Always leave time and energy for detours on the trail

Nearing the end of an exhausting, 22-mile hike along the Narragansett Trail a few years ago, our group approached an unmarked side path leading to a ledge that I knew afforded a spectacular view of Long Pond in Hopkinton, R.I.

“Hey,” I announced half-jokingly, “Anybody want to check out an amazing vista? It’s only a short detour.”

My companions glared at me as if I’d suggested turning around and retracing our steps all the way back to the trailhead atop Lantern Hill at the North Stonington/Ledyard border, where we’d started our excursion before dawn some 13 hours earlier.

Truth be told, I was equally knackered and not all that disappointed to skip this side trip. At the time, I could think of nothing more enticing than collapsing in the seat of a waiting car and riding home to a hot shower and cold beverage.

So we skirted the overlook bypass and trudged like refugees the last few miles to the trail terminus at Ashville Pond.

Though I’d often thought about revisiting that superb overlook, for one reason or another, I hadn’t returned until earlier this week, when, on a whim, I went back.

This time, on fresh legs (I didn’t have to slog all the way from Lantern Hill), I could better appreciate the grand panorama of serene water framed by a wooded, serrated shoreline. I was able to approach the overlook cutoff only a few hundred yards from an access to the Narragansett Trail from North Road just north of the village of Hopkinton on Route 3.

It’s relatively easy to reach: Drive along North Road about 3½ miles (the pavement gives way to bumpy gravel over the last mile) until you arrive at a small parking lot on the right with a sign marking the Ell Pond Preserve.

Follow the yellow-blazed Narragansett Trail about a quarter-mile through a lush grove of rhododendrons; a well-tramped but unmarked path to the Long Pond overlook will be on your left just before the main trail bends to the right and drops steeply into a narrow, boulder-choked ravine. An unmarked path on your right, opposite the one leading to Long Pond, will take you to Ell Pond, a distinctive kettle hole.

As for the Long Pond vista, it’s somewhat of a scramble to scale the ledge’s highest plateau, but well worth the effort.

Long Pond and Ell Pond are part of a preserve owned by The Nature Conservancy, Audubon Society and state of Rhode Island that is recognized as a U.S. Natural Landmark.

Once you’ve traipsed to both ponds, you can easily backtrack to your car, but a much more rewarding option would be to continue east on the Narragansett Trail to Ashville Pond before eventually retracing your steps. This will make for a hike of slightly more than four miles through dense evergreens and over granite slabs more commonly found in northern Vermont or New Hampshire than in western Rhode Island.

Of course, if you’re feeling particularly adventurous, you can always start at Lantern Hill instead of North Road, but if you do, make sure you save enough time and energy to take the overlook detour.

This week’s hike reminded me of other attractions I’ve thoughtlessly bypassed over the years while in a hurry or simply because I was too whipped.

I’m still kicking myself for not leaving enough time while on a hike to Zealand Falls in New Hampshire’s White Mountains to take a side trip to Thoreau Falls, an elegant, 80-foot cascade with wading pools that many consider one of New England’s most impressive waterfalls. What was I thinking?

Speaking of Zealand Falls, my son, Tom, and I once hiked past this natural wonder in early spring while en route to what we thought was the snow-covered, 4,260-foot summit of Mount Zealand. Mount Zealand is one of the 67 peaks in New England that rise above 4,000 feet, and we believed we had finished climbing all of them when, on a later outing, we tagged the top of Maine’s 5,267-foot Mount Katahdin.

A few summers later, though, on a trip to Zealand without my son, I realized to my chagrin that Tom and I hadn’t actually reached the top of that peak. Evidently, snow had obscured our view of a trail leading to the summit. That meant Tom and I no longer could call ourselves members of the New England Four-Thousand-Footers Club.

We had no choice: A few weeks later, he and I returned to the Mount Zealand trailhead, strapped on backpacks, and tramped to the official high point. Mission accomplished.

Now, one of these days I’ll have to go back again and make a detour to Thoreau Falls.

If, on the way, I pass a sign pointing to a scenic overlook, no matter how tired I am, I’ll go out of my way to check it out. You should never let these opportunities pass by. 

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