image of the boardwalk at Dundery Brook Trail

John C. Whitehead Preserve – Dundery Brook Trail System, Little Compton, RI

A walk revisiting the original and newer section of the Dundery Brook Trail — Dick Fisher & John Berg
WildfloraRI, Spring 2021

image of the boardwalk at Dundery Brook Trail

Boardwalk at Dundery Trail, photo JDetz

The John C. Whitehead Preserve, owned by The Nature Conservancy, was formed by combining the Bumble Bee Preserve with contiguous land to the west. The combined area preserves 130 acres of pristine freshwater wetlands, which drains via Dundery Brook into Briggs Marsh on its way to the ocean. The trail system is composed of three arms, each about 0.6 miles long, which meet in the middle forming a star shaped pattern.

Located in Little Compton, the area can be accessed by two trailheads. The newest is located along West Main Road (Route 177) 1.3 miles south of Peckham Road (Google Driving Directions), and a second, the original trailhead, is behind the tennis courts in the Little Compton Commons (Google Driving Directions). The trailheads are marked and parking is available at both.

In the Winter 2011 issue of WildFlora available on the RIWPS website, the ‘Dundery Brook Trail’ article describes the original two trail sections—Dundery Brook Trail and Blanche’s Path. The new trail system combines the two sections described in that article and adds Hope’s Path, which opened in 2019. The trails traverse hardwood forest wetlands with interspersed lowland meadows. The area is flat and the wetland portions of the trails are elevated to allow year-round comfortable access.

The Dundery Brook arm is built entirely on an elevated boardwalk set on steel posts and is wheelchair accessible. There are benches for sitting along this stretch. The newest arm, Hope’s Path, wanders by a collection of ponds initially and then enters the wetland forest where informal board bridges provide dry walking. This trail is wide and well-marked but not as disability friendly as the Dundery portion.

The third arm of the star, Blanche’s Path, begins where the boardwalk ends and extends through low meadowland as it skirts around Bumble Bee Pond and into the meadow beyond. This portion is historic farmland which is grown over with succession vegetation. Bumble Bee Pond was created as a water source for grazing but now contains a vigorous colony of cattails (Typha latifolia) and is a resource area for bird and aquatic life.

Asclepius Incantata. photo GGarnder

Entering through the new west entrance one encounters a flurry of typical invasive species, but these soon wane, as the trail meanders through open meadows weaving around about a half dozen ponds. In early fall of a very dry year, 2020, the water levels were low in most ponds, but the lily pads (Nymphaea odorata) were blooming and the frogs and dragonflies abundant. The pond margins attract the invasive common reed (Phragmites australis) and cattails (Typha latifolia), but there is plenty of open water and cleared space to reach the water’s edge.

The meadow areas contain the usual fall blooming meadow species such as spotted Joe-Pye weed (Eutrochium maculatum), boneset (Eupatorium ssp), several species of goldenrod (Solidago ssp), swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), and numerous aster species.

Lobelia cardinalis (cardinal-flower), photo GGardner

As the meadows end, the trail dips into the wet woodlands and is enclosed by abundant understory plants as well as the taller hardwoods. Ferns line this section along with sweet pepperbush (Clethra alnifolia), highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum), winterberry (Ilex verticillata), willows (Salix ssp), and scattered fall-blooming wildflowers such as cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) and wood aster (Eurybia divaricata).

The trail crosses Dundery Brook on an historic granite slab bridge, then meanders through several open bog areas filled with grasses and sedges as the route gradually climbs slightly to meet the Dundery Brook boardwalk portion of the trail. This area is slightly dryer with a more open understory covered with dwarf raspberry (Rubus pubescens) and flat-branched tree-clubmoss (Dendrolycopodium obscurum).

From this central point, the Dundery Brook Trail to the south (right) on the boardwalk leads to the trailhead at the Commons. It winds through a wetland hardwood forest crossing streams and shrub meadows. From the intersection of Hope’s Path and the Dundery Brook Trail, Blanche’s Path proceeds to the north (left) remaining on the boardwalk for one hundred feet or so. It then becomes a grassy trail around Bumble Bee Pond and open meadow beyond.

The plants here are dominant species that define the habitat of the coastal oak-holly forest and wetlands. But many more are present. An inventory completed a few years ago documented more than 350 plant species in the Preserve, and undoubtedly more exist. The special access that the elevated trails provide allows a close look at this wetland plant community. The Dundery Brook Trail system is also a unique place for quiet reflection.