Region: Central Massachusetts, USA
Length: 95+ miles
Timeframe: June and August, 2013
This beautiful and well-maintained trail connects 95+ miles (reroutes and getting to and from road to trailheads add additional miles) from the northern border with New Hampshire across Central Massachusetts to the southern border with Rhode Island. As a born and bred Massachusetts resident, walking across Massachusetts was one of the most meaningful-- and educational-- hikes I have done.
An avid hiker, I have adopted a satisfying hobby of crossing borders on foot. During a year off from college, I walked 500 miles border to border across northern Spain on the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage trail. A few years later, I clutched a well-worn copy of poems while walking 190 miles between coastal borders of northern England. As a farewell to our extended homestay in Alaska, a colleague and I followed the Chilkoot “gold rush” trail from Alaska into British Columbia. Many eager prospectors in the late 1800s-- including my great-grandfather—were drawn into its shimmery lair, never to return. I then became infatuated with the spot on the map about 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle where Norway, Sweden and Finland meet. My original intention was to walk mainly across northern Norway, but I took a wrong turn in the Arctic wilderness and ended up in Sweden sooner than planned.
So it was with special delight that I, a born and bred Massachusetts resident, recently learned about our undeservedly under-recognized homeland trekking treasure, the Massachusetts Midstate Trail. And I can report back that this relatively tame and well-maintained footpath ranks with the further-flung hikes I noted above. Like my favorite long-distance treks, it is well signed (by yellow triangles), crosses through both inhabited and more isolated areas, and offers the option of short day hikes or “thru-hikes.” By connecting 95+ miles across central Massachusetts from the northern border with New Hampshire to the southern border with Rhode Island, the mostly flat trail makes accessible to enthusiasts of moderate physical stamina a cross-section of our state’s history and culture. Walkers will pass Redemption Rock, the site of Mary White Rowlandson’s release from captivity in 1676 during the King Philip War; Oxford, where American Red Cross founder Clara Barton was born; and Charlton, location of an 18th century tavern and militia ground, 19th century schoolhouse, and hometown of "Grizzly" Adams, who traveled the country in the 1850s wrestling grizzly bears with P.T. Barnum.
Before any hike one must first think through some factors: How will you arrive and depart from the trail? (The transport issue may be the most challenging part of a Midstate Trail one-way hike; see sidebar for solutions.) What will you eat? How many miles can you walk each day? How many details should you divulge in advance to your mother? (I note these concerns from personal experience. This is not the first time that news of my hiking has been broadcast in The Boston Globe. Back in the 1980s, when I was in fifth grade, my lack of orientation skills transformed a casual early autumn saunter down a fire road with my younger brother and cousins into an overnight “lost in the woods” ordeal in the New Hampshire White Mountains where we attracted over 200 search volunteers and, the day after our rescue, were featured on the front page of The Globe.)
I broke up the Midstate Trail into three legs. Using the trail guidebook’s supremely helpful maps, I planned my first leg to start 17 miles south of the New Hampshire border. I set out on a sunny morning in early May, carrying a backpack with a raincoat, two liters of water, and plenty of snacks. I was immediately transported to a meditative realm by the lush greenery, birdsong, and relative lack of city sounds or even fellow humans; my mind and body soon reached the steady and expansive state that makes longer-distance hikes so addictive. I passed Crow Hills, a popular site for rock climbing, summited Mt. Wachusett, sidestepped an old prisoners’ camp, and sauntered through the first of a few Mass Audubon wildlife sanctuaries. That day I hiked 17 miles to Rutland, and, upon discovering I had no cell signal to call a taxi, was the lucky beneficiary of a ride from the son of the cashier at the nearby general store.
The next week, I put out a message on Facebook seeking company on another section of the trail, and was joined by a car-less junior high school acquaintance. We started in Ashburnham, near the New Hampshire border, and did a three mile loop from the parking lot to the sublime summit views from Mt. Watatic, and onward to the trail’s northern terminus. Looking through my companion’s eyes I was more aware of the potential monotony of some stretches of this flatter section of trail—what, more flagrant greenery, ponds, bustling birds, old growth forests, tiny toads?—but then we would mull over an unexpected surprise, like the occasional abandoned pickup truck without a clear entry point. Nearly 10 hours later we crossed Route 2 and voraciously consumed a hearty dinner at the Wachusett Village Inn’s restaurant. Since we did not have a second car stationed, we called a few companies for a ride back to my car. The company we chose never showed up, but another customer at the restaurant took pity and drove us to the trailhead parking lot.
Walking across this section of Massachusetts is like taking a step back in geological time. A mile-thick glacier covered the area 20,000 years ago, and in the next 6,000 years a slight warming of the ice helped transform the terrain’s shape and composition into what we recognize today. However, bulging clues serve as reminders of the forceful geological history of shifting ice sheets: enormous isolated boulders, kettle ponds and small lakes, exposed granite hilltops, deep sand pits, and detached steep hills. Hikers may also encounter wildflowers, various species of native trees, swampland, and a host of cute critters. I saw frogs, salamanders, snakes, red squirrels, chipmunks, beavers, cardinals, hawks, and hummingbirds; other walkers have reported seeing muskrats, skunks, turtles, red fox, coyote, black bear, and even moose, as well as swallows and warblers.
During a stretch of unseasonably pleasant weather in late August, I completed the final 59+ miles of the trail, to the Rhode Island state border. I could not find a hiking partner and decided to go it alone, taking the commuter rail from Boston’s South Station to Worcester’s Union Station, and then a taxi to my start point in Rutland. I walked 24 miles and stayed at the friendly Spencer Country Inn in a spacious room furnished with antiques. The next day I was in a quandary. I was not equipped to sleep outside, and the nearest lodging-- a few miles off the trail, in Sutton-- had no vacancy. I inspected my developing blisters, agonized over the transport logistics of returning, checked in by phone with my parents-- who obligingly agreed to drive out from Arlington to pick me up near the trail’s end-- and decided to make a push to cover 35 miles in one day. As expected this was a long slog, but made pleasant by small human encounters: falling into step with two local women out for an hour’s walk, the pizzeria employee who slipped me an extra slice, the trailside homeowner who rested on her rake while clarifying directions.
At twilight I pummeled into the Douglas State Forest and, despite a wrong turn on one of the fire roads, arrived at my destination. With glee I caressed the granite Massachusetts-Rhode Island boundary marker, sore but elated for having crossed my home state on foot. Behind me was a sign announcing the start of the 78-mile North-South Trail, which connects through Rhode Island to the Atlantic Ocean. Truthfully, I felt grateful that our neighboring state did not have as much a tug on my weary feet. Using my headlamp as a guide, I eventually wound my way out of the forest and to my patient parents, reading in their car at a boat ramp parking lot. It occurred to me that they were likely suffering flashbacks to my overnight disappearance in the White Mountains nearly a quarter century ago.
About the Midstate Trail
The Midstate Trail Committee formed in the 1970s to extend several existing trails and implement the vision of the Worcester County Commissioners to create a trail across the County. Maintenance, publicity, and other support are provided by the volunteer Midstate Trail Committee, the Worcester chapter of the Appalachian Mountain Club, the Green Mountain Club, and the Department of Conservation and Recreation.
Though the Midstate Trail website offers good information and basic directions, multi-day hikers may want to order the MST Guide for $15 (midstatetrail.org). It was published in 2006, so some information is outdated, but it contains helpful maps and mileage descriptions, as well as historical and cultural observations about the communities on the trail.
Getting To and From the Trail
Getting to and from the trail on a “thru-hike” may be the most difficult part of the day, though various options exist. Directions to different trailheads are available on the Day Hike Series page on the MidstateTrail.org website. Car-less city slickers used to the convenience of public transit will need to take special planning considerations. Options include:
I hiked the trail on two weekdays and a weekend during June and August 2013, and found the following food options open within 5 minutes of the trail (listed in order of north to south):
Old Mill Restaurant
68 State Road East, Westminster
Serving food for 92 years.
Black Diamond II, at Wachusett Village Inn
9 Village Inn Road, Westminster
Huge portions served in tavern setting.
Mt. Wachusett Ski Area
499 Mountain Road, Princeton
Four cafes and restaurants. Seasonal schedule.
North Rutland General Store
East County Road (Route 68), Rutland (just west of River Road)
Snack food, cold drinks, and a small deli.
Spencer Country Inn and Hogshead Tavern
500 Main Street, Spencer
Serving lunch and dinner. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays.
448 Main Street, Oxford
Pizza, salads, subs, and pasta. One of a few pizza parlors in Oxford.
Whittier Farms Market
86 Douglas Road, Sutton
Retail farm store sells vegetables; open 7 days a week, seasonally.
Additional farmer stands are within a half mile of the trail, but are open seasonally.
I passed a couple of private campgrounds on the trail, including:
For those who prefer running water, toilets, and food supply with sleep, there are at least two lodgings right on the trail:
500 Main Street, Spencer
Lovingly furnished with antiques. Rooms $52-62, with breakfast.
9 Village Inn Road, Westminster
Rooms $89 to $179+, with breakfast on weekdays.