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Outdoor Adventures

Standing above it all

Wachusett is a mountain for everyone. A popular central-Massachusetts landmark fairly close to the New Hampshire border, the 2,006-foot mountain in Princeton is the highest Bay State peak east of the Berkshires. Located in the 3,000-acre Wachusett Mountain State Reservation, the summit yields outstanding views on those clear days all the way to the Boston skyline in the east and those lovely Berkshires to the west. Let's not forget New Hampshire's Mount Monadnock in the north, too.

With about 17 miles of hiking trails, there are many ways to explore the mountain with its streams, fields, meadows and forests. The mountain is a monadnock, basically a peak that rises from a surrounding flat area. There's also plenty of evidence of glacial activity, particularly on the northeast side by Balanced Rock, two huge boulders piled on top of each other.

Part of a wide-ranging greenway area, Wachusett is a Native American word. There are those who believe it means "mountain place" while others say "the great hill." Henry David Thoreau called it "the observatory of Massachusetts." They're all good.

The woods are also home to the biggest old growth forest east of the Connecticut River in Massachusetts with trees more than 350 years old. Bird watchers enjoy watching the hawks playing above in the thermals.

About four miles of the yellow-blazed Midstate Trail, the 92-mile trail between Ashburnham and the Rhode Island border, runs through the reservation and reaches its high point.

The mountain also contains a seasonal summit road and the John Hitchcock Visitor Center with its warming stone fireplace and nature exhibits. Not only does it serve hikers, but in winter, skiers and snowboarders fly down the 22 trails on the north side of the mountain. The first ski trails on the Wachusett were cut by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the late 1930s while the first chairlift, a T-bar, was installed in 1960. Actually, skiers and snowboarders carving down Wachusett's slopes actually can schuss right over that paved road to the summit.

The reservation trails are also used by snowshoers, cross-country skiers and equestrians. Cyclists see the summit road as a challenge; there's an annual hill climb.

Wachusett has a strong tourism connection. Its first summit hotel was constructed in the late 1800s and there was even a mountain-top bowling alley. A new summit hotel was built in 1907 with a billiard room. Electricity made its way to the peak in 1925, but the hotel eventually closed and burned in December of 1970.

Wachusett isn't a difficult mountain to climb, but there is some elevation change here. Hike it in early spring and watch the spring skiers. Hawks typically soar above in spring and fall. Have a glorious relatively warm early winter day before the snow arrives? Hike Wachusett.

The yellow-blazed Balance Rock Trail (part of the Mid-State Trail) leaves the ski area lodge parking area by the trailhead on a dirt road before a quick bend as it enters the woods and soon reaches Balance Rock. Getting to the rocks is easy. They seem to defy gravity a bit. Maybe 20 feet high, it looks like they're stacked on top of each other.

It's possible to continue by Balance Rock and pick up the 1.2-mile long Old Indian Trail to the summit. But also the Semuhenna to Harrington Trails, as well.

On this day, the views were obscured the higher one went.

The Wachusett summit is a busy place. Not because of the number of people that were on the summit, but because there's lots up there, from a tower to antennas. There's a lodge, a summit pond and paved trail for those in wheelchairs.

At the summit, take in the almost 360-degree panorama that on a clear day means seeing Boston's buildings in the east and the Worcester skyline in the south. The lake to the north at the mountain's base is Wachusett Lake, while further on is the stony top of Mount Monadnock in the Granite State. Gaze to the east of Monadnock to spot Mount Watatic in Masschusetts, edged by the New Hampshire border.

But on this day, the stage was largely focused on the manmade attractions atop Wachusett as the fog muted the landscape. Only during a drive on the summit road did the glorious vistas open up maybe mid-way along the voyage.

An odd benefit of hiking a mountain with a road to the top.

(Marty Basch can be reached through onetankaway.com.)

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