North South Trail
Narragansett Bay to Massachusetts State Border
I discovered the North South trail by happenstance. Sometime in the early 1990s, I visited Douglas State Forest, south of Worcester on the Rhode Island border. I convinced a friend (it didn’t take that much) to scramble the couple of miles with me from the parking lot to the RI border (the terminus of the Midstate Trail, which extends 92 miles from that spot, all the way through Massachusetts to the New Hampshire border).
When we arrived at the simple stone monument marking the Midstate Trail, I looked up to see a sign posted in a tree that said, “Narragansett Trail to Atlantic Ocean”. The seed was planted. I immediately added the trail to the “someday” list.
In the intervening years, the name changed, the trail became more permanently established and the guide book was published (a big shout out to Cliff Vanover for that!).
After my hiking partner, Wayne, and I completed the Midstate Trail through Massachusetts in a series of trips in the mid 1990s, we turned our attention to the North South Trail. We completed the walk through Rhode Island in three hikes (in 2008, 2010 and 2013). Would we do it again? Absolutely.
Brief trail description
The North South Trail is a mostly woodland trail that traverses the western side of the Ocean State. The trail crosses several state parks and wildlife management areas, often utilizing dirt roads that are also reportedly popular with mountain bikers. (On the three trips we took, we didn’t see any, although we saw a few dirt bikers and ATV-ers on our last hike.) In between the scenic state parks and wildlife management areas, the trail is prone to crossing through suburban neighborhoods by way of paved or well improved dirt roads, offering a different kind of hiking experience.
November 16-17, 2013
RI Route 6 – Massachusetts State Border
Massachusetts State Border to Wallum Lake parking area (Douglas State Forest)
Trip total 26.39 miles
Just two weeks after Wayne and I completed our 28 year Appalachian Trail adventure, he sent me an e-mail, suggesting we head down to RI to finish the North South Trail. The forecast for the upcoming weekend was fantastic, so I readily agreed.
I got up at 4:45, brewed a large pot of coffee and made the three hour drive to the Douglas, Mass bagel shop I had previously scoped out as our rendezvous spot. Wayne showed up a few minutes later, and we began the car spotting boogie.
By the time we dropped my car at Douglas State Forest, drove together to the Shady Acres Restaurant parking lot on Route 6, did our last minute packing fine tuning and started walking, it was 10:45. In the summer, when the evening light lingers, this wouldn’t be an issue. But now that we were approaching the shortest days of the year, a late start meant minimal stopping if we were going to make the 26 plus mile mark by dark tomorrow.
The good news was that it was an absolutely 5 star autumn day. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and the temps were already in the mid 50s and on their way to the mid 60s. Crazy weather for this late in November, but we’d take it.
The trail was 5 star as well — a very pleasant woods road walk under the now bare oaks for the first mile. As I left the parking lot and started walking, I took note of my condition – jacked on caffeine and exhausted at the same time. I hadn’t slept much the night before and was hoping my second wind would kick in soon. As we neared our first paved road section, we took a short break by an old stone foundation. One mile in and a minimum of 11 more to go. It was 11:15. Had to keep moving.
Now onto a section of paved roads. The good thing about paved roads is that you can make up incredible time on them. You barely need to lift your feet. The not so good is the toll they can take on your knees and shins. I was glad the paved stretches were pretty short on the North South Trail. In general, you’d only have to walk a couple miles before you were back on a dirt road or path again.
As we walked along, I saw a guy coming out of his house to get the mail. I remarked at how beautiful the dry laid stone wall was in front of his house, and he proudly admitted that he had built it himself. He was intrigued by our hike and said he had done a section of the North South Trail as well as some hiking on the AT up in the White Mountains. The hiking fraternity knows no bounds.
We skirted the Connecticut border once, then hopped onto a dirt road, where we decided to take advantage of a sunny spot and fire up some hot dogs — not the healthiest lunch option on earth, but one of the fastest ones to prepare.
I don’t know whether it was the lunch, the weather, the trail layout or the combination of all three, but I definitely found my desired second wind after lunch. It was fabulous. The trail entered Connecticut for a spell, wound around Killingly Pond, then came back into Rhode Island via unpaved Old Snake Hill Road.
After a gorgeous stretch through the oaks, we crossed Mowry Meadow Brook (which a giant beaver dam had turned into more of a lake), then climbed a hill with a beautiful pasture, farm house and barn on the left. As I topped the hill next to the farm’s driveway, I saw a young man there polishing a Jeep Cherokee and said, “Hello”.
We began talking about the weather, the farm and the trail, and within 2 minutes, his dad emerged from a nearby outbuilding to offer us bottles of cold spring water. We thankfully imbibed. One memorable quote from our farm side chat, “Man, you guys started hiking the AT before I was born!”. We covered a lot of ground in our 10 minute stop, but we had a lot more to cover before we could set up camp.
Soon the dirt road turned into pavement. We hiked up and over a suburban hill, took a hard left and passed the Ponaganset Reservoir, a popular fishing and boating spot now enveloped in November silence.
It was 3:00 and we had covered 10 miles. Now feeling pretty good about our ability to make our 26 mile goal by end of day tomorrow. After the mountainous hike to complete the AT, it felt good to be making miles on the backroads of Rhode Island. We called it “old man hiking” and half jokingly came to the conclusion that there were plenty of trails like this waiting for us in our golden years.
What an exceptional afternoon! We climbed the paved road away from the reservoir and back into the woods, where it became dirt. The final miles were a gorgeous woodland walk in the late afternoon sun.
“One hour of light, two miles to go and need to find a great camp spot.”
I am at my best when I have something to shoot for, and I made the unknown camp spot some two miles out my sole focus. I just love this situation, when the knowns include that there will be a place to camp (we will be walking in a wooded section as opposed to through suburbs for the next several miles, so finding a camp spot won’t be too difficult) and that we will cover the requisite 12 miles we need to keep tomorrow’s hike relatively sane. The only unknown will be precisely where we will camp. That little bit of uncertainty keeps things spontaneous and fun.
I was so enjoying this part of the day. We climbed through the woods over a few gentle hills. Toward the top of the second one, we passed a hunter’s truck tucked into a turnout on the right. The archery target in the open bed indicated he was probably in a nearby tree stand scouting for deer.
“Twelve miles.”, he said. “Good enough for me. I’m gassed.”
It was 4:15, only 20 minutes until sunset. We set up shop and ate appetizers with the tent door wide open, watching the light fade through the trees. Such a treat for late November. You just don’t get many days like this. Normally, we would have the door zipped to help keep the cold at bay.
We ate a large plate of appetizers and took our first long rest of the day. My feet were sore from heels to toes. I should have retired my boots before this trip, but I convinced myself they had one trip left in them. For one thing, the insoles were worn all the way through in the heels. Before this trip, I had removed the old insoles and replaced them with some new ones I had in the medicine cabinet. Fortunately, I threw the worn through ones into my pack instead of in the trash.
A couple miles into the day, I knew that the replacements weren’t the solution. My feet were already sore. I put the original insoles back in and the replacements on top. Maybe that combination would work. Wrong!
Every time I banged the front of my right boot against a root or rock, which was relatively often on this trail, my big toe sent a telegram of pain straight to my cerebral cortex. Once through the eye watering jolt, I’d keep walking and the pain would slowly subside.
Now my throbbing feet were urging me to change my approach. With 14 miles to go tomorrow, I finally listened to them. I took the both insoles out of each boot and reversed their positions, so the originals were on top. Hopefully, that would be the winning combo.
Meanwhile, the snoring coming from my hiking partner indicated that round two of dinner may wait indefinitely. I tuned in “A Prairie Home Companion” on the radio, zipped the tent door shut, constructed a candle lantern out of the empty potato stick can left over from the appetizer fest and lit it to provide light and a little extra warmth.
November 17, 2013
I awoke at 4:39 and stepped out of the tent. The full moon was setting through the bare trees and I was standing in bare feet in the early November morning. I snapped a few photos, stood in the clearing until I started chilling down, then dove back into the tent.
I’d had enough sleep. I put my headlamp on and read the guide book to the trail, familiarizing myself with today’s hike. Then I read from another book I had brought along. (It’s easy to rationalize bringing extra reading material when you are on a 2 day journey.)
It was still seasonably warm, but by dawn, it was overcast. As if we needed additional motivation to get an early start other than our need to cover 14 miles before dark, we were expecting late day showers. It would be really nice to make the car before both arrived.
Powered by bagels and coffee, we were underway by 8:45. We crossed RI Route 44 and entered the George Washington Wildlife Management Area, home to a large campground, Bowdish Reservoir (another popular boating and fishing spot) and the Walkabout Trail system (three loop trails designed and built by crew members of the Australian Navy ship H.M.A.S. Perth in 1965).
It was nice to be on “hikers only” trail again and we especially enjoyed the trail’s route along the shores of Bowdish Reservoir and Wilbur Pond (thank you, Australian Navy!). The trail continued through the woods, following a dirt road within the park for a time before popping out onto a paved road for another short suburban stroll.
We were making good time – 8 miles already, and it was only 12:45. We talked about the need to keep the pace as we left the final neighborhood section of the North South Trail and entered the 6 mile uninterrupted forest section between us and my car.
We sat on boulders next to the trail, chugged down a quart of water each and ate the last of the hot dogs. There was little time to waste. The skies were gray again, urging us on. We were underway again by 1:30.
Just under 6 miles to go – just under 4 to the end of the North South Trail and the rest to get to the car. Appropriately, the first two miles were on a dirt road – so much of this trail shares old woods roads – then turned to a footpath. We would around a really interesting depression reminiscent of an emptied lake and lined by large granite boulders, then began a series of minor climbs and drops through the oaks and outcroppings and random granite boulders strewn across the landscape (left behind when the glaciers retreated 18,000 years ago). It’s a special walk through geological time.
At 2:45, we crested a small hill to find a register box for the North South trail. We stopped long enough to sign in and continued toward the Rhode Island-Massachusetts border. Soon we could see the Wallum Lake through the trees. I could see the buildings on the northern end near where we had parked my car. Another signpost that we were closing in.
We scrambled over a few more granite hills as we paralleled the lake shore, then curved northwest and onto flatter terrain. At 3:36, I saw a sign on a tree up ahead. Two minutes later I was standing at the terminus of the North South Trail. Wayne was less than 5 minutes behind me. We high fived the accomplishment. We had hiked another state from end to end. It was the ninth state I had traveled end to end self-propelled (eight on foot and Maine by bike, on foot and by canoe). Wayne had now done six on foot (all with me).
Less than 45 minutes of light left. It had started sprinkling in the last few miles. Now the rain had stopped. Time to fly. I remember thinking along this stretch how fortunate I felt to still have gas in my body’s fuel tank, even though the car that was waiting for me had nearly none (the warning light came on in the last few miles before we got to Douglas State Forest). If it stayed light out, I was convinced I could have easily walked another several miles.
As it was, we made the car with about 10 minutes of daylight to spare. I couldn’t believe how fast the darkness came. It was like flipping a switch. Along with it came the steady rain. The timing couldn’t have been better.
After four hours of driving (one hour to get gas and drive south to Wayne’s car, then three more hours to drive home to Maine), one luxurious bath and one great meal, I went to bed warmed by the glow of another tremendous weekend on another really special trail. One I would gladly travel again for both it’s glaciated beauty and for the gracious people we met along it’s byways.by