Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Powder Mill Ledges Wildlife Refuge (Blog Hike #545)

Trails: Orange, Blue, and Yellow Trails
Hike Location: Powder Mill Ledges Wildlife Refuge
Geographic Location: south side of Smithfield, RI
Length: 1.7 miles
Difficulty: 2/10 (Easy)
Last Hiked: August 2015
Overview: A gently undulating loop through a wide variety of habitats.

Directions to the trailhead: On the west side of Providence, take I-295 to US 44 (exit 7).  Exit and go west on US 44.  Drive US 44 west 0.6 miles to SR 5 and turn left on SR 5.  Drive SR 5 south 0.2 miles to the refuge entrance on the left.  Turn left to enter the refuge, and park in the gravel parking lot beside the Audubon Society headquarters building.

The hike: Owned and operated by the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, Powder Mill Ledges Wildlife Refuge protects 120 acres in highly developed central Rhode Island.  The refuge’s name comes from a gunpowder factory/mill that operated in the area during our nation’s early days.  The exact location of the mill is uncertain, but the road we know today as US 44 was originally chartered as the Powder Mill Turnpike in 1810.  An inn for pioneer travelers operated on this site in the early 1800’s.
            Today the refuge serves as the headquarters for the Audubon Society of Rhode Island.  The headquarters building beside the parking lot contains a gift shop, a teacher’s resource center, and a bird feeding station, but it is only open Monday through Friday.  The refuge’s three trails, on the other hand, are open dawn to dusk seven days per week.  The three trails form successively longer loops, and hiking the longest loop forms the 1.7 mile hike described here.
Orange Trail trailhead
            From the side of the headquarters building, the Orange Trail, the first of the three successive loops, leaves in two directions: left and right.  This trail description uses the right option as the outbound route and the left option as the return route, thus hiking the loop counterclockwise.  The trail heads roughly south with a meadow through the trees first on the left and later on the right.  The meadows were full of colorful purple flowers when I hiked here in mid-August.
            Where the inner loop of the Orange Trail exits left, angle right to hike the full Orange Trail.  After passing some old stone walls that separated farm fields long ago, you reach a narrow wooden boardwalk.  This boardwalk crosses a small seasonally wet area that features some young pine trees.  Once across the boardwalk, the trail curves left to climb gradually to reach the top of a small hill.
Boardwalk on Orange Trail
            At 0.4 miles, you reach the intersection with the Blue Trail, which exits right.  If you wanted a short hike of only 0.8 miles, you could continue straight and hike only the Orange Trail.  For a longer tour, turn right to begin the Blue Trail.  The Blue Trail assumes a gently rolling course as it heads east through a pine planting.
            Just past 0.6 miles, you come out at a wide high voltage power line clearing and an intersection with the Yellow Trail.  Again you can choose to short circuit the hike if you wish, but this description turns right to begin the Yellow Trail.  After passing a bench, the Yellow Trail continues this hike’s eastward course as it heads under the power lines.  I counted no less than 17 power lines in this corridor, and the shrubby, slightly rocky terrain gives this area all the charm of an urban industrial park.
Power lines
            The trail enters the woods on the other side of the power lines and continues east to intersect another sign of suburbia: a gravel road used by utility crews to access a transformer.  Look for the yellow paint blazes to find where the trail reenters the forest on the other side of the road.  Nearing the refuge’s eastern boundary, the trail curves left to begin heading north through young broadleaf forest.  Honestly, the young forest, power lines, and gravel road ensure that the Yellow Trail does not make for the most scenic hiking.
            More gradual left turning brings the trail back first to the gravel road and then to the power lines.  Upon reaching the power lines, the trail curves left and begins climbing gradually under the wires on a two-track gravel path.  This turn is not marked, but the thick undergrowth below the power lines makes it difficult to get off of the trail.  I also heard some ATV’s on this path, so keep an open ear and eye as you walk.
            1.2 miles into the hike, you close the loop of the Yellow Trail.  The gravel path continues south under the power lines here, so be on the lookout for this intersection.  Turn right to get back to the Blue Trail, then turn right again to continue the Blue Trail.  The Blue Trail stays on the edge of the power line clearing before curving left to leave the power lines for good (finally!) and reenter the more scenic pine forest.
Wolf tree
            Now heading slightly downhill, you pass some large trees with limbs very close to the ground.  These trees have lived here since the days when this land was cleared, and they are known as wolf trees.  At 1.5 miles, you reach the end of the Blue Trail at its intersection with the Orange Trail.  Turn right to continue the Orange Trail, then turn right again where the Orange Trail’s inner loop exits left.  After passing through another old stone wall, the Orange Trail curves left as it nears the refuge’s north boundary.  A brief walk through a meadow brings you back to the headquarters building to complete the hike.

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