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PROVIDENCE — With all due respect to calamari, the state parks are Rhode Island’s best idea.
While Ken Burns paid tribute to the national parks, calling them “America’s best idea” in his widely watched documentary series, state Department of Environmental Management Director Janet L. Coit says the smallest state has a great idea of its own.
Rhode Island’s 12 state parks provide residents and visitors with places of refuge – 12 distinct centers of natural beauty that can restore and refresh amid life’s daily hassles and anxieties – and they’ve never been more badly needed and valuable than they are now amid the coronavirus pandemic, she said.
“We have seen unprecedented levels of use of the state parks since the pandemic started,” Coit said. “These places are being rediscovered, and in some cases discovered for the first time. People want to get outdoors.”
And state parks provide outdoor places that are close to home, free, and safe, she said.
“It’s restorative,” Coit said. “When you think about being cooped up and anxious, you can get away from the pandemic for a few minutes as you hike or picnic and just enjoy the beauty of nature.”
She said she heads to state parks to get away from the pressures of the pandemic.
“It just feels normal, and normal is a blessing,” Coit said. “You feel like you are part of something bigger and timeless. That, to me, is part of the wonder of nature.”
In response to the pandemic, Governor Gina M. Raimondo has launched a “Take It Outside” campaign to encourage businesses and other organizations to move activities outside that would normally be held inside. The impetus is research that shows the transmission rate of COVID-19 is nearly 20 times higher indoors than outdoors.
As part of that effort, state parks are making fields, pavilions, shelters – and even a mule barn – available for business meetings, yoga classes, school exams, and workshops.
The state plans to soon offer Wi-Fi at Haines Memorial State Park in East Providence, Fort Wetherill State Park in Jamestown, the Lincoln Woods State Park boathouse in Lincoln, and the Blackstone Valley Visitors Center in Cumberland.
“These are great places to take it outside,” Coit said.
She urged people to take it outside even as it begins getting colder. “Wear some layers, bundle up,” she said. “There’s no reason to not enjoy these places year-round.”
But don’t start a fire, Coit cautioned, noting that Rhode Island has been experiencing “extreme” drought conditions for the first time in at least 20 years. “The woods are filled with fuel,” she said.
On the other hand, the bone-dry conditions have meant fewer mosquitoes, and Rhode Island has not yet had a human case of Eastern Equine Encephalitis or the West Nile virus this year, Coit said. “That was one of the only bright sides of 2020,” she said.
Coit said ambitious Rhode Islanders will find a wide variety of natural settings if they try to hit all 12 state parks.
“Since the creation of Lincoln Woods in the early 1900s to Rocky Point State Park in 2014, we have created such a diversity of places” – ranging from the pine forest of Pulaski State Park near the Connecticut border, to Fort Adams State Park at the mouth of Newport Harbor, she said.
But to help narrow the field, she highlighted three of her favorite state parks:
Lincoln Woods State Park, 2 Manchester Print Works Road, Lincoln
Created in 1909, Lincoln Woods was Rhode Island’s first state park, named after President Abraham Lincoln.
“It was created so people who live in triple-deckers and work in factories would have fresh air and a place to picnic and swim,” Coit said.
More than a century later, the park continues to provide an oasis for residents of old industrial cities such as Providence, Pawtucket, Central Falls, and Woonsocket, she said.
“When you go there, you see it’s still fulfilling that mission,” Coit said. “You see little kids fishing any time of the year. You see people hiking around Olney Pond with their babies or with their lovers. And you see people bouldering – the glacial past is evident everywhere you look in Rhode Island.”
Over the years since, Lincoln Woods has grown to 627 acres, and it now includes two freshwater beaches, 176 picnic tables, 134 fireplaces, a bathhouse, fishing and boating facilities, hiking trails, three game fields, and six miles of horse trails.
Rocky Point State Park, 1 Rocky Point Ave., Warwick
Created in 2014, Rocky Point is Rhode Island’s newest state park.
For many decades, this spot was the site of one of New England’s most popular amusement parks. Many Rhode Islanders cherish their memories of screaming on the Corkscrew Loop Roller Coaster, rocking out to a Van Halen song on the Musik Express, and getting absolutely soaked on the Log Flume.
But the Rocky Point Amusement Park closed in 1994. In 2013, the state acquired 83 acres of land, combining it with 41 acres already owned by the City of Warwick to create Rocky Point State Park.
On July 1, the state officially opened a new fishing pier at the park. The $1.8-million project resulted in a 280-foot-long, T-shaped pier with a shade structure, solar lighting, and benches with a commanding view of Narragansett Bay.
“I’m super proud of that park,” Coit said. “First, it has gorgeous views of the bay. You always see people walking there and enjoying the new fishing pier. And I do love to do the loop trail there.”
Also, she noted the park includes several reminders of the amusement park, including a 60-foot-tall arch that originally was one of 11 “Peace Through Understanding” arches at the 1964/65 New York World’s Fair before being transplanted to Warwick.
“The park reclaimed for people a place where so many families have memories,” Coit said.
Colt State Park, Route 114, Bristol
Dedicated in 1968, Colt State Park is considered the “gem” of the state park system, with its 464 acres stretching along a windswept stretch of Narragansett Bay, with sinuous fruit trees, enormous lawns, and an open-air Chapel by the Sea.
Like so many Rhode Islanders, Coit tends to visit the parks closest to her, often riding down the East Bay Bike Path from Barrington to the park in Bristol.
“I see people clamming there, playing soccer, picnicking, holding birthday parties,” she said. “I like the wildness of the wind and the waves on the bay. It evokes an older era, with the twisted fruit trees. I love going there.”
The park is named for Samuel P. Colt, a former Rhode Island attorney general who became president and chairman of the United States Rubber Company. His uncle was the arms manufacturer who mass produced revolvers, and his mother was part of the DeWolf family that made a fortune in the slave trade.
Colt bought up parcels on Poppasquash Neck to create a farm, and his desire to welcome the public onto the land was reflected in a message etched in marble at the main entrance: “Colt Farm: Private Property, Public Welcome.”
Colt died in 1921, and amid disputes over his will, the state wasn’t able to buy the land until 1965. In 1968, then-governor John H. Chafee dedicated the park, and now a statue of Chafee stands in the park.
Coit worked for Chafee when he became a US senator, serving as legal counsel for the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee that he chaired.
“His goal was to make sure that it was not made into condos,” Coit said. “He wanted to keep it accessible for people.”
Today, Colt State Park remains accessible and more valuable than ever, she said. This year, twice as many cars are entering the park on a monthly basis as in prior years (50,000 a month in 2020 vs. 25,000 a month in 2019), according to the DEM.
And Coit noted that Rhode Islanders can also get outdoors at state management areas and lands preserved through partnerships with groups such as the Nature Conservancy of Rhode Island and the Audubon Society of Rhode Island.
She named three of her favorites:
These adjacent ponds are some of the most spectacular spots in the state, Coit said.
In the spring, she said, “The habitat includes giant rhododendron and bionic mountain laurel. You walk through this unbelievable forest and you feel like a Lilliputian. You clamber up steep, rocky outcroppings, and there are usually some hawks soaring peacefully, almost at eye level.”
She recalled sitting high up on the rocks, having a picnic with her daughter, looking down at the ponds, and watching the wind ripple the surface of the water.
Tillinghast Pond Management Area, 100 Plain Road, West Greenwich
The 2,200-acre swath of western Rhode Island provides a “gorgeous place” to hike, canoe, fish, or just “get away from it,” Coit said.
The Nature Conservancy, where Coit once served as state director, says that Tillinghast Pond is at the core of the largest coastal forest between Boston and Washington, D.C. “Had it been lost to development, it would have undermined decades of land protection along the Rhode Island/Connecticut border,” the group says.
But the Tillinghast preserve was established in 2006.
“This victory would not have been possible without the people of West Greenwich,” the Nature Conservancy says. “Faced with the prospect of more than 300 new homes, this small community approved an $8 million bond to help acquire the land. The vote in favor of the bond was 632 to 12.”
Tri-State Marker, Burrillville
If you are feeling aimless amid the pandemic, perhaps you just need a destination.
“The tri-state marker is such a cool destination,” Coit said of the granite obelisk that stands at the intersection of Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. “I like destination loop trails.”
Rhode Islanders can get to the marker by taking a 6.9-mile loop trail in the Buck Hill State Management Area.
A word of caution: Coit noted that it’s hunting season, so anyone entering state management areas or undeveloped state parks must wear at least 200 square inches of fluorescent orange.
But also a word of encouragement: Coit has a photo where she is hugging the marker, managing to be in three states at once. Given all the pandemic travel restrictions, this might be your best chance to travel widely.