There’s an incline along the little-known Osgood Trail where, just as the lactic acid begins to kick in, you reconsider the car you abandoned some 10 minutes earlier. As you lumber past the watchful eyes of secluded owls and white-tailed deer, the footpath meanders through a family of oak trees, where a splash of sunlight mercifully finds your face.
If you can endure the burn in your legs for a few more strides, the forthcoming pines give way to a clearing that makes the preceding struggle well worth it — a summit spectacle that, for a moment, delays your next breath.
Twin Adirondack chairs, donated by a pair of local townspeople, provide the ultimate “Find Your Beach” setting as you bask in the vast “wilder-bliss” that awaits below: a deep, golden prairie that dips into a plumage of white birch, an oval blue plateau bristling in its backdrop.
When reality returns to your senses, you recall an alarming, if not amusing, truth. No, you are not lost amid the splendor of New Hampshire’s White Mountains. And you are not hovering above Lake Winnipesaukee. You are actually in the heart of downtown North Andover near Lake Cochichewick, which provides the town with its drinking water
Where you now stand, at the pinnacle of Osgood Hill (or Half-Mile Hill to some), is but a few minutes removed from the popular restaurants along Route 125, beyond which looms the Lawrence skyline of high-rises, industrial mills and urban smokestacks.
Part of the FONAT (Friends of North Andover Trails) organization, the Osgood Trail series is just one of several groups of hiking trails nestled in unexpected places throughout the Valley , serving as a pleasant reminder that you needn’t trek two hours up the Kancamagus Highway to find hiking venues otherwise reserved for the northward mountain ranges. From Andover’s AVIS series of trails to the Haverhill Trails Committee network and even The Essex County Greenbelt , the Valley provides countless options for satisfying your inner explorer.
And while these dog-friendly trails offer stunning outdoor decor , they also present a multitude of health benefits for both body and spirit.
“Hiking is a great way to stay in shape,” says fitness expert Justin Homsey, co-owner of CrossFit Free in Salem, N.H. “It’s more low impact than, say, running on the pavement, but you still get the same exact benefits. Any time you put stress on your body, you’re benefiting . Depending on the difficulty of the hike, you could easily burn 400 calories in an hour.”
And it doesn’t end at your cardiovascular system, says Andover’s Danielle MacKinnon, a skilled intuitive known for journeying deep within.
“Hiking is fabulous for getting into a meditative state,” says MacKinnon, author of the acclaimed metaphysical read, “Soul Contracts : Find Harmony and Unlock Your Brilliance” (Atria Books/Beyond Words, June 2014). “People come to me all the time and say, ‘I have so much anxiety. What can I do?’ I tell them to take a walk in the woods and hug a tree. Just being in nature helps people ground themselves back into their hearts.”
Whether it’s to break a sweat or simply escape from this world’s technical overload, a good stroll through the forest can always serve as medicine for the body and soul.
Hence, the time is now to lace up your hiking boots, strap on your backpack, and discover these hidden Valley treasures that reside, shall we say, off the beaten path.
INDIAN HILL FARM RESERVTION, West Newbury
This beauty, perched a stone’s throw off Interstate 95 , encapsulates the unique serenity of the Merrimack Valley’s coastal region. From the knee-straining challenge of Indian Hill to the peaceful forests of the South Street Woodlots, this 45-acre Greenbelt preserve offers a little of everything, including a paved jogging terrace that orbits the Cherry Hill Reservoir, reminiscent of New York’s Central Park.
After a hilltop vista stretches your sightline into the depths of New Hampshire’s Seacoast , ambitious hikers may venture across Indian Hill Street to pick up the Atherton Trail, which splits the lustrous grassland of the property’s horse farm.
“For more rigorous hikes like those, always try to bring water along to keep yourself hydrated,” Homsey says. “And a snack, too, to keep your body fueled and the metabolism running.”
Continue up yonder to Turkey Hill Road, where the Ordway Reservation awaits, an upland forest that invites hikers to a shifty jaunt through its hardwoods. These pathways slope into the freshwater marshlands of Colby Pasture, concluding this expedition of highly diverse landscapes.
MEADOW BROOK CONSERVATION AREA, Haverhill
Meadow Brook Conservation Area is an excellent alternative to the oft-overpopulated Winnekenni Castle grounds. Looping the brilliant Millvale Reservoir, these woodlands, comprised primarily of white pine, contain varying degrees of inclines and challenges for hiking enthusiasts.
East Meadow River, known to shuttle a kayak or two, greets you at the juncture of the two major trail arteries, feeding into a wetland beaming with reed beds and flanked by unique eskers.
With acres of trails diverging in every direction, boredom is rarely an enemy at this secret haven for local outdoorsmen.
“Long walks such as those are great therapy,” MacKinnon says. “I find that the longer I walk, the more all those things worrying me just magically melt away.”
However, a compass or GPS is a wise ally for conquering these tricky, often monotonous footpaths and avoiding your own personal “Blair Witch Project” experience (like the one this lost hiker once encountered).
This pleasant forest stroll concludes at the 150-foot Millvale Reservoir Dam, which bids a spectacular adieu to hiking passersby.
MAZURENKO FARM CONSERVATION AREA , North Andover
The moment you pull into the parking area off Bradford Street, the radiance of this local gem has you locked under its spell. The grassy wetland that greets you is a bona fide bird-watcher’s delight, a natural habitat for woodcocks, red-tailed hawks and great horned owls. The trail snakes alongside a leafy brook and lures you into fields of open greenery, each seeming an ideal playground for your four-legged cohorts.
“There’s no better way to bond with your dog than to take him or her to a place like that,” MacKinnon says. “If a human and dog can get into that kind of groove together, it becomes a very special experience.”
No less special is the “Monet moment” at the next turn, as you take in the view from atop Carter Hill, a popular winter sledding locale. Come autumn, perhaps the prime season for exploring this farmland, the hilltop transforms into a slice of vintage Vermont, with foliage that dazzles beyond its gleam.
With a buggy marshland burrowed into the conservation land, Mazurenko may be ill-suited for visits during the summer months, as thick, jungle-like vegetation, and particularly pesky thorns, can dampen even the brightest of hiking trips. Dog walkers should also be beware of coyotes, fisher cats and, yes, deer ticks.