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    Tuesday, August 09, 2022

    'Rock stars' tackle Rhode Island’s toughest trail

    Phil Plouffe, Maggie Jones and Andy Lynn pause while ascending a steep section of the Narragansett Trail at the Long Pond-Ell Pond Natural Area in Hopkinton, R.I. (Steve Fagin)
    Pitch pines grow atop a rocky hill overlooking Ell Pond. (Steve Fagin)
    A blossom lingers on a rhododendron maximum bush. (Steve Fagin)
    Maggie Jones, Phil Plouffe and Andy Lynn take a break on rocks overlooking Ell Pond. (Steve Fagin)

    Sometimes it takes hours to reach the best part of a walk through the woods, but the footpath that passes through the Long Pond-Ell Pond Natural Area in Hopkinton, R.I. rewards hikers with breathtaking beauty and rugged grandeur right from the get-go.

    “This is my favorite trail,” Andy Lynn, who was making his first visit to the preserve, announced the other day, only moments after he, Maggie Jones and I began hiking on this portion of the Narragansett Trail. And that was before we came to the really great sections.

    It should be noted that Andy likes rocks – the more boulders, cliffs, ledges, overhangs, crags and jumbled heaps of talus and scree the better – so those who prefer sauntering on smooth, soft, flat surfaces might not share his enthusiasm.

    But hikers willing to scramble up and down steep slopes on what many regard as the most challenging trail in Rhode Island will instantly be rewarded by a stunning, tangled expanse of rhododendron maximum, also known as great laurel.

    These giant evergreen shrubs, more like trees that can grow to 30 feet or more, are wild versions of the ornamental varieties widely sold in garden stores. These magnificent plants spread out on both sides of the path to create a corridor more like an Amazon rain forest than a New England nature preserve.

    Besides being taller and gnarlier, they blossom a month or so later than cultivated rhododendrons – we saw a few of their delicate, white flowers tinged with pink.

    A short side path soon led us to a hill overlooking Ell Pond, a kettle hole created eons ago by a receding glacier. Preserved as a National Natural Landmark in 1974, the pond is inaccessible from this section of trail to protect its fragile nature.

    The Nature Conservancy owns 50 acres here, contiguous to 218 acres held by the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, and the state’s 1,002-acre Rockville Wildlife Management Area. All three entities manage the preserve.

    After rejoining the main, yellow-blazed trail, we clambered down a rocky staircase created years ago by hearty Appalachian Mountain Club volunteers.

    After considering several route options, we elected to continue hiking on the Narragansett Trail, passing through a dense deciduous forest interspersed with Atlantic white cedars. Along the way we snacked on wild blueberries and huckleberries, much tastier than any store-bought fruit.

    After reaching Canonchet Road in about two miles, we could have stayed on pavement and packed gravel back to the parking lot on North Road where we started, but Maggie suggested we retrace our steps on the trail.

    It was a good call. Even though we would be covering the same ground, going in the opposite direction always makes it feel like new territory. Nobody was happier than Andy, who got to enjoy the jumbled rocks again.

    “Mile for mile, the Long Pond-Ell Pond preserve has more of what makes a hike great than anywhere else I have walked in the region. More interesting rock formations and scrambles, more blueberries and huckleberries, more views, and more rhododendrons and hemlocks transform the path into an enclosed wonderland,” he noted.

    Had we continued past Canonchet Road, we would have arrived at the trail’s southern terminus at Ashville Pond in Hopkinton in a couple miles. A few years ago, I joined a small group that hiked from the Narragansett Trail’s northern terminus atop Lantern Hill on the Ledyard/North Stonington border to Ashville Pond, a sojourn that should have been 20 miles but wound up being 22 because we took a wrong turn while crossing from Connecticut to Rhode Island.

    Anyway, our group was so whipped at the end of that long day we didn’t have the inclination to trudge on side trails to Ell Pond or Long Pond. During last week’s shorter hike, we had more time and energy to linger and explore side trails.

    The detour to a rocky promontory overlooking Long Pond and framed by pitch pines was particularly satisfying. On this midweek afternoon, we had this ledge, and as far as we could tell, the entire preserve, to ourselves.

    “Saved the best for last,” Maggie said.

    The parking lot with access to this section of the Narragansett Trail is located at 433 North Road in Hopkinton, about a mile past the point where pavement gives way to gravel.

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