Look at the official state transportation map and down in the lower right hand corner near the Rhode Island border is a patch of property identified as the Barn Island Wildlife Management Area.
Not a grabber of a name, especially considering what it is — an enormously valuable, 1,013-acre state property with miles of trails through woodlands and marsh and a large public boat launch that provides easy access to some very special coastal water.
Moreover, there is but a small sign on Route 1 directing visitors to the area, at the end of Palmer Neck Road. The road is very narrow in places, so maybe the state just doesn't want to draw too much attention to it. The boat launch is a popular enough as it is.
I don't have the sense, however, that Barn Island is all that well-known outside of southeastern Connecticut. Of the state's significant coastal properties, Hammonasset Beach, Rocky Neck and Sherwood Island state parks get all the attention.
Barn Island may not have a beach of its own, but it is large and worth exploring - and provides access to some nice offshore beaches. If you have a boat, bring it. At the same time, don't overlook the trail network, worthy of a walk of an hour or two or more with a mix of woodland and coastal marsh views.
To access the trails, look for a small "marsh viewing area" sign on the left just before the boat launch. Hike in several hundred yards and you'll come to an interpretive sign with a map of the trails. Osprey, gulls, ducks and wading birds abound in the marshes. On one of those dog days without any breeze you might want to have a good insect repellent. On a breezy day you may be fine without.
The launch provides access to nicely sheltered water in Fishers Island Sound and Little Narragansett Bay suitable for small boats on most days with fair weather. Kayakers should find plenty of kindred company.
Paddle or motor to the west and the quaint village of Stonington comes into view. Approaching the village, Sandy Point, a narrow, sandy island, wends its way toward the Rhode Island coast. I paddled in to get a nice look at Stonington Village from the water, and then followed the point easterly toward the Rhode Island coast.
Much of Sandy Point is fenced off to protect nesting piping plovers, a sparrow-sized sandpiper that is classified as a threatened species along the Atlantic coast, and American oystercatchers, a larger and distinctive shorebird with a big red bill. I saw both on a recent visit, along with ruddy turnstones, already returning from their nesting grounds well above the Arctic Circle. A merlin, a member of the falcon family, and whimbrel, a sizable sandpiper, were seen last week.
The problem for piping plovers is that they lay their eggs in the sand above the high-tide line — the same sand that pets, wild animals such as raccoons, and people walk upon, which explains the fencing.
From Sandy Point, boaters — including kayakers — can easily reach Napatree Point in Rhode Island, another long, narrow stretch of sand. You'll find boaters stopping to sunbathe, swim or picnic at water's edge on both Sandy and Napatree points.
The boat launch area has two 80-foot floating docks, and, in season, portable toilets. Car-top boats are advised to use the launching area for canoes and kayaks to the right of the paved boat launch ramp. Kayaks can be rented nearby at Stonington Marina on Route 1, 926 Stonington Road. A half-day rental for a single kayak is $45; a half-day rental for a tandem kayak is $65. Hourly, full-day and extended rentals also are available. Website at www.stoningtonmarina.com.
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