It takes one glance at the Cliff Walk in Newport, Rhode Island, to understand why it’s so popular–and why it’s so dangerous.
The 3.5 mile long hiking path follows the perimeter of the historic New England city’s eastern shoreline, from Memorial Boulevard to Bailey’s Beach, and sometimes rises more than three stories above the water. Animals and Narragansett Indians are credited with blazing the route. And opportunistic European wreckers followed the footpath in search of goods that washed up on the rocks below.
Shortly before the Civil War, wealthy Americans found wind-swept Newport a welcome respite from the diseased cities during the warmest months. By the late 1800s, Newport was the Hamptons of its day in an era aptly called the Gilded Age. The fortress-like mansions constructed along the Cliff Walk were owned by the country’s elite, and gawkers took to the trail to view the extravagances up close.
It was at this time that efforts began to limit access to the path, which passes through privately held properties. Then, as now, the uber-wealthy desired privacy and, with the exception of their servants, wanted the lower classes out of sight. Hedges, boulders, fences, and even attack dogs were used to deter strollers. But ancient public access laws prevented the rich from impeding access. Yet to this day, some landowners do all they legally can to keep Cliff Walkers at a distance.
Mother Nature has also tried to wipe out the Cliff Walk. Hurricanes in 1938, 1954, 1991 ripped out a few sections, but millions of dollars have been spent to rebuild, control erosion, and improve safety. However, people have been seriously injured on the Cliff Walk within the past 25 years–and two have even died. A man became a quadriplegic after a fall in 2000 and sued the city and state for negligence. Last year, a jury cleared Rhode Island of liability, but Newport had already settled with him for $2 million. In wake of the much publicized lawsuit, there have been calls to add more fencing. Opponents say this will further detract from the natural beauty.
Earlier this month, I returned to Newport for a wedding. A visit to the Cliff Walk topped my itinerary. I first encountered the famed seaside path at 40 Steps, a popular access point at the end of Narragansett Avenue. As the name suggests, 40 granite steps lead down to a balcony that overlooks the rugged coast below. I was surprised the balcony opened at one end and led out to a precarious rock ledge above the shore–not a place I would want to be when the waves are up.
Limited by time, I only walked from 40 Steps to the Tea House at Marble House–considered an easy stretch. But this part of the Cliff Walk is not without its perils. I imagine shin injuries are common on the boulder path at Belmont Beach, and a number of “unofficial” paths lure the brave down steep inclines to the water.
The visual rewards overshadow the risks, though.The Cliff Walk affords multiple scenic vistas, and it’s understandable why the nation’s nobles staked out this area.
Then there’s the architecture. The Cliff Walk passes behind such masterpieces as Ochre Court, Vinland, The Breakers, Anglesea, Fairholme, and Marble House. Though many of the houses have security hedges, they are often still visible from a distance or through gaps in the vegetation.
Despite its dangers, the Cliff Walk is recommended to any Newport visitor as a great opportunity to exercise while enjoying nature, history, and architecture. Just watch your step.