Napatree Conservation area, Westerly, RI

Napatree Conservation Area, Watch Hill, Westerly, RI

Call us contrarian, but we much prefer visiting beaches almost any other time than summer. Off season, beaches are uncrowded, parking is much less problematic, and you are quite likely to spot migrating waterfowl just off shore. For all these reasons and more we set off on a brisk, windy, March day to explore Napatree Conservation Area at Watch Hill, Westerly, RI. The Watch Hill Conservancy holds a conservation easement for this area. Here’s a link that can answer many frequently asked questions about Napatree.

This narrow 86 acre sand spit reaching out into Little Narragansett Bay is anchored to land right near the downtown of Watch Hill, Westerly, RI, a top tourist destination in the summer. Shops, restaurants, private beach cottages, and a carousel all attract hordes of summer visitors. Napatree has no designated parking. Summer visits to this unique area are challenging. In the off season, however, we easily found parking and were able to walk stretches of beach on both sides of this spit of sand.

Sand dunes form (and keep stable) the narrow peninsula. Marked paths allow visitors to cross from one side to the other with reduced impact on the fragile dunes. Native grasses are essential to anchoring the constantly shifting sands. The day we visited was quite windy; sand-filled wind gusts swept past us as we walked. It was best to face away from the wind to avoid getting sand blasted! As we climbed one of the pathways over the dunes, we saw the erosion that foot traffic causes in this area.

The path we climbed cut between the dunes and offered a visible cross-section of the roots of the native grasses that keep this sand spit stable. Lose the grasses and you will lose the land.

On the harbor side of the spit we spotted Brandt geese, winter visitors that had not quite decided to head back to their Arctic nesting grounds. Seagulls standing in shallow water stirred up the sand underneath their feet. We watched as one ducked under the water and successfully grabbed a mollusk of some type and quickly flew off to find a rock suitable for dropping (and opening) the shell fish. Lunch on the half-shell. Multiple species of birds, bats, and butterflies stop here in the spring and fall. Read more about why this is an “international destination for birds.”

Balloons harm wildlife

Be sure to check the tide charts before you go. Because of the sensitive nature of this conservation area there are limits on visitation. Dogs on leash are permitted during the off season. To get all the specifics of what is and is not permitted, please read more here.

At low tide the hard-packed sand is easier to walk on. The shifting sand closer to the dunes is quite soft and may be difficult to manage for some. This is a special place. Thanks to all who work to protect and preserve this amazing sanctuary. Happy trails.


Marjorie Turner Hollman is a writer who loves the outdoors, and is the author of Easy Walks in Massachusetts, 2nd editionMore Easy Walks in Massachusetts, 2nd editionEasy Walks and Paddles in the Ten Mile River Watershed, and Finding Easy Walks Wherever You Are. Her memoir, the backstory of Easy Walks, is My Liturgy of Easy Walks: Reclaiming hope in a world turned upside down.

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