Over the holiday weekend I thru-hiked the Rhode Island North/South Trail, a 78 mile path from the Atlantic Ocean to the RI/MA border in Burrillville, RI.
Total time: approx 3.5 days
Total mileage: approx 80 miles including travel from the trailhead
If you JUST want pictures, the full album is here.
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Overall, a great time, I saw a lot of wildlife, encountered some nice people, saw some interesting relics of settlement, and got to really see the terrain and weather changes as you move away from the coast. The biggest takeaway is that this is not a hike, it’s a walk. I could count the # of times I got out of breath due to terrain with one hand. Walking this long on this kind of low elevation gain trails is more an exercise in blister and boot management, than it is a test of endurance. Contrast this with a trip in the mountains of Maine or New York, where you’re more often than not limited by your lungs. At least I am, your mileage may vary.
There’s a lot of roadwalking, I mean a lot, one stretch is over 11 miles. If this is not your thing, then skip the trip.
If you can, find the Cliff Vanover book, available from Great Swamp Press. You can do it without the book, or even without maps, but there’s neat info in there, and has a good section for off-trail resources such as local campgrounds. The signage is aggressive, overly so. Instead of the ‘double blaze’ at trail forks, it’s everywhere you make a turn, even if there’s nowhere else to go. It’s often accompanied by a plastic N/S Trail sign, with arrows drawn on in marker. You CANNOT get lost.
There’s also no legal on-or-near-trail camping, except in the northern section where it goes right through a state campground. Bootleg camping is not permitted. I will leave this as an exercise to the reader. As always, follow LNT principles.
Water can be a challenge. I carried at most a gallon, and only dipped down into my emergency quart once. There’s only a few places where you can get free clean water, so carry at least something like iodine, and consider a water filter, as the water you find might be contaminated with suburban or rural runoff – oil, fertilizer, etc.
Day 1: Charlestown RI, the Blue Shutters Town Beach
I got dropped off at 6:30 at the beach parking lot. The first few miles were a roadwalk through a nice neighborhood, complete with joggers and dogwalkers. After a mile or two, my feet started to feel the pain of walking on asphalt.
The trail quickly moves into woods roads and state hunting/management areas, a mix of dirt road and trail. At one point you pass through a sod farm. The eerily flat/smooth soil and stench of nitrogen was unpleasant.
There’s a nice pond/beach area at mile 11.93. Take a break here and refill your water. Obviously you’ll need a filter or some means of treating it.
Day 1 winds down with a long roadwalk, but I was lucky enough to hit a Del’s Lemonade at around mile 17. The trail cuts down another road, then along the old highway, the New London Turnpike, now a dirt road under power lines, littered with trash like broken TVs. From here the roar of I-95 is omnipresent. You cross under it later, and for a while walk along it – at least its visible through some trees.
Shortly after this you enter the Arcadia Management area.
It was here I encountered trail magic! A woman stopped her truck and gave me a fistful of “sweet fern”, which when crushed and rubbed all over, repels mosquitoes and deerflies.
A note on bugs:
Deerflies, blackflies and mosquitoes are a constant challenge. One thing I discovered is that by wearing a floppy straw hat that covers the ears, and good sunglasses, the deerflies cannot divebomb your ears, and the blackflies cannot fly into your eyes. If you can steel yourself to hearing the deerflies endlessly circle, and the blackflies bouncing off your sunglass lenses, it’s not too bad.
Just after crossing under I-95 you traverse the famous Boulder Field.
In the Arcadia Mgmt area, there’s a beautiful pond/brook called Roaring Brook Pond. This is at around mile 25.5. One should always camp near a water source – but of course not too near!
Day 2: Mostly Arcadia, then into Moosup Valley/Coventry/Foster
Arcadia is great, especially when there’s not a lot of people. Hiking through at 7am is a great time. Hawks, deer, songbirds, and the bugs not too bad.
At Stepstone Falls I stopped and took a brief nap, and was amazingly recharged. I think 10-15 minute naps are going to be my new thing.
Moving through and out of the area, I crossed through the old Escoheag Ski area. There’s some random machinery in the woods still, and here’s the parking lot.
Then a long roadwalk, uphill. But, after passing an area recently cleared to provide New England (not Eastern, which are invasive) Cottontail habitat, I hit the halfway mark!
Through here, the gypsy moth caterpillar devastation is so great, it’s winter. Not only have they stripped the oaks, but the undergrowth/blueberry thickets as well. Bears will go hungry, so people of western RI, lock up your trash extra tight. I hate gypsy moths and tent caterpillars.
Coming out of here, some more walking and you cross the Moosup River on a high trestle bridge. You’re at about mile 40 here. At this point the trail goes past a beautiful pond, Carbuncle Pond, where I took a nice long 2 hour break. My feet were blistered heavily at this point, so I didn’t swim, but I got all new water, and had a bit of a wash.
I live sort of near here, and at this point there’s no state owned land for another 20 miles, so I pushed on, figuring I’d eat miles and walk as far as I could to split up the next 12 miles of roadwalk. You pass through little hamlets like Rice City and Vaughn Hollow.
On the old Plainfield Pike (the other highway) I passed one of the old toll houses. 20 miles to Providence, if I wanted to walk there.
Trudging along (really trudging at this point, all roadwalks, 40+ miles in 2 days, just wanting to sit or sleep), I got to the historic village of Moosup Valley in Foster, where my ride awaited at mile 46.
Day 3: Foster-Glocester (July 4)
More roadwalking, down 1 lane country roads and past farms. You can tell its an election year.
At mile 53 you cross Interstate 6, the busiest road so far, but early morning it’s not too bad. At the Shady Acres restaurant I had a nice, shady break, complete with coffee, a muffin, and a tiny nap. I got to watch a group of Revolutionary War re-enactors muster in the parking lot, then climb into a car and drive off somewhere. A brief trip back into the woods by an old shingle mill, then its back onto the road for more miles.
Entering the Killingly Pond area, you cross into Connecticut briefly. This park was awful, really beat up roads, nothing smooth, but nothing soft because its stripped to the rocks, and you walk through a “wonderful hemlock forest”, which as everyone knows, is code for ‘dark, mucky, and full of mosquitoes”.
Emerging back onto the asphalt, I went through some rural neighborhoods until I got to the Oak Leaf Campground, at around mile 62. At this point it was midday, and about 85 degrees, so I stopped at the camp store for some cold drinks. An hour later, saddled back up and did the 4 mile trip through the Durfee Management area to the George Washington Management Area, at around mile 66.5. Durfee was pretty bad, roads tough, muddy, and plagued by ATVs.
For $14 I got a campsite at the state campground at George Washington, and was then reminded of the perils of staying in a public campground on July 4. Dogs, generators, and fireworks. At this point I’d done 66 miles in 3 days, much of it on roads, and most of it in 80+ weather. The blisters at this point were torn open and lets just say, painful.
And then the rains came. Fortunately I had some raingear, and had staked the tent well.
Day 4: To the end
The rains lasted until around 9:30 on the morning of the 5th, at which point it started to get warm. Dreading the combination of wet woods, hemlock groves, and 80 degree weather, I rebandaged my feet and saddled up. Here the trail follows a set of other trails known as the Walkabout Trail, but thanks to the aggressive signage, you can’t get lost.
Working through the Management Area, it started to feel a little more like hiking. Some ups and downs, nothing major, but the terrain started to lose its sameness, and being off even a dirt road gave it a more rural feel. The start and the end of the trail are definitely the best parts for that.
Coming out into another neighborhood and passing some powerlines, you come to the final road crossing, where you move into the Buck Hill Management Area. This is the Maine of the trail – totally away from anything, steeper ups and downs, blueberry thickets, and bugs.
I got to a trail register, and knew I was nearly there. Feet sore, hot, tired, I was instantly invigorated and pushed on.
Through more wet blueberry thickets (these untouched by caterpillars), I stumbled out onto a dirt road, and reached the end.
A two mile hike through the Management Area, past a neat wildlife marsh complete with beavers, and my ride awaited.
Would I do it again? Probably not, certainly not the same way. I might try to combine it with a bike ride. The roadwalking really wasn’t fun. Not because of cars, or annoying dogs, simply because of the physical impact of walking on asphalt.
Glad I did it? Absolutely. I’ve wanted to do this since the trail was built.
Rhode Island is really a neat state. Within 40 miles you have a capitol city full of universities, you have both the bay and ocean beaches, and you have some beautiful wooded areas to explore. No real climbs, no summits, no real views except for in rare instances, but it’s like going back in time. At one point almost all of RI was cleared farmlands, now you see the cellar holes, the stone walls, and newer things like ski resorts that closed 40 years ago. You get to walk through old hamlets like “Wood River Junction” and “Vaughn Hollow” where probably everyone knows everyone. There’s wildlife everywhere. Best of all, if you’re from here, getting to any of these trails or getting a ride back is an easy <1 hour drive. Get out and go hiking!
I’d definitely do this again. I made some bad gear choices the first time which limited some of the enjoyment. I think next time I’ll camp in Burlingame and hike to the ocean for a sunrise start. In 2021 some of the Foster roadwalk will be rerouted through a combination of Foster Land Trust and Borders Farm properties.
28 Comments Add yours
Hi! I am looking to hike the North South Trail, but am unable to find a copy of the book and also having a hard time finding the exact address for drop off/pick up online. Can you please share the addresses for start/end points? Thank you! And thank you for the detailed description of your trip- it is very helpful.
Hi Megan, the address for the southern terminus is : Blue Shutters Town Beach, 469 E Beach Rd, Charlestown, RI 02813. The northern terminus is within the Buck Hill Management Area, off Buck Hill Rd, which is off Rt 100 in Pascoag/Burrillville.
Hi Ed, thanks for such a great write up. My husband and I are planning on doing this in the Fall. In NH we often leave our car at the end point, and take a taxi to the beginning. We were considering going North – South. Which do you think would be better for the car drop off? Sounds like I better get some walking on Asphalt in before the hike/walk. Thank-you.
Hi Kathy, thanks for reading. Glad it was useful. I think you’re better off leaving the car at the north end than the south. The southern end is basically a beach parking lot, or a neighborhood of vacation homes. Nowhere really out of the way. The north end is a parking lot in the woods. However, if the car is there for a few days, I fear something might happen to it. The area is not obviously trashed out, but you never know. One thing to consider might be continuing north into Massachusetts for a little bit, there might be a more public and safe place to park there. I’ve never been north of the terminus so I am not sure. If you get good weather, I bet the trail will be gorgeous in September, especially later in the month.
Hi- I’m old. I’d like to do this in about 10-14 miles stretches. Concerned about where to camp. It almost sounds as though you have to do some 30 plus days to sleep legally— any help ??— David
That’s kind of tricky. RI is pretty developed, and a lot of the campgrounds are in the north, or far off trail. I bootlegged in Arcadia at around 26, there’s a bunch of camping in Foster in the ~45 mile range, camping at George Washington Campground at around 66.
You’re in state management areas a lot, where there’s no legal camping or facilities, but you could make it work.
heading north as you approach Stepping Stone Falls there is a steep incline to your left side. Climb the hill there is a good size cabin with two fireplaces think the AMC local chapter owns it be respectful I found it while hiking off trial
Thanks for the info, this is a great tip.
I just yesterday finished my second attempt at a thru-hike. My first was 3 yrs ago, northbound, and I got as far as the Foster Golf Corse (mile 48). This attempt was southbound, and I got to just before Rte 138 (mile 61). I love hiking and go about 10-15 miles every weekend on day-hikes, so I am in pretty good hiking shape. For all those attempting this – there is A LOT of road-walking, which takes a toll on your feet. This was my downfall both times. No tree-cover and hard pounding means blisters, sweat, and chafing – even in September, when the temps were in the low-70s. Even drinking a gallon and a half or so a day led to headaches at night from dehydration. 20 miles a day can get you to places to stealth-camp, if that is your bent. I never had problems finding woods to hide in. Grab water whenever you can – at times there are long stretches before you can get to it again. Definitely grab it in Arcadia before you leave, either northbound or southbound – Stepstone Falls, or Baker’s Brook, respectively. It will be a while before you find it again.
I agree with the OP – I am glad I did it, but would not necessarily do it again. Too much road-walking.
In 1999 I ran the Trail N – S in about 18 hours on Memorial Day. All of you hikers who don’t like the impact on asphalt, wear a pair of good quality trail running shoes. There’s really no need for boots on this route, and the hard soles of boots will shock your heels/knees/hips with every step. I was over 50 at the time and in pretty good shape and didn’t suffer even 1 blister. Spring or Fall are better choices than summer for a comfortable journey.
Hi, do you know if are there maps of the new routes mentioned in the 2021 update? Thanks!
Hi Roy, I dont think there are updated maps, but the trail now goes roughly NE from the intersection of Johnson and S. Killingly, up through Borders Farm land back towards Balcolm. It basically cuts off that corner.
Hi Smokebeard! Thanks so much for taking the time to write this up, so helpful. Saw your 2021 update that said you made some bad gear choices, could you specify what those were and what you might have done instead?
Hi Ainsley, thanks for reading.
Right now I can’t remember other than my choice of footwear, if I did it again I would swap the boots for trail runners. I did this in a beefy pair of hiking boots, and had very sweaty and blistery feet, especially on the roadwalk section in the middle. I’d consider going stoveless too – if you do this on a hot July weekend, you might not be in the mood for steaming hot mac & cheese at the end of the day.
Other gear changes are more evolutionary, like I’d bring my newer pack, my quilt instead of my old bag, and my newer tent. But that’s just natural progression of gear replacement I think.
Hi Smokebeard, I’m considering this as a solo thru hike pretty soon. I’m a young female and I’m hoping I shouldn’t be too worried about safety related to that? I will be vigilant, of course. Any thoughts?
I think you’ll be fine. Normal trail rules apply. Several official campgrounds in the northern half.
Thank you! That’s what I figured, but wanted a bit of reassurance.
One other thing: I’m considering biking part of it to cut down road walk time. I have all-rounder town bike that I was hoping to use. I’m not sure how many times my support crew (my dad-ha!) will be willing to drop off and pick up the bike, and I definitely don’t want to bike the whole way.
Any thoughts on a particular stretch or stretches that would be best? I’m hiking/biking north—>south and was looking at maps and thinking of biking Rt6 to the start of Arcadia on Hazard rd, and then from Arcadia to Burlingame mngmt area. I would like to extend the first bike section to include trail north of Rt 6, but not sure what my starting point should be. What do you think?
Those 2 sections would be good to ride as they are a lot if roadwalking. There is a small section of new trail south of Rt 6 that’s been run through Borders Farm and Foster Land Trust property, but otherwise it’s all road. North of Rt 6 it goes through a very wet/muddy section of trail before coming out on Shippee Schoolhouse Rd. You could probably ride from Rt 101 south to Rt 6, but you might have to walk the bike a bit in the mud. If you’re stopping on Rt 101 and have a bike you might as well do Jerimoth Hill while you’re there.
Thanks so much, Smokebeard. Happy trails!
Good luck! When you get to Moosup Valley Rd, if you need water or shade or wifi or a bathroom, the Moosup Valley Library is maybe another .25 miles farther than the trail turnoff.
I did a couple of 10 mile sections on different occasions when my son was earning his Hiking merit badge in Scouts. The section going through Foster was the hardest. Those roads can be very tough on the feet, especially doing ten miles in three hours. Are you tougher than a Boy Scout?
If you find yourself on the trail again, you will enjoy the cutoff near Borders Farm. It connects the end of Johnson Rd to the pond at Borders, through a combination of Foster Land Trust and Borders Farm land.