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    Monday, April 15, 2024

    Pine forests and rocky ledges: A peak experience in Rhode Island

    The Mt. Tom Trail in Exeter, R.I., passes through a corridor of white pines. (Steve Fagin)
    Stone chairs provide trailside seating on a ridge along the trail. (Steve Fagin)

    A scramble up a boulder-strewn trail last week led past a series of sheer cliffs, rocky ledges and basalt outcrop that provided a stunning view of miles of rolling woodlands, far below.

    “Hard to believe this is Rhode Island,” I said, gazing from the vista. “It looks more like New Hampshire.”

    “And this isn’t even the summit,” Maggie Jones replied. Mount Tom doesn’t crest for another mile, on the north side of Route 165.

    For those who may think the Ocean State’s terrain consists of nothing but sandy beaches, a hike on the Mount Tom Trail in Exeter is an eye-opener. It also gets the heart pumping. Our route took us through extensive pine forests, along tumbling streams and rivers, and on deserted dirt roads spread out in the 14,000-acre Arcadia State Management Area, some 30 miles east of New London.

    The path begins near the small, unpaved Appie Crossing parking lot on Route 165 (also called Ten Rod Road) in Exeter, about two-and-a-half miles west of Interstate 95.

    From the east end of the parking lot, follow a yellow-blazed path for about 500 feet, where the white-blazed Mt. Tom trail turns right, just past an enormous boulder. Moss-covered rocks and logs cast the forest floor in emerald green on both sides of the single-track, winding path.

    In less than half a mile, the Mt. Tom Trail passes an intersection of Rhode Island’s North South Trail, and then, in another couple hundred yards, crosses unpaved Summit Road. Graceful white pines and gnarly pitch pines here drop soft needles onto sandy trail, creating a perfect hiking surface.

    After crossing a small stream, we arrived at the fast-flowing Wood River. The Wood is a tributary of the Pawcatuck River, which empties some 20 miles south into Little Narragansett Bay between Stonington and Westerly. Together, they form a watershed that is designated a federal wild and scenic river.

    We crossed a bridge and passed a hunters’ check station before re-entering Mt. Tom Trail on the west side of the river. Along the way, Maggie rattled off the names of various groundcover plants:

    shining club moss, bearberry, wintergreen, striped wintergreen, creeping jenny, trailing arbutus and princess pine.

    She also stopped to nibble a teaberry that had been overlooked by birds, chipmunks and other creatures that typically feast on the pea-sized sweet, spicy red fruit. Teaberries, which form in early fall, have been used to flavor Clark’s Teaberry chewing gum since 1900. They’re not only quite tasty, but also contain methyl salicylate, a compound related to aspirin, in case you get a headache on the trail.

    After crossing a forest road called Blitzkrieg Trail, we hiked along whitewater stretches of Parris Brook, where the high-pitched cry of a red-shouldered hawk and guttural squawk of a raven rose above the rumble of rapids. One more unpaved crossing, at Mount Tom Road, and then the trail began to ascend steeply.

    We took our time traversing this half-mile-long ridge – not just because rock-hopping made for tricky footing, but to savor breathtaking views. Just before the trail began its descent to Route 165, we also paused to perch on chairs that someone had fashioned from a jumble of rocks.

    After crossing the road, we ascended gradually on a smooth, relatively flat stretch, and somewhere along the next half-mile passed the Mount Tom summit. There’s no real view, no sign, no elevation marker. Different maps record its elevation as either 430 or 434 feet.

    The 4.75-mile Mt. Tom Trail ends in a short distance at the intersection of unpaved Barber Road; we still had to hike about four more miles back to Appie Crossing.

    We covered this distance on the Escoheag Trail and a section of the North South Trail, eventually reconnecting with the Mount Tom Trail and the parking lot.

    The total distance of this route: 8.5 miles, with nearly 700 feet of elevation gain. The trail is much more than a walk in the park; it’s a peak experience.

    More information is available from The Narragansett Chapter of the Appalachian Mountain Club, (https://amc-narragansett.org), which maintains the Mt. Tom Trail and more than 20 other footpaths in Rhode Island. Information also is available from Arcadia Forest Environment Headquarters, (401) 539-2356; and the Rhode Island Division of Fish & Wildlife, (401) 789-3094.

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