Hike Locally at Chelmsford’s Thanksgiving Forest.
Even if you live in Chelmsford, there’s no guarantee you’ve heard of Thanksgiving Ground Forest (commonly known as Thanksgiving Forest). One of the town’s most visited open spaces, the area is overseen by the all-volunteer Chelmsford Open Space Stewardship. Its 45 acres of well-marked trails promise hours of fun for families who are seeking a hike that’s friendly to both kids and dogs. Free parking and an entrance can be found at the end of Janet Road. There are also entrances at Gary Road and Kristin Drive.
Inside the forest, you’ll easily navigate its two main trails. On the longer Bovey Trail, marked by blue blazes, you’ll follow the shoreline of Russell Mill Pond and glimpse ducks, geese and even beavers. The Russell Trail, shorter and marked with red blazes, leads to Great Brook Farm State Park in Carlisle.
Like many trail systems in the Merrimack Valley, some paths through Thanksgiving Forest seem miles away from any trace of civilization, while others run alongside the backyards of homes and farms in South Chelmsford. You’ll see lots of rocks along each of the two main trails — including large boulders left behind by the last ice age, and smaller stones that were used for farm walls. You’ll climb gently sloping trails and step around the root systems of some very tall trees that have grown along these paths. Fear not, though, your kids (and dogs) aren’t likely to require much carrying before you reunite with your car in the parking lot. None of the trails are particularly long.
Thanksgiving Forest isn’t only about hiking. There’s more horseback riding there than on any other reservation in town, Chelmsford Conservation Commission member David McLachlan says. There’s also a small boat launch for canoeing on Russell Mill Pond, he says, and there’s history, too. Besides those ice age boulders that conjure up images of woolly mammoths traversing long-ago versions of the trails, these woods offer a more recent story that’s told by the sign at the Janet Road entrance. Thanksgiving Forest gets its name from the 19th century tradition that brought the men of Chelmsford to the forest each Thanksgiving Day for a fox hunt. They gathered at a group of large boulders deep within the forest and lit a fire in the hearth formed by rocks that remains at the site today.
The current boundary of the forest dates to the 1960s, when Chelmsford sought to keep it open to hikers as the surrounding neighborhood was developed. Amid those discussions, Thanksgiving Forest was formed by adding 22 acres donated by East Coast Builders and the Russell and Bovey families, now memorialized in the forest’s trail names.
Thanksgiving Forest remains as fun and relevant today as it was for earlier generations. Year-round, there’s plenty to do and see within its trails. And it’s a great place to get in some hiking without having to leave the Merrimack Valley.
[ Note: Due to the ongoing pandemic, please visit the Town of Chelmsfor’s website for updated guidelines and information before visiting Thanksgiving Forest. ]