Follow the Yellow Brick Road
Walking the Bay Circuit Trail in the Merrimack Valley
Sometimes, the yellow brick road is paved with pine needles.
Despite months of having to adjust our routines due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the great outdoors has seemingly remained a safe harbor. Back in March, already squirrelly after just a week of quarantining, I set my sights on one such oasis. My road to Oz goes by the name of the Bay Circuit Trail.
In 1929, the idea was hatched for an “outer Emerald Necklace,” a set of trails that would ring Greater Boston, starting on the beaches of Plum Island and ending on the shores of Kingston Bay. The BCT as it stands today is an arc of some 230 miles that winds its way through 37 communities, including many in our backyard.
I set out to walk the BCT in its entirety, including the 50-plus miles in the Merrimack Valley. It never disappointed. If you also are in need of a new adventure, lace up your hiking boots. The trail awaits.
Newburyport, Newbury, Rowley (12.1 miles)
Begin by dipping your heel at the ocean’s edge and heading inland through the Joppa Flats before cutting across the runway of the Plum Island Airport, one of the more unconventional portions of the BCT.
Next on the horizon is the Spencer-Peirce-Little Farm. This homestead hosts vintage baseball games during the summer, with teams abiding by rules from the 1860s. The canopy of tree branches covering Little’s Lane is also a true spectacle — a home run in its own right. Make your way along the marsh and, after a quick scramble up Old Town Hill, you’ll find yourself on the town green of Newbury, just north of Little River. Discover a historic one-room schoolhouse (1877), its rows of wooden desks reminding us of a simpler time.
It’s easy to miss the small graveyard at the corner of Old Main Street and Route 1A, where nearly pristine stones harken back to the mid-1700s. Not to be outdone, a single stone a bit farther along pays tribute to Rowley resident Margaret Stephenson Scott, a victim of the “witchcraft delusion” who was hanged in Salem in 1692. Need a break from the gallows undertones of this stretch? Take a quick side trip down Route 133 to White Farms Ice Cream, which has been serving scoops of deliciousness since 1953.
Georgetown, Boxford (11.5 miles)
The Georgetown section begins by crossing a footbridge over Interstate 95. After a short jaunt through the woods of the Georgetown-Rowley State Forest, much of this route leads you through suburban neighborhoods and the quaint town center of Boxford. Not to be overlooked is the parcel known as Round Top, a training site for militia units from the time of the Revolutionary War through the 1920s. Its towering red pines provide habitat for foxes, deer and wild turkeys. A few miles down the road, the trail runs adjacent to the Boxford Village Cemetery. Established in 1807, its picturesque collection of gravestones brings history back to life.
After passing Boxford Community Kitchen, a great place to stock up on snacks or use the restroom, the trail heads back into the woods at the edge of the town’s Boy Scout Park. The footpath here is covered with pine needles and delivers a beautiful expanse for both hikers and horses.
The final section in Boxford takes you into Bald Hill Reservation, dotted with vernal pools and bogs. A wide array of frogs, salamanders and songbirds can be spotted by the observant eye. This portion comes to an end at its intersection with North Liberty Street in Middleton.
North Andover, Andover (21.4 miles)
Beaver dams, wetlands, boardwalks and cattails reign supreme in this portion of the BCT. While Harold Parker State Forest and Ward Reservation present a swath of woodlands, there are plenty of one-of-a-kind nuggets to see, as well. Chief among them are the solstice stones atop Holt Hill. Inspired by a visit to Stonehenge, Mable Ward had these stones placed on the high point of her property to mark the path of the sun. On a clear day, hikers can glimpse the outline of Boston from Holt Hill’s 420-foot summit.
The trail then cuts through the playing fields and main quadrangle of Phillips Academy before heading down the hill toward Purdon Reservation. Keep your eyes peeled for “Pooh’s Corner,” a small crevice at the base of a tree that sports a small wooden door hiding a stash of candy.
This segment ends with one of the most enjoyable stretches of all, a meandering path alongside the Merrimack River, ending at the Tewksbury town line. This flat and scenic area is great for those with young children, providing plenty of opportunities to skip stones, throw in a fishing line, or just relax on a nearby bench.
Lowell, Chelmsford (6.8 miles)
The Lowell portion of the trail is a bit of a hodgepodge. Although listed as “passable,” the extension from Tewksbury to the Lowell Memorial Auditorium is awash in brambles and thorns. Trail markers are virtually nonexistent, and the connecting passage from downtown to the start of the trail in Chelmsford has not been completed. Still, there are some wonderful treasures to discover here. The mills along the Merrimack River speak poignantly of the city’s roots. Public art breathes life into this space, and Wamesit Falls offers a scenic respite for hikers weary of sidewalks.
The final portion of the Merrimack Valley’s BCT begins on the edge of Cross Point office park, the former home of computer giant Wang Laboratories. These 6.8 miles in Chelmsford follow the Bruce Freeman Rail Trail. The path is smooth, wildflowers are abundant, and a stop at Heart Pond Beach provides an enticing opportunity to cool off tired feet.
Ipswich, Hamilton and Topsfield offer additional mileage for enthusiastic hikers. But with 50-plus miles of our own, we have plenty to explore.
As Dorothy would say, there’s no place like home.