Block Island Short Walks

Thu, 02/20/2014 - 2:00pm

Last week I fell in love with a book about the power of walking. “Wild” by Cheryl Strayed is the story of her trek over the Pacific Crest Trail from southern California through Oregon. Though I have never trekked over mountains for long distances in great hardship, I do love to take walks and have covered many miles with my short walks over the many years of my life. So Strayed’s experiences resonated deeply with me. 

Walking has developed into my form of meditation. Alone, I drink in my surroundings with all my senses. With a close friend, the conversation begins with the everyday and as we cover ground, moves to our most intimate thoughts. 

I used to walk Crescent Beach, but when Hurricane Sandy swept through the eastern end of the island last October, she pushed sand from the beaches and dunes into the adjacent parking lots and yards, and even into the streets. The beaches were stripped of their soft sand, replaced for a time by a multitude of rocks that stretched from town to Mansion Beach. 

Deterred by the rocks, I moved to the nearby roads this winter when I wanted to keep a good pace. In doing so, I became so much more aware of my surroundings than when I sweep past them in cars or even on a bicycle. I learned to pause and admire a bird singing overhead on a wire, the fish weathervane atop a weathered cottage, the first small rosa rugosa of the season. 

Here are two of my favorite walks I discovered, as well as a history-themed walk from Pam Gasner, the Director of the Historical Society. 

My first favorite short walk starts at Scotch Beach and ends at Andy’s Way, a round trip of 1.7 miles

This is best in early morning before trucks and cars take over the road, or on days when the transfer station is closed and the traffic is sparser. 

Park your car or bike in the Scotch Beach parking lot. If you want to catch a view of the ocean, walk down to the beach there. Notice the sand piled high along the side of the parking lot and in the yard on the left along the town’s dirt right of way that leads to the beach. Before Hurricane Sandy, those were wetlands on the left, and small rounded dunes on the right. At the opening to the beach, note the severe lines of what once were gently sloped hilly dunes to the right. To the left, where once bathers tanned in the sun lying along low dunes, the devastation of Sandy is again apparent. 

Back at the path’s entrance on Corn Neck Road with the Great Salt Pond on your left, begin the measured walk. Enjoy the salty sea breeze on a clear day, or breathe in the fog rising off the water on a humid one. In late spring and summer, you don’t need to consult a weather report; the more boats coming into the pond, the fairer the day will be. Those mariners follow the weather closely. 

As you continue past the Pond, look to the left to spot a small red and white Buddhist shrine just past the first yellow house. The shrine is a new addition and a nice roadmark. That house also has beautiful gardens, and depending on the season, there might be thick stands of daffodils along the roadside, or exquisite rose bushes just within view in the front yard. 

Next on the left is The Breakers, once a bed and breakfast; now a meticulously restored historic house. Across the street from it is another restored home, once a bed and breakfast also, for a short time called the Captain Willis House. I especially love the porch on that home, and often wish there was a rocker there with an invitation to sit for a bit. 

A wetland on the left that extends to the road and around the next houses is home to turtles and birds. In May and June, keep your eyes peeled for turtles crossing the road. If you decide to help them, make sure you take them in the direction they are moving. Today I saw one racing across, neck extended and legs going like it was running the Kentucky Derby. 

As you continue up the road, look to your left once again to take in the sweet white cottage that evokes a longing for a simpler life. Every one of my houseguests has asked me whether it is for rent. (The answer is yes.) 

If there have been recent rains, you will notice a vernal pool along the road on your right. I particularly love this spot, where irises grow untended and flower in June. This year, in May, it has been dry, but the plants are growing despite the lack of puddles. 

Stonewalls on both sides of the roadway are wonderfully uneven with rocks of varying sizes. On the right the roadside changes to conserved pastureland that stretches up to the Mitchell homestead [3]. In May it was mowed short, and though it is beautiful then, I love when the grasses grow to knee high golden hay and sway in the breeze. 

It is just beyond there that a shaggy long-in-the-tooth Golden Retriever bounded past me last week. A few lengths behind was Cheryle Gagnon on the return leg of a walk all the way up Corn Neck Road. Despite the fact that when we stopped to speak the Golden also stopped to wait for her, Cheryle said she had no idea whose dog it was. I marvel at the fact that on Block Island, a dog can take itself for a walk and meet up with a friendly companion. 

Continue up the hill past the Mitchell Farm. A large tree makes me long for mainland woodlands, and once it leafs out, offers shade on a sunny day. On the left, a patch of undeveloped land opens and offers a view of the ocean on clear days. 

At the curve, there is a sign for Andy’s Way. Turn left on the unpaved track; pass through the parking lot. Ignore the first path to the water. It is an ankle turner. Take the one that starts at the information sign instead. At low tide, watch the water birds search for clams. You might see white egrets, blue herons, and other shore birds, the cast off shells of baby horseshoe crabs, and many seagulls. I call this the Zen of Andy’s Way [5]. Walk through the shallow warm water if you wish, all the way to Bean Point, or just relax and listen to the water and the birds before you return to Scotch Beach. 

Walk Around the Salt Pond, 2 miles. Start at the Fred Benson Beach flagpole (the beach pavilion) and finish at Payne’s Dock. 

Take a left at the flagpole onto Corn Neck Road, and walk toward town. Pass dunes where pink flowering rosa rugosa runs rampant, filling the June air with their scent. Though not nearly as showy as their cultivated rose cousins, they are every bit as beautiful to behold. 

Look for broken shells on the road a little further up. I call that the Seagulls’ Raw Bar. Seagulls know the best clamming spots on the island and that is one of them, but don’t be tempted. That area is closed to human clamming from spring through fall. 

At the lone house on the corner of Corn Neck Road and Beach Avenue turn right. Stop on the bridge, a peaceful spot before summer sets in. Watch for ducks and kayaks. Look across the water from the left side of the bridge toward a distant hillside with red roofed buildings. When the days are warm, see small children jump off a nearby dock. They always make me feel like life here is a Norman Rockwell world [4]. 

Detour off the road, if you wish, to a little nature path that leads to the salt pond. There is a sign marking it on the right side of the road. 

Continue down Beach Avenue and 

pass Twin Maples on your right, where there are old timey rental cottages and a place to buy fishing bait. Across the street is a beautiful waterside meadow [1]. 

The remainder of this portion of Beach Avenue is lined with historic buildings. On the right side behind spacious lawns are the old Weather Station, once an official weather station, and the Hygeia House, once an annex to a grand hotel, both restored beautifully by their owners. On the left side of the road are smaller Victorian era cottages, one even has a tower. 

On the corner is a recently built but true version of the historic houses, Payne’s Harbor Inn. If you are not in a hurry and Rick is in his antique shop there, go in and browse. 

Take a right at the corner and walk down the hill to the bridge. Across the water is another view of the Sullivan House. Look closely and you might be able to see that the first story is made of rounded stones. 

Beyond are kayak rentals and boatyards, and then the Block Island Maritime Institute. In their Smugglers Cove building, Carol Payne has takeout food. If you are lucky, you can snag a warm “sinker,” a fresh doughnut made right on the premises by Carol. 

Keep on the road past the Narragansett Inn on your left, and Deadeye Dick’s Restaurant, and go look at the boats tied up at Payne’s Dock. There is also a bar and an outdoor restaurant there. [2] 

On your way back along Corn Neck Road, if you are walking in early evening, you might catch a sensational sunset on Indian Neck behind the Sullivan House. Sometimes it lights up the sky in brilliant reds and magentas, and shines through the houses on the hill. 

Add a mile round trip to either of those walks by going from the flagpole to Scotch Beach and back. Listen to the many birds that live in the beach grass on one side and the brambles on the other. Watch for the black and white stray cats and kittens that have been populating Indian Neck Hill for several years. And, on a Monday morning, hunt for money that may have flown from cars or the hands of people coming home from the bars over the weekend. I found $20 there last summer. 

From Pam Littlefield: 

Pots & Kettles: my favorite short walk — to the Sheffield Cemetery and Clay Head Trail, 1 mile 

On Mother’s Day this year, I took one of my favorite walks with my daughter and family members to the Sheffield Cemetery off Corn Neck Road directly across from the entrance to Clay Head Trail [6]. We parked just north of the yellow Victorian house built by Amazon Littlefield, my great grandfather. This is one of nine historic cemeteries located around the island that were private family plots that are now part of the Rhode Island Historic Cemetery program. Some are enclosed by stone walls and many are adjacent to greenway trails. 

Park your car or bike north of the driveway close to the newly cleared area near the old Peckham Farm stone barn foundation [9]. The land on the west side of Corn Neck Road from this location — approximately one mile to the north, where the Labyrinth is located — was owned during the early1800s by Squire Josiah S. Peckham and then later the Sheffield Family. Josiah’s second wife Ann died at age 96 years, 11 months, and 27 days in 1887. 

Look for the beautiful obelisque stone monument dedicated to the Sheffield family [8]. There are white marble, granite and unmarked stone graves. The four-foot-high walled cemetery is located at the end of a short seven-minute walk where all one sees and hears are the birds and natural surroundings. There is an open area that is perfect for a picnic lunch or an afternoon nap [7]. 

Then you can continue your walk to the east side of Corn Neck Road where Clay Head Trail is identified by a gray post trail marker. This is a private road but walkers are welcome. The trail runs directly to the beach north of Mansion Beach just around Jerry’s Point. Pots and Kettles is still visible but over the last 30 years, the rock formation has eroded out of the bluffs and been so widely collected that there are just a few large pieces by the edge of the high tide mark. The geologic rock formation was named for the holes called “pots and kettles” found in this conglomerate rock. It was so popular to collect that we even have examples of it in the museum donated by visitors and islanders over the years. 

The devastation of Hurricane Sandy is apparent here, too, as one leaves the trail to access the beach; the dune is completely gone and Clay Head Swamp is running gently into the ocean. An ancient pond bed has become exposed and this is now a favorite area for small children and dogs to have mud baths. The 15-minute walk down the path from the Clay Head Parking area is peaceful and has stunning views of Littlefield Farm and Clay Head Swamp. There is a wooden boardwalk where a small stream of water gives one the feeling of being in a woodland setting and not five minutes from the beach. Apple trees hug the trail and a large stand of maple trees greets you before you reach the boardwalk. If one were to continue north on the trail you would enter the Maze — perhaps a walk for another day. A round trip walk takes about 45 minutes and crosses many natural zones and pastoral views. 

More from Pam Littlefield: 

My colleagues and I offer a number of Walking History Tours, which can be booked through the Historical Society and are fee based: 

1. Discover Victorian Block Island 

Downtown guided walking tour starts at Spring House Hotel ending at the Woonsocket House at Bridgegate Square (Historical Society Museum). Learn about the architecture, moving of buildings, fires and the establishment of the Old Harbor village. 

2. Native American Village Site off Corn Neck Road 

Dating from 500 BC. Walk on a scenic greenway trail on conservancy land (30-minute walk) with a historical guide who will point out where one of the original Manissean villages was located including site of wigwam structures and living areas. Includes tour of the collections at the Museum. 

3. Souls, Symbols & Stones 

Guided 45-minute tour exploring the Island Cemetery on West Side Road. Learn about the stone carvers, their art and the diverse people buried there who helped shape Block Island’s history. 

Eight other smaller family cemetery tours are also available. 

4. Palatine Graves near Lewis Dicken’s Preserve 

Learn about the 1738 shipwreck of the Princess Augusta on which Whittier based his famous poem that has now become island folklore. The historical monument is on private property therefore guided tours must be arranged through the Historical Society (1-hour round trip tour, walking 25 minutes) transportation is provided. Only available on Sundays between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. 

5. Tour of the month - presented by a guest guide, offered the fourth Saturday of the month from April to November. 

To book a tour, call (401) 466-2481.