The two finest things Newport has to offer—its natural seaside beauty and the architectural relics of the Gilded Age—collide along the seaside Cliff Walk, arguably one of the country’s grandest strolls. Beginning at the western end of Easton’s Beach (also known as First Beach), the 3.5-mile path runs between the rocky beach and many of the town’s most impressive mansions. The area is a designated National Historic District and was deemed a National Recreational Trail in 1975, making it a double-whammy of natural and artificial glory. For many who walk it, the Cliff Walk is an opportunity to gaze at fancy estates and experience the same ocean views that mesmerized Newport’s wealthy summer visitors at the turn of the 20th century. It is also a wonderful nature trail, abundant with opportunities for bird-watching and admiring fields of wildflowers.
The area is a designated National Historic District and was deemed a National Recreational Trail in 1975, making it a double-whammy of natural and artificial glory.There are a number of access points along Cliff Walk, but none are near ample public parking except the beginning of the trail at Easton’s Beach, so the other points are limited to pedestrians and cyclists. Sheppard Avenue, Webster Street, and Wetmore Avenue intersect the walk about midway and have some limited street parking, and Narragansett Avenue, about 0.5 miles into the walk, has the most parking of any intersecting streets. During the summer a bus runs up and down Bellevue Avenue, the main paved road that parallels the walk, and you can take the bus to any of the cross streets that lead to the walk.
Less than a mile into the walk, at the end of Narragansett Avenue, you’ll come to the 40 Steps, a sharply descending stone stairway that goes nearly to the sea below; from a small promontory at the base of the steps you can watch the waves smashing against the rocks. Soon after 40 Steps, the path meanders by some of Newport’s most famous mansions, including The Breakers, Rosecliff, Astor’s Beechwood, and Marble House. Soon after, on the right and just above the path, you’ll see the ornate red Chinese teahouse commissioned by Marble House’s owner, Alva Vanderbilt. At this point the Cliff Walk cuts through a short tunnel before emerging again for another fairly well-maintained stretch and then a second tunnel.
Once you emerge from this final tunnel, Cliff Walk becomes a scramble on the wild side, as it hugs the rocky shoreline by a series of large private homes. This span is aptly nicknamed Rough Point, and rather crude and ugly chain-link fences separate the path from the private properties. Northeasters and hurricanes have taken their toll on Cliff Walk’s southern reaches, and in some places the seawall has been ripped out. It’s all entirely passable, and it’s generally not too steep or high, but you do want to wear sturdy shoes. As you cut around the southeastern tip of the peninsula, you’ll be able to see the Doris Duke estate, Rough Point, just off Bellevue where it bends from south to west.
As the Cliff Walk turns west around the southeastern tip of Newport, you’ll come to Ledge Road, a short dead-end that shoots south off Bellevue Avenue. At this point you might think the path has come to an end—indeed, a short walk up Ledge Road does lead you back to where buses pass along Bellevue Avenue. However, it’s also entirely possible to climb along the jagged rocks, treading carefully, for a short distance around the southwestern tip of this small peninsula. After a little more than 0.25 miles of cutting your own trail, the official Cliff Walk resumes, now in a northerly direction along the western end of the peninsula. To your left, looking northwest, you’ll see the exclusive Bailey’s Beach, and before long you’ll reach the eastern edge of this fabled stretch of sand.
For a detailed sense of the entire walk’s history and highlights, the official website has detailed maps and 360-degree panoramas of some of the most beautiful spots along the trail.
Excerpted from the Fourth Edition of Moon Rhode Island.