The quicksand of Napatree Point
- Access: Take 1A south to Watch Hill Road through Avondale. Drive south on Watch Hill to Fort Road.
- Parking: Limited parking on the street and in a small lot nearby.
- Dogs: allowed on a leash, but limited from 6 p.m. to 8 a.m. from May 2 to Labor Day.
- Difficulty: easy, mainly on foot on the beach.
WESTERLY – Napatree Point, a J-shaped finger of land that winds a mile and a half in the ocean, has changed profile, again and again, for centuries.
When Dutch trader Adriaen Block explored the coast in 1614, he sighted the heavily forested peninsula and named it for the nap, or nape, of trees.
In 1815, the great September gale knocked down all the trees, leaving a barren barrier of earth.
In the 1930s, the strip of sand was dotted with cabins, but the 1938 hurricane swept them away, killing 15 people.
Storms and rising seas have continued to alter the shape of the landform, moving the thin strip northward several hundred feet over the past 80 years and reshaping the “J” hook.
What hasn’t changed, however, is the unspoiled natural beauty of the pristine beaches, the views for miles in all directions, the sea birds, and the easy walk to the southernmost end and south. West Rhode Island.
A paradise for shorebirds
I set out on a May morning from the village of Watch Hill and wandered west through the quiet business district, with the Watch Hill Yacht Club on the right and a series of private cabanas on the left. Tourists, boaters and swimmers had not yet arrived for the summer.
At the end of a chain link fence at the trailhead, there is a sign indicating the entrance to the public conservation area, managed by the Watch Hill Conservancy and Fire District.
After a short walk in the soft sand, the trail splits.
I went left at the top of a small hill to see a long, narrow stretch of beach to the west. Over my left shoulder and to the south stood a breakwater and Watch Hill Lighthouse.
I walked on the firm sand at the edge of the shore, just down the beach from the strip of seashells and small stones smoothed by the rippling waves. As the ocean licked the shore, little shorebirds played with the waves.
Higher up on the beach, the deep white sand is more tiring to walk. There is also a long dune at the top of the climb which is covered with plants, shrubs and grass. It is roped to protect the nests and eggs of endangered birds, including piping plovers and lesser terns.
I walked past an osprey perch, but saw no sign of the large fish-eating hawks.
After about a mile there is a strange T-shaped tower in the brambles of the dune. One sign explained that it was a solar-powered radio antenna that tracks bats and migrating birds, one of a series of stations along the Atlantic coast.
Just ahead is the tip of the point of land, with vertical piles and huge black stones.
Remnant of a military failure
I found a narrow side trail on the right that wandered through the thickets and went up a slope to the ruins of Fort Mansfield, now fenced in and covered in graffiti. Bunkers and gun turrets are still visible.
The federal government opened the fort in 1901 to defend the entrance to Long Island Sound and New York. But a mock battle in 1907 revealed a design flaw where invading ships could bombard the fort, but the installation’s artillery couldn’t reach intruders.
The fort was abandoned in 1909.
A spur of the fort leads to a quarter-mile shoreline semicircle around the western edge of the point. The beach is filled with rocks of all sizes.
I rested on a large, warm, smooth stone, smelled the salty air and listened to the cries of the seagulls, the boom of the waves hitting the shore, the sound of the bells in the buoys marking the channel, and the breath of a horn from a ferry passer-by.
Looking out I spotted Sandy Point, an island in Little Narragansett Bay that was once part of a sickle-shaped 1½ mile long north extension of Napatree Point. But the 1938 hurricane cut several breaches in the spit and separated what is now the sand island from the earth.
Origin in the Ice Age
Napatree Point is a moraine, formed by the accumulation of sand and rocks deposited by the displacement of glaciers during the Ice Age. Watching the crashing waves, I could easily understand how the land is changing due to a geological process called coastal drift. Wind, waves and tides push sand on Napatree and build dunes. Storms erode the sand and send it back to the ocean and bay, constantly reshaping the peninsula.
After climbing a 20-foot bluff above the rocky beach, I followed a path north and back down to the beach, littered with lumber, broken lobster pots, chunks of concrete and sand. ‘algae.
I followed the shore to the hook of the “J.” It was low tide and a narrow channel of water flowed from the inner cove to the sea.
I took off my boots, walked through the shallow water, and sat on the other side to dry off. (Hikers should check the tides to make sure they are able to cross.)
To the northwest are the Connecticut coast and Stonington. I also studied the opening of the Pawcatuck River, then scanned the northeast to the waterfront mansions. (Taylor Swift’s property is across Watch Hill.)
Continuing east on the beach, I passed another pole of osprey inland, a photographer and a couple of bathers. The protected harbor is dotted with dozens of white floating moorings identified by name or number of owners.
I ended up where I started after walking 3.2 miles for 2.5 hours.
After living in Rhode Island for decades, I realized this was my first time exploring the southernmost and westernmost point of the continent. It won’t be the last.
Advice on the trails
Hikers, tourists, swimmers, children and dogs are prohibited in marked and roped areas to protect endangered species. Violators are subject to penalties under state and federal laws.
John Kostrzewa, former associate / corporate editor of the Providence Journal, welcomes emails to [email protected]