Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Ninigret National Wildlife Refuge (Blog Hike #536)

Trails: Foster Cove, Cross Refuge, Grassy Point, and Charlietown Runway Trails
Hike Location: Ninigret National Wildlife Refuge
Geographic Location: southwest of Charlestown, RI
Length: 3.4 miles
Difficulty: 2/10 (Easy)
Last Hiked: August 2015
Overview: A flat, sunny loop hike through a World War II airbase turned wildlife refuge.

Directions to the trailhead: From the intersection of US 1 and SR 112 in Charlestown, take US 1 south 2.3 miles to the refuge’s west entrance, which is on the left.  However, if you are traveling south on US 1, left turns are prohibited, so you must pass the entrance and do a U-turn at the next designated area to reach the entrance.  Park in the large blacktop parking lot.

The hike: Known as “Charlietown” to the young pilots who trained here during World War II, Ninigret National Wildlife Refuge partly occupies the former site of the Charlestown Naval Auxiliary Landing Fields.  The U.S. Navy purchased the former farmland in 1942 to build a training base for overseas night air operations during the war.  Pilots spent 4 months here training in hellcats before heading out for duty in the South Pacific.  Training exercises included tactics, gunnery, aircraft carrier landing, navigation, and instrument flying.
            The base’s most famous trainee was George H.W. Bush, the future 41st President of the United States, who trained here before being deployed to the USS San Jacinto in 1944.  The runways on which he would have landed hellcats can still be seen on this hike.  After the war, the base was used as a practice site for trainees at nearby Quonset Air Field.  In the early 1970’s, the base was closed, and the land was transferred to the National Fish and Wildlife Service for operation as the refuge you see today.  The refuge’s name comes from Ninigret Pond, a large saltwater body that forms the refuge’s southern boundary.
            The refuge is organized into two units: the Kettle Pond Unit located north of Charlestown and the Salt Pond Unit featured on this hike.  The Salt Pond Unit offers several short hiking trails.  Combining some of the short trails in a clever way forms the 3.4 mile refuge grand tour described here.
Start of Foster Cove Trail
            Three trails leave from the west entrance parking area.  This hike starts at the west entrance for the Foster Cove Loop Trail, which departs the west corner of the parking lot at an information board that contains a refuge trail map.  The dirt/gravel trail initially heads west, but it soon makes a near 180-degree sweeping left curve to begin heading southeast.  Just past 0.2 miles, you reach a small opening that gives a nice view of Foster Cove, an extension of Ninigret Pond that borders the refuge on the west.
Foster Cove
            The Foster Cove Loop Trail traces the boundary of its namesake cove as it passes through densely vegetated coastal shrubland.  Many different shrubs including honeysuckle and bittersweet live in this area.  Also, the large amount of water means that mosquitoes will appear in large numbers during the warmer months, so make sure you wear plenty of bug spray in season.
            At 0.5 miles, the Foster Cove Loop Trail intersects the Cross Refuge Trail.  If you wanted a short 0.9 mile hike, you could turn left here and complete the Foster Cove Loop Trail.  To get to the east side of the refuge and the best Ninigret Pond views, this hike continues straight on the Cross Refuge Trail.  True to its name, the Cross Refuge Trail connects the western and eastern sections of the refuge’s Salt Pond Unit.
            The trail soon crosses one of the airbase’s old runways, which is now a mixture of asphalt and gravel.  If you wanted to extend this hike, you could turn right on the asphalt and walk down the runway 0.4 miles to a Ninigret Pond fishing access, but we will get better views of the pond later in the hike.  The trail leaves the runway before curving left and then right to continue its general southeast course.  More shrubs and more ponds mean more bugs, so come prepared.
Crossing an old runway
            At 1.3 miles, the trail curves left where a gated road goes right.  Soon you cross another old runway as the trail heads northeast on what appears to be an old road.  Up to this point the trail has alternated between sun and shade, but full sun now prevails, a condition that will continue for most of the rest of the hike.
Hiking a hot, sunny trail
            1.6 miles into the hike, you reach the connector trail that connects the Cross Refuge Trail and the Grassy Point Trail.  Turn right to head for the Grassy Point Trail.  A small stand of coastal oak trees provides some welcome shade on a hot sunny day.  When you reach the wide gravel Grassy Point Trail at a T-intersection, turn right to head for Grassy Point.
            The trail curves left as it heads out Grassy Point, a peninsula that sticks well out into Ninigret Pond.  Interpretive signs tell of this land’s agricultural history before it became a naval base.  When this area was first settled in the 1600’s, the flat, fertile, rock-free glacial outwash that now surrounds you was some of the best farmland in the area.  Large plantations grew everything from corn to vegetables to potatoes, and profitable grazing and fishing industries also thrived here.
            2 miles into the hike, you reach Grassy Point.  Views into Ninigret Pond extend in three directions, and a provided pair of binoculars allows you to identify wildlife at a distance.  A bench provides a nice spot to rest and enjoy the scenery just past the midpoint of the hike.
View from Grassy Point
The trail ends at Grassy Point, so your next move is to turn around and retrace your steps back up the peninsula.  Where the connector trail exits left, continue straight to stay on the Grassy Point Trail.  At 2.4 miles, you need to angle left to begin heading back toward the trailhead.  If you wanted to extend your hike, the trail going right leads a short distance to another view of Ninigret Pond that is similar to the one you obtained earlier.
Very quickly you step onto asphalt that is the end of old airbase runway 30, the longest runway at the airbase.  Large white painted numbers “30” designed to be seen from the air can still be made out on the ground.  2.5 miles into the hike, you reach the paved east parking lot.  To begin the final segment back to our (west) parking lot, walk directly across this parking lot and pick up the paved Charlietown Runway Trail.  A sign warns of ticks, but they should not pose a problem if you stay on the trail.
Runway 30
As its name suggests, the Charlietown Runway Trail traces the entire 0.8 mile length of old runway 30.  As such, the paved trail is completely flat and almost dead straight.  The facilities of adjacent Ninigret Park can be seen to the right as you hike along the refuge boundary.  Reaching the west parking lot located at the other end of the Charlietown Runway Trail signals the end of the hike.

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