September is the perfect time to seek open sky. The dog days have dwindled, and chilly autumn winds aren’t yet blustering. Insects retreat, and leaves start to color. This is the moment for fresh air and campfires, and southern Rhode Island is a rejuvenating destination for both. Once you abandon the highways and ease your car down curving rural roads, you find countryside checkered with trees and pasture. Leave your ride on a gravel lot, and trailheads will lead you deep into the leafy woods. Spend enough time in the forest, and you may want to pitch a tent and spend the night beneath glittering stars.
To ease you into these bucolic surroundings, here is a survey of trails and campgrounds in South County. Keep in mind, there’s a surprising amount of land out there, and lots of hidden nooks and crannies. But if you’re looking for a few hours of tromping around, these are good places to start.
The Active Camper
Burlingame State Park is one of Rhode Island’s greatest playgrounds, where you can swim, fish, hike, and mountain bike – all in the same day, if you feel like it – and retire to your tent for some hot dogs and s’mores. This state park boasts 3,000 acres and the sizable Watchaug Pond, a favorite for boaters and anglers. Burlingame State Campground boasts a similar grandeur: there are over 700 tent sites, as well as 20 rustic cabins. (By “rustic,” we mean no utilities, and campers have to bring their own bedding.) Such a gigantic estate often means large groups and some noise, but you can almost always find a vacant spot, even in high season. Charlestown
The Cozy Camper
Whispering Pines is gentle on the outdoorsman. For families – and people who like a
little comfort with their camping – this homey campground offers well-appointed tent sites near fully equipped restrooms and showers. The cabins have refrigerators, running water, and air conditioning. There’s a snack bar and volleyball court, and if you absolutely have to watch some Netflix, there’s free WiFi as well. But true to its name, Whispering Pines is nestled among tall evergreens, and you won’t find a nicer community of casual campers. Hope Valley
The Seaside Camper
They don’t call it Fishermen’s Memorial State Park and Campground for nothing; this expansive site is located in coastal Galilee, and no matter which direction you walk, you’re bound to hit a major body of water. Most of the regulars know Fishermen’s as a village of campers and RVs, and there are scores of sites to park and hook up. But there is also a cluster of tent sites, and traditional campers can enjoy the same amenities as their motorized neighbors: a playground, a viewing platform, and easy access to beaches, seafood restaurants, and the Point Judith Lighthouse. Ambitious backpackers are also just a mile away from the Block Island ferry dock. Galilee
The Adventurous Camper
For 50 years, Fort Getty was a military port, designed to protect Rhode Island shores from invading warships. Today, this 41-acre dollop of land is given over to picnickers, boaters, and people pitching tents, thanks to the town of Jamestown, which owns and maintains the Fort Getty Campground. The site is practically its own island, yet it’s busy with travelers who want to enjoy Newport County without paying for expensive B&Bs. Visitors can stroll the Kit Wright walking trail and view the remains of the old naval outpost. Jamestown
The Cross-Country Cyclist
Smooth, gentle, and scenic, the William C. O’Neill Bike Path is one of the hidden treasures of South County. This path isn’t as well known as the East Bay Bike Path or Washington Secondary Trail – and that’s a good thing. This luxurious route cuts through seven miles of farms and forest, connecting the University of Rhode Island campus in West Kingston to the western suburbs of Narragansett, where a trailhead stands only a short ride from the Town Beach. Don’t let the name fool you: the “bike path” is really a multi-use trail, and visitors can walk, jog, or skate to their heart’s content. Plus, 14 miles (there and back) makes a good distance for any training athlete.
Ninigret Park is a sprawling park on the southern coast, most famous as the setting for the Frosty Drew Nature Center and Observatory. But there’s also a pond (with beach and lifeguards), playgrounds, picnic areas, tennis and basketball courts, and a maze of bike paths that meander through the wilderness area. You could spend an entire day exploring this 227-acre landscape. Ninigret also has a storied past: until the 1970s, it was home to the Naval Auxiliary Air Station of Charlestown, and the blistered remains of the old airfield can still be seen today. Charlestown
Even by Rhode Island standards, Mount Tom Trail doesn’t really scale a mountain, yet this six-mile loop is a dynamic promenade through the Arcadia Management Area. Arcadia is our state’s largest recreational plot, and Mount Tom is a beautiful sample of those 14,000 acres: there are rolling hills, massive boulders, and an elegant bridge over a glassy brook, along with scattered overlooks. Mount Tom is considered a “rigorous” hike, so come prepared. Exeter
As the name suggests, the Lathrop Audubon Wildlife Refuge will appeal mostly to wildlife enthusiasts. These quiet wetlands have their charms, especially when it’s cool enough for the gnats and mosquitoes to vanish. But for birders, these are 86 acres of ornithological ecstasy. Lathrop is home to willets, snowy egrets, yellow warblers, and the Baltimore oriole, and there’s plenty else to see through a pair of binoculars. The trail is only a mile long and an easy walk, so you can focus on the avian, thanks to the RI Audubon Society. Westerly
Not many places in Rhode Island can qualify as a “valley,” and certainly none as scenic as Ell Pond Preserve. Located so far west that it’s practically in Connecticut, the preserve is a rare glimpse of near-wilderness. The “kettle hole” pond is ringed with sloped banks and dense trees, and on a misty morning, Ell can feel as isolated as an Alaskan fjord. The ground can be slippery, especially on the many rocky parts, but for many hikers, these setbacks are a small price to pay for a slice of sylvan serenity. Hopkinton
South County has so much walkable coastline, you could spend an entire summer roaming
its shores, never stepping foot in the woods. But Black Point Trail is a distinctive two-mile trail, skirting the rocky fringes of Narragansett. You’ll find the eerie ruins of a stone building, windswept crags, and lots of light woods. You can walk your dog here, and if you’re willing to tough out the weather, you can visit any time of year, even the middle of winter. Narragansett
From the air, Trustom Pond is a strange-looking place. The lagoon is roughly triangular, and a narrow strip of land cuts Trustom off from the ocean. All around the water lie 787 acres of protected forest and marshland. This national wildlife refuge is packed with fauna – 300 bird species, 40 mammal species, and 20 reptile and amphibian species. The trail is a two-and-a-half-mile loop through the refuge, an easy hike for the budding naturalist. Wakefield
The Casual Hiker
Rhode Island is healthily veined with rivers and streams, but Queen’s River Nature Preserve is one of its more obscure waterways. This narrow ribbon is only 10 miles long, its current hedged in by a dam. The two-mile Queen’s River trail is a nice excursion through rural Exeter, and hikers can enjoy views of the river as well as quiet woods and the centuries-old stones of a small cemetery. Exeter
The Francis Carter Memorial Preserve trail isn’t very long – only about four miles – and it arrives full-circle back at the trailhead. But the preserve is massive, encompassing 841 acres of protected forest and swamp, owned and maintained by The Nature Conservancy in Rhode Island. The topography is a diverse mix of forest and field, giant boulders and peaceful waters. The trail is usually quiet and easy on beginners. South Kingstown