Traveling New England: Charles Island By Foot

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Imagine walking to an island. You can do this twice a day to Charles Island, a small island in Connecticut. A twice-daily phenomenon, a tombolo, allows access from a state park. But time your visit well!

You can walk to Charles Island!
At high tide, the tombolo is covered over with water, showing no signs of the land bridge that connects the island and the shore. Photo: Sarah Walker Caron

Updated September 2020

Take a Walk to Charles Island Milford CT

One of my favorite free thing to do in Connecticut is to take an island walk. Off the shore of a small New England city sits a little island with a storied history that’s filled with the makings of a thrilling movie – pirates, buried treasure and even curses.

But beyond that, Charles Island in Milford, Connecticut, is a fascinating place where birds nest and visitors gather. The once lush greenery of Charles Island no longer forms a crescent on the water in the summertime, battered by hurricanes in the last decade. But it’s still a beloved place that beachgoers love to visit. And it’s a short walk to the island with its sandy, reedy and sometimes rocky shores.

And yes, I said walk to this Milford island.

Walking Off the Coast of Milford

This 14-acre island is located about a half-mile off the coast of Milford. At low tide, twice every day, it can be reached by foot via a tombolo – a rocky sandbar-like formation that is only visible when the water recedes. Visitors begin their walk at Silver Sands State Park, a public beach. But as locals well know, that walk must be well-planned and timed.

Caution and planning are absolutely key when visiting the island. This isn’t something to do on a whim, but rather to research (when is low tide?) and prepare for. With a window of only about two hours when the tombolo is fully accessible, many a visitor has discovered just how strong the tidal currents get once the water begins to cover it as the tide comes in. On one journey as a teenager, I thought flip-flops would work fine – until the straps snapped in the current.

Still, the allure of the island is strong. On warm, blue-skied days, the island is surrounded with boats and people stream onto its shores. Sitting on the beach at Silver Sands, the island looms large and beckoning. Signs, warning of the tidal changes and current, are often ignored.

A Historical Account of Charles Island- Is there treasure?

But the island is more than just a curiosity, with its unusual proximity and connection to the mainland. Captain William Kidd, the infamous pirate who was hung – twice, actually – in 1701, stopped in Milford during his last voyage as a free man. Modern scholars say that Captain Kidd wasn’t really a pirate but a privateer who was wrongfully convicted. But that doesn’t quiet the legends that he buried his vast treasure on the island while passing through the Long Island Sound town on his way to Boston. Many a metal detector has beeped its way across the island, in hopes of finding the riches. No one ever has.

Besides its pirating history, Charles Island is also said to be a cursed land that cannot be inhabited for long – and history seems to underline the point. In its earliest known history, it was inhabited as a summer home by the Paugusset Tribe of Native Americans. Somehow in the 17th century, the island, then called Poquahoag, along with the mainland that now forms Milford, became the property of European settlers. It was later renamed for onetime owner Charles Deal, who wanted to create a tobacco plantation there. That never came to fruition. Since then, it’s housed a private home, a resort, a religious retreat, a fish fertilizer company and now a bird sanctuary. In the 1960s there was even talk of creating a power plant there, but plans failed.

sandy beach and ocean with a view of Charles Island off in the distance
Shown in this 2007 photo, the foliage on Charles Island used to be lush. It has since been ravaged by two hurricanes, leaving fewer trees. Photo by Sarah Walker Caron

Charles Island Curses

The curses – and there are many – are said to come from the Paugussets who were angered when the Europeans took control of the island, as well as Kidd who swore no one but him could touch his treasure there. Other sailors are said to have brought more bad luck as well.

Campers who’ve stayed overnight on the island’s shores tell stories of voices, mysterious lights and other strange occurrences. It’s likely more hype than substance. But just in case, keep a watchful eye on the tide so you don’t accidentally find yourself overnighting on the island as high tide rolls in.

Know Before You Go

tombolo leading to Charles Island Milford CT seen during low tide, tide pools in the back of the photo with a danger sign closer
The tombolo, a land bridge between Silver Sands Beach and Charles Island off the coast of Milford, Connecticut, is seen at low-tide in this photo. Photo by Sarah Walker Caron

The island is off-limits during nesting season, which begins in late May and continues through September. Designated as a Natural Area Preserves by the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, nesting birds like egrets lay eggs and hatch them there. The DEEP also prohibits walking when the tombolo is covered with water. So, if you want to try searching for pirate treasure, spring or fall is the time to go. Begin at low tide at the base of the tombolo, part of Silver Sands State Park.

Otherwise, enjoy the island and its storied history safely from shore.

Charles Island, off the shore of Silver Sands State Park, is located about 20 minutes from New Haven and 15 minutes from Bridgeport. It can be accessed from Park Way in Milford, CT.

Before Heading to Charles Island

  • Research low tide times.
  • Let someone know where you are going.
  • Check hours and current conditions for Silver Sands State Park.
  • Be advised that the 3/4 mile boardwalk is currently closed due to COVID-19. You can still access the beach via trails.
  • Crossing is not allowed from May 1 to September 9 due to nesting birds.
  • State residents with a CT license plate will not need to pay a parking fee.
  • If you have out of state plates parking is $15 on weekdays and $22 on weekends. This fee can be paid with no contact.
  • Silver Sands State Park hours are 8am to sunset.

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