WORDS + PHOTOS BY MARC HURWITZ
If you look closely enough, you might notice that Boston is a city surrounded by hills, and some of the biggest reside just to the south in the massive Blue Hills Reservation. The largest of these big “peaks” is Great Blue Hill near the western end of the park, and while it would never be mistaken for Mount Washington in New Hampshire or Mount Katahdin in Maine, Great Blue is a fascinating spot that has so much to offer hikers looking to get away from it all.
Here you’ll find jaw-dropping views, rugged trails, steep cliffs, bubbling brooks, deep woods, an observation tower with picnic tables at the base, and a weather observatory that’s easily one of the true hidden jewels of the Greater Boston area.
The Blue Hill Meteorological Observatory is indeed one of those overlooked spots that’s little-known perhaps because people may think it’s off-limits to the general public, but it’s open to all and actually has a lot to offer for visitors, including spectacular views, an interesting shop inside the castle-like structure, and, for those who are interested in weather and climate, tours of the observatory itself.
We recently took a tour of the place with a well-known local media figure (more on that in a bit), and even if you aren’t a big weather buff, it’s certainly a rather interesting way to spend a morning or early afternoon.
In early July (and on an oppressively humid day because we sure know how to pick them), we set up a coordinated hike between the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Local Walks & Hikes division—of which I’m a leader and committee member—and Eric Fisher, who is the chief meteorologist for WBZ/CBS Boston, along with the observatory team on top of Great Blue. There are a number of ways to climb the hill, and while we had originally considered doing the ever-popular red dot loop from the Trailside Museum on Route 138, the humidity was just too much even for this moderately steep path, steering us instead onto an easier beginner-type route that included the green dot trail and part of the red dot trail. (For the record, the three Skyline Trail options up Great Blue will really get your heart pounding—especially the one that starts from Route 138 just south of ski area.)
After emerging from the woods at the summit of Great Blue, we took a quick break at the Eliot observation tower and the thankfully shaded picnic tables, then continued on the short jaunt up to the weather observatory where we started the tour inside the gift shop. Julia was our initial tour guide for the observatory—which dates all the way back to the 1880s and was not actually open to the public until 1998—and she went over some of the general information about the impressively sturdy rock structure before leading us into the history room just down the hall from the gift shop—and inside the actual observatory tower—where we looked at some interesting old weather equipment and books that helped give the room a distinct library feel. It was in this room that Julia mentioned something that took us by surprise—it appears that when we walked down the hall from the gift shop to the history room, we left the town of Canton and entered the town of Milton, though it is not really known exactly where the town line cuts through the observatory, just that the observatory does indeed sit in two different towns. One of the highlights of the history room was a demo model of a sunshine recorder, an old device that looks a bit like a globe or a crystal ball and which burns sunlight onto paper cards to record the amount of sunlight each day. Julia assured us it smelled like toasted marshmallows, which had a few of us drooling a bit since we did the tour around lunchtime.
A steep staircase led us up to the next floor of the tower, which is the actual observatory room that includes a computer where data is looked at during the day. (Contrary to popular belief, unlike the Mount Washington Observatory, the Blue Hill Observatory is not manned 24/7 and is typically empty at night.) The observation room is more of a working space so there isn’t as much to see here, and perhaps because of this, Julia used this room to tell stories and take questions from those on the tour, with Fisher also doing some Q&A. Some of the topics included climate change, weather records at the top of Great Blue, and some interesting specifics, including the fact that in a way, the Blue Hills can “make” their own weather. Not to the extent of Mount Washington or the Rocky Mountains along the Continental Divide out west, but because the hills abruptly pop up from a relatively flat landscape, the weather in such communities as Braintree, Quincy, Randolph, and Weymouth can see subtle changes as systems from the west crash into Great Blue and other hilltops that rise several hundred feet above the valley below.
From the observation room, another steep staircase leads up to a small enclosed area followed by an observation deck, which is the highest part of the tower that people can access. As great as the views are from the Eliot Tower and various outlooks from Great Blue, the views from this deck may beat them all, as it is a true 360-degree vista that’s above the trees, affording views of the Boston skyline to the north, the Atlantic Ocean to the east, endless woods, ponds, and lakes to the south, and on a clear day, distant mountains to the west and north, including even the Holyoke Range way out in the Pioneer Valley where the Berkshires begin. It was on this deck that we also got to see the aforementioned sun recorder in full use, and for those not scared of heights, you can climb up above it to take pictures of the odd-looking device, and yes, the cards burned by the sun do indeed smell a bit like burning marshmallows.
Our final stop was outside of the observatory building itself, where our second guide took over. Frank brought us to a small instrument enclosure a short walk from the observatory, where he showed us some of the equipment used in the fenced-in area that measure temperature, snow depth, and more. As was the case with Julia, Frank answered a number of questions about the equipment along with weather and climate in general, and once again, Fisher lent his knowledge to the group as well. This basically marked the end of the tour, which, by the way, can either be done as a short, basic tour or as the longer and more detailed tour that we did. (Prices for both are listed on the observatory website, and discounts are available to certain groups.)
While the tour itself was over, our hike wasn’t quite done at this point; Fisher and the group of AMC hikers walked along the Eliot Circle trail that loops around the sprawling summit of Great Blue, ending up near the Eliot Tower and picnic tables where some hikers stayed for lunch while others (including Fisher) headed down the red dot trail to the parking lot. The rest of us did the same after lunch, marking the end of a memorable day that included quite a bit of history, a lot of info on weather and climate, and some of the best views in the entire Boston area. A big thanks to Julia, Frank, and the observatory team for being such gracious hosts, and a special thanks to Eric Fisher, who was a real treasure trove of information and perhaps even more importantly, was kind and engaging and fit right in with the AMC hiking group. Will we be doing this hike and tour again? No doubt, though we may pick a day in the fall that’s much cooler and drier.
WEBSITE FOR THE BLUE HILLS OBSERVATORY: BLUEHILL.ORG/OBSERVATORY