On the Trail – by Gail and Roger Green, Dick Fisher
WildfloraRI, Winter 2016
The Simmons Mill Pond Management Area is a 500+ acre site in Little Compton, RI, composed of several parcels of land, six ponds, and more than three miles of well-marked trails. It is located in the upper reaches of the Cold Brook drainage as it makes its way to Quicksand Pond and Goosewing Beach. Trail access is available from a parking lot on Cold Brook Road near the junction with Long Highway. A second trail originates from a small parking area on John Dyer Road, and canoe or kayak access to Simmons Pond is possible via Cold Brook as it crosses under Cold Brook Road east of the main parking area.
The plant communities here reflect centuries of changing land use patterns. Recorded use of the management area dates back to the 1600s when the town of Little Compton was created. This section of town was set aside as woodlots for farmers throughout the town. About 1750, Cold Brook was dammed to power a gristmill, flooding the adjacent lowland and creating wetland plant communities that still exist around Simmons Mill Pond.
Portions of the woodlots were eventually cleared to create farms in the poorer soils on the east side of Little Compton. A farm-site on the Amy Hart Path (a historic laneway passing through the Management Area) demonstrates the former land use with its old well, barn foundation, and patchwork of stonewalls that enclosed pastures and cultivated fields. Some of the plants growing around the farm-site are characteristic of woodlands that have taken over former farm fields.
Ox carts used the paths until the 1930s to haul firewood from these old woodlots, and subsequently the cart paths were used by woodcutters’ trucks until the 1970s. These historic laneways are now maintained as walking paths through the rare Atlantic Oak-Holly forest. The laneways also pass by four newer ponds that were built in the 1960s.
The State of Rhode Island bought the land from the Chace family in 1995 and opened it as a Management Area. Volunteers help maintain the laneways, keep fishing access sites open, and provide signage relating to the native flora and historic features.
Beginning in the main parking area on Cold Brook Road, the trail passes an information sign with a rough map of the area and descends gently for a half mile through Atlantic Oak-Holly forest to the Simmons Mill Pond, the largest of the six ponds. This is the site of the former gristmill, and the old mill’s raceway lined with stone walls is still visible through the elderberry and winterberry shrubs.
Across the dam from the old mill site the trail intersects the main farm loop. You can proceed in either direction around the one mile loop. The right-hand (or east) trail is the old cart-path, which passes through the lush growth of sweet pepperbush (Clethra alnifolia) before arriving at the high dam overlooking Chace pond (to the north) and Horseshoe Pond (to the south). On the high dam of Chace pond, nodding ladies’ tresses (Spiranthes cernua) bloom in the early autumn.
The trail continues by Smith Pond, passes a fork to the right that leads to the parking area on John Dyer Road, and slowly ascends into Atlantic Oak-Holly forest as it reaches the historic farm site at the apex of the loop. From here, you can choose to take the adjoining Amy Hart Loop, which extends the walk for an additional mile through former woodlots, or you can remain on the Farmsite Loop and return to the dam at Simmons Mill Pond.
In the summer, the cart paths are lined with an abundance of ferns: cinnamon (Osmunda cinnamomea), interrupted (Osmunda claytoniana), lady (Athyrium filix-femina), New York (Thelypteris noveboracensis), royal (Osmunda regalis), and in the dryer places some bracken (Pteridium aquilinum). Off the trail grape fern (Botrychium sp.), Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides), netted chain-fern (Woodwardia areolata) and Virginia chain-fern (Woodwardia virginica) can be found.
In the autumn, a succession of asters and goldenrod line the lane way and, as mentioned previously, nodding ladies’ tresses bloom at this time of year.
Spring wildflowers include star-flowers (Trientalis borealis), Canada mayflowers (Maianthemum canadense), and a succession of vio- lets. White violets along wet areas of the cart-paths include lance- leaved violet (V. lanceolata), primrose-leaved violet (V.primulifolia), and sweet white violet (V. blanda). Blue violets include common blue violet (V. papilionacea or sororia), northern blue violet (V. septentrionalis), and marsh blue violet (V. mcucullata).
In addition to being available for walking and botanizing, the area is open seasonally to hunting and fishing. The land is multiuse, so walkers must wear orange during the hunting season. In winter when the snow is good, it is a wonderful area for cross-country skis and snowshoes, having wide smooth trails and just enough elevation change to keep it interesting. The main parking lot on Cold Brook Road is kept plowed by volunteers.
This area is beautiful and feels very remote, especially when you are walking in the low-lying areas among the ponds. It is accessible all year, and the walking loops are level and smooth. The Rhode Island Hiking Club ranks them as #1, the designation for the easiest of walks. In addition, the local Boy Scout troop has recently installed sturdy benches in several places overlooking the trails and ponds. It is a hidden treasure, well worth a day of exploration.
This management area is located on Cold Brook Road, Little Compton.