- Parking: Public lot at 675, rue Plainfield
- Dogs: allowed, but must be kept on a leash.
- Map: on the information panel at the start of the trail.
- Difficulty: Easy, with some rocky and steep paths.
PROVIDENCE – The reward for climbing to the top Neutaconkanut Hill is to rest on a granite bench in a quiet meadow while gazing at the skyline of downtown Providence, apparently within walking distance.
Sitting there, in the middle of an 88-acre park in one of the densest areas in town, it’s obvious you’re surrounded by trees, trails, streams, ledges, and some of the oldest stories of Providence.
The hill, inhabited for centuries by the Narragansetts, was the northwestern boundary of a 1636 land agreement between the sachems Canonicus and Miantonomi and Roger Williams, which founded the colony of Providence.
The Narragansetts called the land the Great Hill of Neutaconkanut (Nu-ta-kon-ka-nut), a name with many diverse translations, including “the house of the squirrels” or “where the rivers flow.”
Today, the city park created in 1892 is managed by the Neutaconkanut Hill Conservatory.
I parked in the public parking lot on Plainfield Street and for a few minutes watched the kids jump in the skate park next to a playground, swimming pool and recreation building.
I walked north on a paved path that rounded a ballpark, then up the hillside on a long and at times steep winding cement path to a series of steps leading to a road. I passed three bird watchers with binoculars, a trail runner and a solo walker with a small dog.
A medallion inlaid in the sidewalk is engraved “Built By Works Progress Administration 1935-1938”. The federal program cut some trails and erected the streetcar station at the foot of the hill.
From the road I took a path to the right near the foundation of a WPA-built bandstand where Sunday afternoon concerts in the 1930s and 1940s drew thousands of people. The path leads to an open meadow surrounded by trees. There is also a semicircle of six granite benches. From the highest point in Providence (296 feet) you can see about 25% of the city and the tall buildings downtown.
I walked along the mowed field of Summit Ledge to a flat, orange-flamed trail that passes under oaks, hickory, birch, and maples along the western perimeter of the park. There are a few walks over low lying areas, then a bridge over a rock-lined canal that looks like it was built like an aqueduct to carry water from the top of the hill. I took a small western side spur to reach the backyards of Johnston’s houses before retracing my steps.
At that point, I took the blue trail on the right and headed for a ridge, with a hidden swamp bordered by skunky light green cabbage on the right, then to a cliff with a sharp rock outcrop called the Exploded Canonicus . Rock. Legend has it that neighbors living under a huge glacial erratic once used as a viewpoint by Canonicus feared it would collapse and shatter it to eliminate the danger.
The legacy of a family to the city
Continuing east along the hill, with Plainfield Street visible to the south, I made my way to the King’s Stone Monument, erected in 1905 in memory of the family of John King and Lucretia Paine King. The King family acquired the land in 1829 and built a farm on a 16 acre stretch of the hill known as King Park. Abby King, the last surviving member of the family, bequeathed what was left of the land to the City of Providence, with the stipulation that it would not be developed.
I turned onto the orange trail, crossed a creek with a canal, then headed for the Pinnacle walk, a walkway with a railing over a steep hill.
Directly ahead is a view to the right from a ledge called The Pinnacles, a series of jagged boulders that had spiritual significance to Native Americans who held ceremonies there until the 1920s. The outlook offers a view of the Silver Quarter Lake / Olneyville below and downtown Providence in the distance.
Curious relics in the landscape
The trail then winds through a curious site: the remains of rusty Chevy Camaros partially buried behind a roped area. Thieves have robbed stolen cars there in the past, and park managers have removed at least 10. But one was left as a lesson for schoolchildren who study the hill on how nature heals itself, as cars s ‘sink into the ground over the years.
From there the trail crosses several stone walls that once defined property lines and farmland, then descends several hundred yards on stone stairs to reach King Pond on the right before returning to the parking lot.
In all, I walked 3.75 miles in two hours, with many stops. There is graffiti and trash, but overall the park is in its natural state.
I spent much of my working life in Rhode Island at The Journal in downtown Providence, but I had never climbed Neutaconkanut Hill. My mistake. It would have been a nice break from work and helped me understand the city better.
The Neutaconkanut trails are open from 7 a.m. until dark and are prohibited: motor vehicles, graffiti, litter, paintball, alcohol, camping, fires and hunting.
John Kostrzewa, former associate / corporate editor of the Providence Journal, greets an email at [email protected].