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.
Colonial Reenactors Bring Fun and Firepower to Newbury
On June 8 and 9, roughly 300 Revolutionary War reenactors will congregate at the Spencer-Peirce-Little Farm in Newbury to stage a battle that never was. In this alternative history, the year is 1776 and the British have been driven out of Boston. After fleeing by boat to Nova Scotia, the redcoats have reorganized and plan to fight their way down the Atlantic shoreline to the mouth of the Merrimack River. The hypothetical battle, appropriately named the Battle for Newbury, enacts a counterhistorical version of the British invasion strategy during one of the most crucial periods of the Revolutionary War.
Steve Crosby will act as captain of the unit that is hosting the event, the Acton Minutemen. Growing up in Acton, Crosby became very familiar at a young age with his town’s involvement in the Revolutionary War, which spawned his appreciation for local history. In 2001, he and his family joined the Acton Minutemen as a way to immerse themselves in the antiquity they have grown to love.
Now Crosby is working with the Tenth Regiment of Foot, the “British” hosting unit for the Battle for Newbury, to stage the reenactment, and he is excited about the expected turnout.
“We had a similar event here two years ago and we had about 500 people per day come to watch,” Crosby says. This year, he hopes to double the Escape From Boston’s attendance numbers.
A bigger crowd isn’t the only thing Crosby is anticipating. He says the reenactors have built up their firepower, as well. The previous event featured a single cannon, but this one will include at least four artillery units with a cannon each. There will also be more infantry and cavalry units, including upwards of 100 additional muskets in battle.
Plenty of free parking will be provided by the farm, and the grounds will be open to spectators at 10 a.m. on both days. Admission is $8 for adults,
$7 for seniors and $4 for students.
Along with the reenactment, “sutlers,” or merchants, will be selling food and memorabilia throughout the event. Spectators will also have an opportunity to interact with the reenactors, asking questions, and witnessing educational demonstrations. For more information, visit the event website at Newbury.redcoat.org.
Although I love traveling and visiting new places, I’m not really a fan of doing so during the summer months. Airfare is often much more expensive during July and August than at other times of year, and many places worth visiting are virtually bursting with tourists in the summer.
Now that my daughter, Madelaine, is in college, my husband, Rob, and I save our traveling for the fall. But that doesn’t mean we don’t enjoy getting away during the summer to enjoy the warm weather. We choose getaway spots that are relatively local and opt to stay mid-week and drive at off-peak times in order to minimize time spent sitting in traffic and the number of other visitors we encounter.
In the Merrimack Valley, we are fortunate to be within an hour’s drive of Plum Island. The 11-mile long barrier island, just off the coast of Newburyport, is home to some of the most pristine and beautiful beaches in New England. And although it’s just a short drive from Plum Island’s heart to downtown Newburyport, once you’re on the island you really get the feeling that you’re in a place set apart from the rest of the world.
There are plenty of long-term rentals available on Plum Island if you’re planning to stay for a week or more, but for a shorter getaway your best bet is Blue, an upscale 13-room inn located right on the beach.
Owned and operated by Amesbury-based Lark Hotels, the accommodations at Blue vary from oceanfront suites to private one- and two-bedroom cottages that are ideal for people with young kids. Some rooms are even dog-friendly. Breakfast, included in the room rate, is delivered to each room daily in an attractive basket. On a recent visit, Madelaine and I enjoyed freshly brewed coffee, homemade muffins, fresh fruit and hardboiled eggs. Our room, one of the oceanfront suites, also had a small kitchen area that included a microwave, refrigerator, coffee maker and various glasses and dishes — very convenient if you like your coffee early or want to enjoy a late afternoon snack or glass of wine out on your deck.
One of the nice things about Plum Island is that you don’t have to do much of anything if you don’t want to, but in the event that you feel like getting up out of your beach chair a visit to the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge is always time well spent (there are beaches there as well in case you experience withdrawal symptoms).
Managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Parker River was established in 1942 and is a favorite spot for both rare and endangered migratory birds and people who enjoy watching them. The reservation is also home to several varieties of plants rarely seen inland including bayberry, black cherry trees and the island’s namesake beach plums. There are few hiking trails on the island, too, if you feel like stretching your legs.
With its flat terrain, great views and limited parking, Plum Island seems like it was made for travel by bicycle. If you own one and can easily travel with it, I highly recommend bringing your bike with you. (There is a place to rent bicycles on the island if you don’t have one or can’t bring your own.) I think it’s the best way to see the sights, run to the store for a bottle of wine or even trek to dinner at one of the few restaurants nearby.
Parker River National Wildlife Refuge
Adventureland in Newbury opened the summer of 1957. A map of the amusement park shows its position on the corner of U.S. Route 1 and Scotland Road, and describes it as “America’s Most Fabulous Family Entertainment: An occasion the whole family will remember happily ever after.”
Visitors entered through a Story Book Castle and walked straight ahead to a magic fountain on the Village Green. Snacks were sold from a gingerbread house. Half of the park was called Dodge City and had a Western theme, featuring a root beer saloon, stables and shoot-‘em-up shows with traditional bank robberies, horses and cowboy hats. People still reminisce about being so scared that they cried during the stagecoach robbery, thinking it was real.
The other half of the park was called Story Land, and included installations based on fairy tales and nursery rhymes. There was a giant pumpkin for “Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater,” a cabin for “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” and the giant from “Jack and the Beanstalk” reclined on the ground. There was a house for the “Three Little Pigs,” an enormous boot for the “Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe,” and the very “House that Jack Built.”
The park didn’t last long. It closed by the mid-1960s, but memories of the place are alive and well. Former employees recount stories of tipped-over stagecoaches, escaped monkeys and visits from The Kingston Trio.
The three-masted pirate ship that acted as the park’s billboard on Interstate 95 burned down in 1966, and the remaining buildings eventually were torn down to make way for the Massachusetts State Police barracks that are now in place. A wall outside the commander’s office there has been designated for the placement of Adventureland memorabilia, and donations to the collection are welcomed.