Taking steps to restore long-lost sections of the Narragansett Trail
While hiking not long ago through the Francis C. Carter Memorial Preserve in Charlestown, R.I., friends and I noticed a sign that had us mystified: Narragansett Trail.
“That’s strange. I’ve hiked the whole trail, and it doesn’t come anywhere near here,” I said. The 20-plus mile path that I knew extended between Lantern Hill in North Stonington and Ashville Pond in Hopkinton, R.I. – several miles from the Carter Preserve.
Maggie Jones, Phil Plouffe and I speculated that maybe this was a different Narragansett Trail, or perhaps someone had snitched a sign from the “real” Narragansett Trail and relocated it as a prank.
Anyway, when I returned home, I Googled “Narragansett Trail,” made some phone calls, and, much to my surprise, learned that we indeed had been hiking on part of the nearly century-old footpath. Turns out that this was a section that had been abandoned decades earlier and only recently restored by volunteers from the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Narragansett Chapter.
Those working on the project are literally following in the footsteps of trailblazers from the Narragansett Chapter, who began laying out the original Rhode Island segment in 1933. Parts of their route followed paths used by the Narragansett tribe and other Native Americans long before European colonists arrived in the 1600s.
In 1935, a crew from the Connecticut Forest & Park Association started work on Connecticut’s 16-mile section, between Lantern Hill in North Stonington and the Rhode Island border at Pachaug State Forest in Voluntown. Both sides finished work in 1936, when the trail opened.
The restoration project calls for extending the trail from its present eastern terminus at Ashville Pond in Hopkinton, R.I., another 18 miles to the original trailhead near Worden Pond in South Kingston. The work has involved not just clearing overgrown brush and vines, but studying old maps and historic documents, researching real estate records, and soliciting permission from property owners to let hikers cross their land.
“It’s been a labor of love,” Kerry Robinson, chair of the project, told me.
I met Kerry and two other volunteers, Corey Mott and Ron Archambault, for a hike one afternoon through a verdant corridor of mountain laurel at the Canonchet Preserve in Hopkinton, which had been part of the original route.
“I spent a lot of time crawling through here on my hands and knees, cutting a new path,” Corey recalled.
During our hike, we came upon a beech tree that had toppled across the trail. Kerry, Ron and Corey reached into their backpacks, pulled out folding hand saws, and got to work.
“We never go anywhere without our hand saws,” Kerry said. The four of us then spent nearly an hour cutting the tree into smaller logs, which we were able to drag off the trail. Corey also took notes; he keeps track of all the time that volunteers have worked on the restoration project – to date, more than 1,000 hours.
The Canonchet preserve is owned by The Nature Conservancy, which agreed to allow volunteers to restore this section of the old trail. It now connects with separate hiking paths already established on the property. Volunteers also have finished restoring segments at Camp Yawgoog, the Ell Pond Preserve, Black Farm Management Area, Pasquiset Preserve and Carter Preserve.
Reconnecting other parts, though, has presented significant challenges. The Hurricane of 1938 and construction of I-95 in the 1960s, along with new housing, had cut off the eastern half of the trail in Rhode Island. This will require parts of the restored trail to follow unpaved roads, and in some cases, asphalt streets, rather than forest footpaths.
Corey, a kindergarten teacher at Thames River Magnet School in Groton, said that since work began in 2020, about seven miles, including paths and roads, have been re-established, leaving about 11 more miles to complete the project. Kerry expects this likely will take another three to five years.
The existing trail now leads to some of my favorite destinations, including Lantern Hill and Bear Cave in North Stonington, Green Fall Pond in Voluntown, and Ell Pond in Hopkinton, a national natural landmark. The route also passes numerous cultural, historical and archaeological sites, as well as indigenous ceremonial stone landscapes and native footpaths. I’m anxious to explore new territory as the restoration project progresses.
Kerry said she is encouraged by and grateful for supporters, including the Nature Conservancy, Hopkinton Conservation Commission, Hopkinton Land Trust, National Park Service, Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Association, Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, South Kingstown Land Trust, Charlestown Land Trust, Charlestown Conservation Commission, and Richmond Rural Preservation Land Trust.
To learn more about the project, or to volunteer, visit amc-narragansett.org/volunteer/ntrp.