, but we hope you'll get a good sense of what to expect if you visit. If the grass needs cutting, we'll say so. If the dumpster is overflowing and smells, we'll report that, too.
We think it is a good time for a column on our parks and preserves. The state parks suffered early in this decade because of the state's financial problems. Some of the more lightly used parks were closed or left without maintenance staff. Major repairs were postponed at many parks.
But in recent years, with the state's budget fortunes reversed, the parks have begun to receive the attention they need, and the state has launched a new open-space acquisition program.
Improvements are under way or about to begin at a number of parks. For example, Indian Wells State Park on the Housatonic River in Shelton will be overhauled this year with a new road, new restrooms, a new boat launch and a relocated beach.
Hopeville Pond in Griswold will get a new restroom building, and Silver Sands State Park in Milford will open -- this has been a long time coming -- with parking and a boardwalk for now. Changing houses and bathrooms are in the future for this beachfront park on Long Island Sound.
Meanwhile, the state Department of Environmental Protection, which manages the parks, is appealing to the legislature for more money for seasonal employees to keep parks maintained properly. The most oft-heard complaints from the public in recent years have involved dirty restrooms and grassy areas that needed mowing.
``We could do more in terms of our appearance. We are hoping we can get more money to attract more seasonal staff to our parks,'' said Pamela A. Adams, director of state parks.