Leaf Peeping In Rhode Island

A guide to the fall foliage in the Ocean State

The untouched forests of Rhode Island vanished in the early 1800’s, burned for the charcoal that fed the era’s iron forges and creating the iconic patchwork of stone-walled farms that blanketed the rolling hills of New England. But the bucolic scenery so familiar from Currier and Ives prints existed for just a generation; over the last 100 years, the cleared fields have regrown into lush hardwood forests. Every year, as the cooler nights set in, those forests burst into brilliant autumn oranges and reds and browns and yellows and purples that attract leaf peepers from every corner of the country.

 

Before I came to Rhode Island, “autumn” was an abstract concept. I came from Texas, two thousand miles southwest of Rhode Island, where autumn is best described as the brief time between summer and winter when you can turn off the air conditioner and open the windows for fresh air. Colorful leaves appeared only on the teacher’s bulletin board, and what real leaves that didn’t stay green year-round turned a dusty dull beige before collapsing at the base of the trees.

Now that I live in Rhode Island, on autumn mornings my wife and I sip our tea on the slate patio I built behind our house and listen to squadrons of Canada geese squawking in their flying wedge formations as they migrate to warmer climates. To her, as a born-and-bred Rhode Islander, New England autumns are normal, but to me it is magical. I had no idea that I could wake up one morning and see a golden yellow tree outside my window, that I would look forward to walking my dog just so that I could see her dive nose-first into a sea of vivid orange oak leaves in quest of an imagined chipmunk, or that a gust of frosty wind could shake red maples, causing them to toss their leaves into the air like a flock of crimson birds.

Not every tree erupts into color at the same time. The first hints of yellow appear on the birch leaves at the end of September with the onset of the first cool nights, particularly those lining the south and west sides of ponds and fields where the northern wind blows unrestricted against their canopies. As the days progress, the red maples, almost black through the summer, retake their vivid red springtime hue. By the time the last tree starts changing colors, the first trees are already bare and ready for winter. The best colors appear in northern Rhode Island’s Blackstone Valley area first, usually around Columbus Day; the Atlantic coastline 70 miles to the south reaches its peak a week later.

Living in Rhode Island, I’ve learned that you very literally can’t see the forest for the trees; vistas where you can look out and see entire forests are rare in Rhode Island, and with every clear line of sight blocked by a tree, you can’t see entire forests. One of the few vistas in the state is just off Tower Hill Road in South Kingstown, where a round half-dome of stone called “Treaty Rock” offers a view across the fjord-like Long Lake, outward toward Jamestown Island and Narragansett Bay. Athletic hikers can scramble up the steep trail to its summit to take in the foliage without too much difficulty.

Legend says that a lovelorn maiden waited her entire life on a nearby cliff overlooking Narragansett Bay’s west passage, waiting to spot her true love when he returns from the sea. But with the resurgence of the forests, her perch’s view is now obstructed in all directions by just a couple dozen trees. For a while, lovers of sweeping vistas could thank the forest service for building a watchtower on the maiden’s site that is open to the public, provided that they don’t mind a serious climb. But now the trees have grown up taller than the tower, making the views more and more restricted each year.

But you don’t have to trudge up a cliff or climb a forest ranger’s watch tower to admire expanses of forests. Rhode Island’s many ponds make excellent vantage points, letting you see the foliage laid out like a Degas canvas in splashes of bright colors along the line of the opposite shore. On almost any hike in Rhode Island forests or almost any car trip through the back roads of the Ocean State, there will be a chance to stop at a pond and enjoy the view. The state’s Department of Environmental Management is maintains the state parks, frequently placing picnic tables and information boards at the ponds with public access. And since October is also migration season for Canada geese, there’s a chance to see these large birds up close.

Rhode Island’s ponds, as beautiful as they can be, once served a purely functional purpose. They date from the days of powering mills, at first just simple grain mills with picturesque overshot water wheels. These water-powered mills, along with their windmill and tide-mill cousins were the height of agrarian technology in the 1700’s, grinding grain into flour. The Gilbert Stuart birthplace museum in Saunderstown, for instance, is a great stop on a drive through Rhode Island’s South County. Its functioning overshot water wheel is still capable of grinding dried tobacco leaves into a fine powder snuff.

But ponds in Rhode Island tended to be small – that was until Samuel Slater built the first water-powered textile mill in Pawtucket along the Blackstone River in 1793. Using designs based on pirated British technology, he launched the American Industrial Revolution. Soon, every useful stretch of running water in Rhode Island had been dammed and rerouted to drive the water turbines which powered the factories of Rhode Island’s textile industry. Water power reigned supreme for fifty or so years until steam power took over, but the ponds and lakes created to power the mills remain. Consider a hike around Ryan Park’s ponds in North Kingstown or the Frenchtown Park in East Greenwich, both former textile mill sites turned to public use, featuring extensive hiking trail systems and beautiful foliage vistas across their mill ponds.

Or take a more leisurely stroll through Providence’s urban parks, like the Roger Williams Park with its world-class zoo, formal gardens, museum, and antique carousel. While you won’t be surrounded in a seemingly endless patchwork of color, you can still stop under a tree, crunch through the confetti of leaves on the ground, and take a break from your trip.

Some people aren’t satisfied by looking out across bodies of water; they want to get out on the water directly by renting a kayak or canoe in Wickford to follow along the coastline of the Narragansett Bay as it cuts through the center of the state? Canoeists also love the waterway of the now-defunct Blackstone River canal with its placid waters and overhanging trees. More adventurous paddlers seek out the occasional swoop of rapids along the Wood River as it winds through the west half of state, punctuated by portages over Stepping Stone Falls and the occasional mill dam.

Bicycling Rhode Island is not a task requiring Lance Armstrong – unlike the Alps, Jerimoth Hill the highest point in the state is just 812 feet. Bicycling is especially easy along the many train right-of-ways that have been turned into hike-and-bike trails. Trains can only navigate a slight grade, usually just one or two percent at most, making these trails a casual cruise rather than a test of physical endurance. The best bicycle trails include the East Bay Bike Path that runs from East Providence southward to Bristol and the Washington Secondary Bike Path that winds through Cranston and West Warwick into Coventry. You can find bicycle rentals in several locations.

A driving tour has the advantage of letting you stop and poke through country diners, antique shops, and farm stands. Look for a route that takes you through farmland, past ponds, and ideally on roads that don’t have a lot of telephone wires to distract from that perfect view. My favorite autumn drive follows highway 102 from North Smithfield all the way down to Wickford village. If we go out for a drive in early October, we’ll stick to the north end of the state. Later in the month, we concentrate on South County, looking for open farmland and swaths of colorful trees beyond.

The side trips and country are really the reason my wife and I go off to see the foliage. On our outings, we can enjoy a home-style meal at Wright’s Chicken Farm, pick tart apples that will end up in pies at one of Smithfield’s pick-your-own farms, stand under the arched Washington Bridge in Lincoln to listen to the bouncing echoes when we speak, feel the mist rising up from the Blackstone River as the water rushes over the Woonsocket dam, and comb through Chepachet’s antique stores in search of bargains. We head off to the rural festivals, like the Scituate Art Festival, and stop at farm stands and garage sales. If we discover a new historical site, a museum, or a cemetery, we’ll stop and learn a little more about the history of the land in which we’ve made home. Of course, along the way we always gawk in amazement at the foliage, especially when we crest a hill while we’re driving and we can see kaleidoscopic trees stretching a mile down the road.

If you prefer to let someone else do the driving, there are tours organized by both local and national bus services that will wander throughout New England. The Blackstone Valley Tourism Council runs train excursions each October to explore the foliage. The 46-mile trip follows the Blackstone River northward from Cumberland into Massachusetts and lasts the entire day.

A creative way to get an inexpensive foliage tour is to catch a commuter train from Providence to Boston and back, or take the Newport ferry from Providence. Once you’re in Newport, the city’s shops, galleries, restaurants, and historical sites are readily available and generally walkable. Newport is the home not only of the famous Gilded Age mansions of the super-wealthy like Cornelius Vanderbilt and Doris Duke; it’s also the home of the Turo Synagogue, the first synagogue in the New World.

Since I’ve come to Rhode Island, I’ve experienced more magical experiences than I even imagined could exist. I’ve been overflown by a pair of swans, found a starfish under a flat rock, sat quiet on a rock in fog so thick I couldn’t see the ground, and, perhaps most magical, I’ve experienced the colors and tastes and sounds of a real autumn.

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