From First Beach at one end to Bailey’s Beach at the other, Newport Rhode Island’s Cliff Walk is a three & a half mile National Recreation Trail with seven access points, and 40 steps with a history dating back to the Gilded Age.
Traversing the Cliff Walk has a few challenging (and slippery) sections, but most of it is long easy stretches with sweeping views of Narragansett Bay. You can see why those Captains of Industry all wanted their own piece of it – the bigger the piece the better.
The story of what are known as the 40 Steps, just off the east end of Narragansett Avenue, is one story of Cliff Walk in miniature. As Newport was being gobbled up as a resort town for the super-wealthy, access to some of the most arresting shoreline in New England was still open to people who weren’t named Astor and Vanderbilt. Sure there were mansions like The Breakers and Ochre Court dominating the land high atop the cliffs, but their cooks, maids, butlers, chauffeurs and gardeners created their own piece of the seaside playground.
Sometime around 1880 a set of 40 rickety steps was built down to the bottom of the cliffs. With no beach at the bottom, the steps had no real destination. But they became the servants’ own meeting place, with music and dancing breaking up the monotony of work at the big houses. Today, much of the land along Cliff Walk is still privately owned, but since 1975 this public trail with seven rights-of-way (and those 40 steps) the beauty of the Bay is still accessible for everyone.
In 2012 Cliff Walk suffered a major blow from Hurricane Sandy, smashing up some sections and dragging pieces of it into the Bay. It took some time and over five million dollars, but by the summer of 2014 it had been put back together and reopened to the public. The 40 Steps have been rebuilt too, this time not so rickety.
QR codes, on little wooden stands, have been placed along the walk. They are easy to miss. If you use a QR reader on a smart phone, they will tell you little bits of history of the area of the cliff walk you are standing it. Usually it is about one of the big houses standing nearby.
Know Before You Go
Access from the north or south end of the walk, or several points in between