Hiking Guide: Great Swamp a great treasure in little Rhode Island

The headwaters of the Pawcatuck River, flowing on the opposite side of the main trail from the impoundment at Great Swamp, meander through jungle-like forest. (Photo by Judy Benson)
The headwaters of the Pawcatuck River, flowing on the opposite side of the main trail from the impoundment at Great Swamp, meander through jungle-like forest. (Photo by Judy Benson)

In mid-April, while most of the hardwoods were still bare of leaves, the Great Swamp Wildlife Management Area brimmed with its signature element — water — that courses through this lush wild enclave.

Spanning 3,350 acres in Rhode Island, the nation’s smallest state, Great Swamp in South Kingstown holds the distinction of being the largest swamp in New England. With some of the largest stands of Atlantic white cedar in the East, regal American holly trees more common in the mid-Atlantic and Southern states and the only nesting areas in New England for the neon yellow and gray prothonotary warbler, the swamp supports some of the region’s rarest plant and animal communities.

“The area was never cultivated by the colonists, so there are holly trees and warblers and other wildlife there not found anywhere else in Rhode Island,” said Denise Poyer, program director at the Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Association, which promotes conservation and appreciation of a 14-town region that includes Great Swamp. Acquired by the state in 1950 and managed for wildlife diversity, the site is also significant as the location of a 1675 battle between colonists and the Narragansett tribe.

Leading from the parking area off Liberty Lane, the main trail is a flat, gravel path ambling by hollows of still pools, treetops atwitter with woodpeckers and silvery “old man’s beard” lichen dangling from limbs. At the halfway point along the five-mile loop, the trail skirts the northern shore of Worden Pond, a 1,000-acre natural glacial lake, passing a slab of concrete that remains from a World War II seaplane hangar. About a mile or so further, the trail slices between a 130-acre pond created by an impoundment on one side, and on the other, the meandering headwaters of the Pawcatuck River, the 38-mile waterway that forms the border between Connecticut and Rhode Island at its western end.

Ospreys nest atop utility poles that cross the impoundment, built by wildlife managers to channel water into an open pond for waterfowl habitat, said Jay Osenkowski, deputy chief of the wildlife division of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. Interspersed on poles throughout the pond are 27 wood duck boxes, some occupied by wood ducks and hooded mergansers. Mallards, black ducks, ring-necked ducks and green-winged teal also inhabit the pond. Klatches of turtles sun on rocks and logs at the edges of the pond, where otters, mink and beaver also have been spotted.

Hiking the entire five-mile loop can take about 2 1/2 hours at a moderate pace, but with great opportunities for bird watching along the way, no one should be in a rush. With binoculars, patience and attentive eyes and ears, even a novice birdwatcher will be satisfied after spending a morning or afternoon at Great Swamp.

j.benson@theday.com

Twitter: @BensonJudy 

 

 

The main trail passes by a 140-arce impoundment where ospreys, turtles, frogs and other wildlife abound. (Photo by Judy Benson)
The main trail passes by a 140-arce impoundment where ospreys, turtles, frogs and other wildlife abound. (Photo by Judy Benson)
American holly trees grow throughout Great Swamp and are some of the largest found in New England. This evergreen is more prevalent in the mid-Atlantic and southern East Coast. (Photo by Judy Benson)
American holly trees grow throughout Great Swamp and are some of the largest found in New England. This evergreen is more prevalent in the mid-Atlantic and southern East Coast. (Photo by Judy Benson)
A map shows the western portion of the Great Swamp Management Area
A map shows the western portion of the Great Swamp Management Area

Town: West Kingston section of South Kingstown, R.I. 

Directions: I-95 north to Exit 3A. Take Route 138 East about 9 miles and turn right onto Liberty Lane (the turn is before the junction of Route 138 and 110). Follow Liberty Lane about two miles, past the headquarters of the management area to parking area.

Where to Park: Road dead-ends at large dirt parking lot where the main trail begins. A sign with a map of the preserve is located here. 

Description: The unblazed main trail, a flat, gravel path, leads from the parking lot. Follow the trail about 0.4 miles where a small granite monument marking the Dr. John Mulledy Trails is located. Stay left to follow the trail past a hardwood and holly forest to another monument marking the George McCuhey Trails. Continue straight to the shore of Worden Pond and remains of World War II seaplane hangar. Continuing back on the main trail, bear left toward the impoundment and headwaters of the Pawcatuck River. Shortly after impoundment, trail returns to the Mulledy monument. Entire loop trail is about five miles.

Regulations: Open 8 a.m. to sunset; dogs must be on a leash.

Amenities: None.

Natural Features: 130-acre impoundment provides waterfowl habitat; Atlantic white cedars, large American holly trees and rare plant and animal species found here.

Fees: none.

Owned by: Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, Division of Fish and Wildlife

More information: http://www.dem.ri.gov/topics/wltopics.htm

 

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