Find refuge and adventure at Ninigret Pond

Two kayakers ready to resume their trip on Ninigret Pond at the Ninigret National Wildlife Refuge in Charlestown, R.I. The refuge features trails as well as a boat launch to the pond.
Two kayakers ready to resume their trip on Ninigret Pond at the Ninigret National Wildlife Refuge in Charlestown, R.I. The refuge features trails as well as a boat launch to the pond.

Ninigret National Wildlife Refuge

Town: Charlestown, R.I.

Directions: From Connecticut, take Exit 92 off Route 95 to Route 2 south to Route 78. Take a left at the Route 1 intersection. The refuge is located on the south side of Route 1 and is accessible from two points: follow an access directly off the highway and or take the next exit, through Route 1A to Ninigret Park. Follow the park road all the way to the end.

Where to Park: Ample parking is available at both locations.

Description: The Ninigret National Wildlife Refuge was established along Ninigret Pond on property formerly used as a Naval Auxiliary Landing Field. (The town of Charlestown owns the adjacent Ninigret Park, which includes a freshwater pond, observatory, senior citizen center, dog park, and tennis courts.) The National Wildlife Service has ripped up some of the Navy tarmac and restored native grasslands. More than half of the property is forested, including red maple and cedar, but there are ample opportunities to view the water.

Regulations: The trails are open from sunrise to sunset. Visitors are asked to stay on the trails and not to disturb wildlife or vegetation. Biking and kite-flying are prohibited. The refuges practice a carry-in, carry-out trash policy. No pets.

Amenities: Restrooms are available in the parking lot off Ninigret Park.

Natural Features: Ninigret offers an astonishing array of native species, including about 70 species of nesting birds, 22 species of mammals (including the white-tailed deer, red fox and coyote), and a number of butterflies, wildflowers, invertebrates, amphibians and reptiles.

Fees: Free.

Things to note: Although the National Wildlife Service provides access to the pond, it is not considered part of the refuge.

Owned by: Federal government.

More information: www.fws.gov/ninigret/complex

Two trails within minutes of each other offer two ways to experience the 1,500-acre Ninigret Pond, a salt pond in Charlestown, R.I., that wends its way along scenic points, inlets and coves.

From a trail behind the Kettle Pond Visitor Center on the north side of Route 1, you can climb a tower and see the pond, the barrier beach that holds it back and Block Island in the hazy distance.

Then take northbound Route 1 to Ninigret Park, where the Ninigret National Wildlife Refuge maintains a series of trails to the pond's edge. Here you can either walk along the trails that wind through wildflowers and shore grasses, or wheel a kayak or canoe to a launching point.

On a brutally hot summer day in late June, we started at Kettle Pond, where a new trail next to the visitor center provides a short walk to the tower. The wide path is perfect for small children or anyone who doesn't feel up to a challenging hike. The three-story tower's first and second tiers are handicapped accessible via ramps and the second level offers two viewing scopes.

From the spyglass, you can see most of Ninigret Pond, which stretches from Charlestown Beach to East Beach. We spotted one lone boat snaking a thin white wake on its way west. To the south the pond is corralled by a thin barrier beach, beyond which unfolds the sparkling Block Island Sound. In the distance you can sometimes make out the blue hump of Block Island's bluffs.

As we enjoyed the view, a blue jay squawked, but other birdsong was drowned out by the persistent whine of Route 1 traffic. The tower is perched atop the terminal moraine, the ridge of glacial deposits that runs along the highway's northern edge. The glacier's retreat about 20,000 years ago also was responsible for the depressions that created Ninigret Pond and the kettle holes that give the visitor center its name.

The habitat here is typical of Rhode Island uplands, with oak, cedar and a few white pine. The understory features highbush blueberry, mountain laurel (in bloom when we visited), ferns, holly and various mosses. Kettle Pond also is home to mosquitoes that paid a brief visit - which would come back to haunt us. More on that later.

For the second, longer hike, we had two choices. The Ninigret National Wildlife Refuge can be reached from a direct gate on the south side of Route 1 or through the town-owned Ninigret Park, off Route 1A. We chose the latter as being the route with quicker access to the water. The park, a former Naval Auxiliary Landing Field, can be a little confusing, but if you follow signs for "refuge parking" all the way to the end of its winding road, you will reach a parking lot and the entrance to Grassy Point Trail.

To the east is a short path to a canoe/kayak launch. If you head west, the tarmac (where former President George H.W. Bush trained as a World War II night pilot) gives way to a smooth path lined with Queen Anne's lace, daisies and wild roses. We soon came upon one of the pond's many peaceful coves.

Here, following deer tracks, we walked along the sand, our only company a lobster boat in the distance. The water is clear and nearly still, its bottom busy with tiny hermit crabs, periwinkles and even a horseshoe crab that came upon one of us quite suddenly. Broken oyster shells, pieces of lobster and crab, and scallop shells make up the shore, along with a few clutches of dune grass. We took off our sneakers and happily waded. Neither time nor tide seemed to matter in this gentle cove, where humans made the only ripples.

Eventually we put our socks and sneakers back on. Following the path by rich blooms of rose hips - rosa rugosa - we found Grassy Point, where benches and spotting scopes provide a resting place. We opted instead to walk onto the point itself, where two kayakers were about to resume their trek to an islet across the pond and a couple of swans swam regally by. Away from the cove's shelter, the wind here is brisk and the water choppy. The kayakers had their work cut out for them; the swans let the wind carry them in the opposite direction.

Along the point, the shore is abuzz with flying insects and ripe with the smell of seaweed. Although we have seen people clamming here in the past, no one was out today. After slapping a few mosquitoes, we decided to retreat.

Did I say a "few" mosquitoes? Suddenly, attracted by the smell of blood from our earlier bites at Kettle Pond, the forest mosquito's salt marsh cousins smelled a human banquet and flew into formation. No World War II night flyer was more accurate than these stinging beasts, which massed on the back of my legs and took aim at my arms.

Somehow, we had spent nearly an hour in the Eden-like cove with nary a buzz in the air, until the snake arrived in the form of Culicidae and expelled us for the afternoon.

Seen from afar or up close, Ninigret Pond is one of the Northeast's most beautiful salt ponds. If you want to enjoy it, though, remember to bring mosquito repellent.

Kettle Pond Visitor Center

Town: Charlestown, R.I.

Directions: From Connecticut, take Exit 92 off Route 95 to Route 2 south to Route 78. Take a left at the Route 1 intersection. Reverse direction at the sign for the National Wildlife Refuge Complex's Kettle Pond Visitor Center. At the next exit, follow Bend Road to the end.

Where to Park: Ample parking is available in several lots. Park near the visitor center itself and look for signs for Ocean View Trail.

Description: Besides the Ocean View Trail, Kettle Pond includes three other, longer trails. Of particular note is the Watchaug Pond Trail, which connects to Audubon Society land and the Burlingame Campground.

Regulations: Visitors are asked to stay on the trails and not disturb wildlife or vegetation. Biking and kite-flying are prohibited. The refuges practice a carry-in, carry-out trash policy. Leashed dogs are allowed on the Kettle Pond trails, but not at the refuges.

Amenities: The visitor center includes exhibits and restrooms. It's open daily, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., except for Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day and New Year's Day.

Natural Features: The area includes vernal pools; Watchaug Pond, a kettle pond of 573 acres; upland forest, including oak, cedar, white pine, highbush blueberry, princess pine, and sweet fern; and a variety of songbirds.

Fees: Free.

Things to note: The visitor center serves as the refuge headquarters for Rhode Island's five national wildlife refuges, which besides Ninigret include Trustom Pond, in South Kingstown; Block Island; John H. Chafee (Pettaquamscutt Cove), in Narragansett and South Kingstown; and Sachuest Point, in Middletown.

Owned by: Federal government

More information: www.fws.gov/ninigret/complex

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