Hiking volcanic cliffs and high ridges five miles From Boston
Over the past two years, we’ve looked at a number of remote hiking areas where people could keep their distance from others as the pandemic raged on, and even as the virus seems to be lessening a bit, the hunt for such wild and secluded places near Boston continues.
One of the holy grails of local hiking for some of us in the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Local Walks/Hikes group has been an area in the eastern part of Melrose (along with a tiny part of Malden) that includes trails that aren’t even on the hiking maps—and terrain that you wouldn’t expect locally—but through a few trials and tribulations, we’ve been able to find a route that includes places so little-known that we’re almost hesitant to mention them. But mention we will, as this is an area that needs to be discovered.
Because of the rather confusing and convoluted path involved, it may be best to give an overview of the area before getting into more details about the actual route. Basically, the journey begins at Pine Banks, a large park south of Melrose Center that is actually well-traveled in parts, especially near the parking areas just off Main Street by the Malden line. From there, the route continues into Wyoming Cemetery which borders Pine Banks to the north, then into a hilly residential neighborhood to the east for a short distance before re-entering the woods into Knox Memorial Park, Rocky View, Flagg Acres, and Sea View including Swains Pond and Towners Pond. This route includes some unnamed overlooks and, as mentioned earlier, paths that you might not be able to find on trail maps, but we’ve recorded the route, with a link to it given at the end of the article.
There are any number of places in which you can park in order to start this hike, though the easiest is perhaps the large parking lot by the ballfield in Pine Banks along Main Street (and across from Hunts Photo & Video), especially if you’re driving to the trailhead and have a group of folks with multiple vehicles. Using a map of Pine Banks (link also included below) or a hiking app, look for a trail at the south end of the parking lot and enter the woods where you can meander the various paths that go past a small pond, along a ridge or two, and up a rather steep hill that overlooks the water and affords a partially obstructed view of Melrose and Malden. Dropping east of the hill and about one mile into the hike, you’ll find yourself on the other side of the ballfield and at a smaller parking lot, which marks the start of the main part of Pine Banks, at which point you’ll begin to climb.
From the small lot, take the Cray Trail (and again, keep those links below handy to know which trail is which) to the Burgess Trail where you’ll take a right and soon find yourself at the edge of Forestdale Cemetery in Malden. The cemetery is a peaceful, quiet place that is worth exploring before returning to the Burgess Trail which starts to get steeper, curving to the left and eventually coming to a spur trail off to the right that leads to the first of many open views of the surrounding area, though better views lie ahead. Backtracking to the Burgess and continuing on, you may begin to notice more ridges with dropoffs on both sides; this is actually part of an esker, or a winding ridge formed by glaciers and made up of sand and/or gravel, with one such esker at Great Esker Park in Weymouth to the south reportedly being the highest one in all of North America at nearly 100 feet high. This esker isn’t that high, but it still makes for a dramatic walk especially considering how close to Boston you are.
The Burgess Trail ends up back at the Cray Trail, at which point you take a right and start climbing again, and at the high point of the path (Mt. Ephraim), there is another short trail that goes to the right. This is one you do not want to miss, as the ledges and cliffs here feature what may be the most open view of the Boston skyline from any hilltop in the Greater Boston area. The ledges at Mt. Ephraim are indescribably stunning, and would certainly be a good place for a picnic lunch, and there are more short spur paths to be found further along the Cray Trail, including one that features a cliff so sheer that there is a retaining fence along it. You may be wondering why there are so many cliffs in this area (and there are more to come, by the way), and believe it or not, these are the remnants of ancient volcanoes that also helped create the cliffs of the eastern edge of the Middlesex Fells not too far to the west.
Just after the summit of Mt. Ephraim, the Cray Trail morphs into the Roy Trail, which drops back down to a section of the Cray Trail that you were previously on, then the Roy Trail veers off to the right and leads to an entrance to Wyoming Cemetery, at which point you take a right and walk through the cemetery to Lebanon Street. There is a very narrow opening in the fence at the Ripley School here, at which point you cross the street and onto the steep Hopkins Street, but if you don’t want to try to go through the very tight opening, one of the main roads in the cemetery just to the left leads directly to Lebanon Street where you then take a right for a block to Hopkins and start climbing. From Hopkins, take a quick left on Forest Street, then a quick right on Church Street, then a quick right on Hancock Street, then a quick right on Prescott Street, which is a dead-end road with jaw-dropping views of Boston.
Prescott Street is where things get really interesting, because some maps show a little dead-end trail at the end of the road while others don’t even show a trail at all. Well, there is indeed a trail, and about one minute in, you’ll find yourself on a huge unnamed rock face (though it might be called Dexter’s Rocks or Rocky Hill but don’t take our word for it) with more views of Boston and you’ll probably have it all to yourself because no one seems to know about it. Leaving the rock face, the trail continues on even though no maps show that it does, and it winds along more ledges with nice views before dropping into the Knox Memorial Park/Rocky View Park area where you’ll take a right at the T intersection, with beautiful views of Swains Pond to the right, before exiting the woods at Swains Pond Avenue where you’ll see Towners Pond across the way.
A short walk to the right along the road will bring you to a trail along Towners Pond and what looks like a little causeway across the water. At the end of the causeway you can either take a left along the pond or go a bit further and take a left on a higher trail which gives views of the water from above. The two trails meet up and lead to the start of Sea View Park at the end of the pond, where you take a right. This is a tricky area because there are a few unnamed trails going every which way, but what you want to do is look up at a rather ominous-looking rocky peak that doesn’t look like it can be climbed and take a right, keeping the peak in sight on your left. This trail will allow you to climb gradually almost to the summit, then you simply take a spur trail to the left which brings you to the top. This high point is what gives Sea View Park its name, as the open ledges and cliffs (which also appear to have been formed by volcanoes) give views in all directions, including of the ocean, the Boston skyline, and a lot more. Standing on the highest ledges here is not for the squeamish, but for those who aren’t afraid of heights, you may find it hard to believe that no one else—including seasoned hikers—seem to know about this wonderful spot.
There is plenty more to explore from this point if you have time, including Mt. Hood and Hillside Park, but if you’ve had enough for the day, drop back down to Towners Pond and keep the pond on your left, soon coming back to Swains Pond Avenue and the trail back to Knox Memorial Park/Rocky View Park via a short walk left along the road. Once you get back to the T intersection, you can either go left and retrace your route back to Pine Banks Park or you can go right up a steep hill and along more ledges before emerging from the woods at the Hoover School at which point you’ll be walking residential streets down to the Wyoming Cemetery and back to Pine Banks and the parking lot. This route will give you about seven or eight miles in total, and you’ll also have the satisfaction of having done a route that very few have ever done—and you can brag to your friends later that you spent the day hiking volcanic cliffs, which should up your street cred (or trail cred) just a bit.