Take a Hike

Explore South County's winter hiking trails


Winter has set, in but that doesn’t mean we have to settle for cozy afternoons by the fire reading a book and sipping tea. Wait, that’s not exactly a bad thing but let’s just say you want to mix things up a little bit. In an attempt to avoid cabin fever, set out into the wilderness and let the cold wind caress your face. Now, there is really no wilderness in southeastern New England. But for those of us city or suburb bound, a little open space can seem huge; and in a place as small as Rhode Island, where there is basically a Dunkin Donuts on every corner, these open spaces are gems. They are places to be enjoyed for their feelings of solitude or with the company of your choice. Whether a novice in need of a gorgeous view, or a seasoned hiker with a want for a bit of a challenge, we’ve got your hiking needs covered.

To begin with, always check the weather and dress appropriately. Personally, I would not go hiking during a rainstorm. I would, however, watch the snow fall over the ocean, but I am a bit of a romantic. A good base layer of thermals always gets me through either a light or more challenging hike. Wearing a windproof jacket also makes life immeasurably more enjoyable while choosing to spend time in the cold.

Speaking of snow, contrary to popular belief, hiking after a snowfall is a great idea for a number of reasons. If you have never had the pleasure of being the first to walk a trail after a snowfall, add it to your bucket list. The quiet serenity of walking in the woods while hearing fresh snow crunching under your boots is something out of a Laura Ingalls Wilder novel. The sight of snow at the tide line is also something that leaves me in awe. Snow on the beach never lasts too long, so it’s always a treat when you finally do see it.

Classic New England
Take in the view at Beavertail

Sometimes in the cold air, all you can do is take in the view in a gorgeous location. That is what is so great about Beavertail State Park in Jamestown. As you make your way down Conanicut Island, past beautiful farmland, past the historic Jamestown windmill, across Zeke’s Creek and finally winding around to the southern point at Beavertail, this point looks south into the Atlantic and separates the East and West passages. This rocky outcrop is never shy on gorgeous, big crashing waves and, oh did I mention: the Beavertail Lighthouse. It’s only a quintessential New England experience to be sitting on the rocks in front of the lighthouse, hearing the horn blowing and feeling the salt spray on your face. No big deal.

What’s more, we have the luxury of special winter guests that grace our rocky coastlines, Harlequin ducks. These medium sized, northern nesting birds overwinter in our “warmer” waters and dive and dabble for food source. Mollusks, crustaceans, insects, bait fish and roe (found in marine and riverine environments) make up their varied diet.

Male Harlequin ducks are exquisite in their plumage. They exhibit a slate blue base, chestnut sides and vibrant white markings including a white dot on their cheek. Adorable. Whether I am out with my spotting scope or binoculars in hand, I know that I will have a good chance of seeing these ducks if I make the effort to leave the couch.

Walk With the Animals
Trustom Pond offers glimpses of wildlife

Now, if I actually want to brave the cold and hike it out, I will pick a day where the wind is calm and the sun is shining and head on down to Trustom Pond National Wildlife Refuge. And yes, I will bring my spotting scope, binoculars or camera, or some combination, because there is always something to see at Trustom.

It is a unique place. After you park in the gravel parking lot and leave your car, you walk into trails that are situated in coastal shrubland and mixed forest. Expect to see your typical overwintering birds such as White-crowned sparrows, Dark-eyed juncos, Tufted titmice and Black-capped chickadees as you walk the trails. Also, keep an eye out for the deer trails that are tucked away beneath the shrubs. I always feel like I’ve been let in on some secret the moment I recognize a deer trail or catch a glimpse of a White-tailed deer out of the corner of my eye.

But, when I go to Trustom, my heart is set on getting to the coastal pond. I want to see my overwintering dabbling ducks. I need to see them. I need to see the Buffleheads, the Common Goldeneye, the Ring-necked Ducks. They are so cute. I can’t deal with it. Especially the Buffleheads, they are so little and while they are diving for food it’s always a game to see where they will pop up.

Trustom is multifaceted. Because of the variety of habitats, you will encounter wildlife species like Sharp-shinned hawks and Barred owls. These birds of prey will be hunting all year round, and, because of the open fields that Trustom offers, you will have a birds- eye view of prime hunting opportunities and may even catch a predatorprey interaction in person.

But let’s say you want to head inland. Maybe the thought of being too close to the ocean in the winter is more than you can bear — you’re clearly not from around here. That’s okay, let’s go to Arcadia Management Area, and head to Breakheart Pond (end of Hick's Trail off Frosty Hollow Road).

This is a favorite spot of mine regardless of the time of year. It’s a short hike that gives me my nature fix. It combines a typical New England mixed forest, so even though the deciduous trees are barren at the moment, the white pines are holding down the fort and providing the greenery in these wintry months. This trail can easily be hiked with a good pair of boots or with snow shoes after a snowfall. It’s entirely up to you what you are in the mood for.

This is one of those spots where hiking in the winter time makes me think of the spring and how much places like these come alive with the melting of the snow. I start to think about spring peepers, and wood frogs and turning over rotting logs in the hopes of catching a Red-backed salamander or even a Spotted salamander. I look into the pond and see logs and rocks along the edges. It makes me think about the painted and spotted turtles that will be sunning themselves and resting on these in the not-to-distant future. Winter makes me grateful for the spring and gives me an appreciation for patience and the natural order of things.

I used to live on a pond; it was a beautiful and strange moment in my life. When a pond freezes and decides to shift, and furthermore is surrounded by mostly protected land, the effect is incredible. The sound is alien. It brings you back to a time where people were more in touch with their environment. It’s visceral. That is what being outside is the winter is like, a visceral reaction to an environment that you may or may not be entirely in touch with. So go out an enjoy it! Although it may just be for a short amount of time, it’s long enough to get your outdoor fix and explore areas you may not have thought of or see wildlife you never thought you would see.