Tis the season to explore the hidden gems of Southern New England trails and wild life refuges
That crisp chill in the night air can only mean one thing: fall is on its way! Yes, there will be pie. But there will also be leaves! Of many colors! And manic last ditch attempts to get outdoors before the snow comes and turns us all into shut-ins! Oh, but those darn leaf peepers have booked up every hotel room from the Berkshires to Burlington. That’s all right – you don’t have to drive all the way to Vermont to hike through the woods and enjoy the changing colors. In fact, you don’t even have to leave Rhode Island!
Providence’s Neutaconkanut Hill is my favorite spot for an outdoor stroll close to home, and despite being a mere 10-minute drive from downtown, it remains one of the area’s best kept secrets. In its heyday, Neutaconkanut was a popular spot for both summer and winter recreation, complete with ski slopes and a band stand. Sadly, as Providence gradually fell into decline, so did the park, until it was largely forgotten about. A few years ago local residents banded together and formed the Neutaconkanut Hill Conservancy, with the aim of restoring the park to its former glory.
The conservancy has done an outstanding job of constructing an expansive-feeling trail network, making the park feel much larger than its 88 acres. A lot of effort has been made to give the trails an up and down feel, despite the hill’s modest elevation, and they wind around through the woods so that you never feel as if you are in an urban park. When you go, simply head up either of the red trails, and make a loop or figure eight out of the blue and orange trails. The two massive sets of stone stairs built by the WPA in the 1930s that run through the middle of the park will give you a workout – consider yourself warned. At 296 feet, the top of the hill is the highest point in the city; pack a picnic lunch and enjoy the view.
Another option close to the city is the Audubon society’s 200 acre Caratunk Wildlife Refuge, just across the state line in Seekonk. Caratunk also feels like it’s much farther from civilization than it is. The meandering trail network takes you through a variety of terrain, including a meadow, a bog and a pine forest. Parts of the yellow and blue trails can get pretty muddy at certain times of the year, especially near the bog, and the blue trail crosses over itself several times, which can be a little confusing for the unfamiliar. Bring sturdy shoes and definitely download a map from the Audubon’s site before you go. You’re pretty much guaranteed to see wildlife here; on my recent visits I’ve encountered muskrats, wild turkeys, several different songbirds and deer.
[Our Motif intern team visited Caratunk this summer. See their adventures in this video]
All of the Audubon refuges are worth checking out, but my personal favorite is Fisherville Brook in Exeter. While there’s not much elevation change, a nice variety of scenery keeps things interesting, and the 5 miles of looping trails let me tailor my hike to be as long or as short as I want. If you only have a small amount of time, follow the blue trail through the pine forest, past the meadow and around the pond, and then follow either of the orange trails back. The trails here are always well maintained and their undemanding nature makes this a great spot for junior hikers.
If you don’t mind donning a safety orange vest during hunting season, the state management areas, especially Arcadia, have extensive trail networks. Ken Weber’s excellent book, Weekend Walks in Rhode Island, outlines several of them. Mt. Tom and Long Pond and Ell Pond are among the most popular, and both offer great views, especially in the fall.
There are dozens of great spots to hike around the state, but if you want something resembling serious elevation, you have no choice but to head north. If New Hampshire’s well-travelled Mt. Monadnock is a bit too far of a drive, Mt. Wachusett is your best bet. Yes, you can hike WaWa instead of skiing it! An observation platform at the peak will reward your effort with excellent views of the Boston skyline, Mt. Monadnock, and the Berkshires. If you time it right, you will be treated to a rolling carpet of reds, yellows and greens. Hike straight up to the summit and down again via the .9 mile Mountain House trail in one to two hours, or make a small loop hike out of the Mountain House, Bicentennial, and Pine Hill Trails. Whichever route you take up to the summit, don’t forget your hiking shoes! While Wachusett is no Mt. Washington, the trails up to the summit are rocky, steep and slippery in places.
If you’re itching for a longer hike, bring a map and make a day out of it by building your own looped route from the 17 miles of marked trails. I prefer to stick to the southern half of the mountain as it’s away from the ski area and it feels less developed. There are also another 11 miles of trails worth exploring at the nearby Mass Audubon Wachusett Meadow Sanctuary. On the way home, cap off your perfect fall day with a stop at Worcester’s Armsby Abbey for a well-earned post-hike beer.
Audubon trail maps are available for download on their website: www.asri.org
A map of Neutaconkanut hill is available for download at the conservancy’s website: www.nhill.org
Trail maps of Arcadia, and Long and Ell Ponds are published by Great Swamp Press: www.greatswamppress.com
Maps of Wachusett are available on site at the ranger station or for download at www.mass.gov/eea/docs/dcr/parks/trails/wachusett.pdf