It’s no secret that the layout of Boston-area roads is a nightmare to newcomers and longtime residents alike, with so much of it being so utterly confusing that it actually has a sort of charm in a demolition derby kind of way. And you might think that it hasn’t always been that way, but you know what? It has, and look no further than Route 128 for proof of this.
While the present-day highway is weird in some ways (where does it begin? where does it end? why does it team up with other highways for no apparent reason?), the original version of Route 128 was so much of an ungodly mess that to explain its former route to someone would take hours and be about as exciting as staring at a pile of dirt. But the fact that there used to be a pokey and totally messed-up two-lane version of Route 128 leads to some interesting history that can still be seen here and there, with perhaps none more interesting than a stretch of Old Route 128 that still exists—and just happens to be in one of the most scenic parts of the Greater Boston area.
To explain the exact route that Route 128 once took from Gloucester to, say, Dedham would be something that no one should ever do unless you’re striving to become a person whom others talk about. But if you’re curious, the original version of the road actually went through the downtown areas of a number of communities, including Wakefield, Stoneham, Woburn, Lexington, and Waltham, with the roads that were designated with this route number generally still existing north and west of Boston.
The route from Weymouth onward south of the city was similarly odd and seemed basically thrown together as it ran along a hodgepodge of streets to what is now Route 228 in Hingham and Hull, where it ended right around Nantasket Beach. The part in between, which includes sections of the road in Milton, Quincy, Randolph, and (to a lesser extent) Canton and Braintree is the focus here, as unlike much of the rest of the original Route 128, the parts of this route are mostly off-limits to cars, which makes them perfect for hikers, explorers, lovers of history, and people who love to deal with snakes and biting insects depending on the season—and yes, the Blue Hills is home to both rattlesnakes and copperheads, so much as you’d like to do so, try not to peek into any rock crevices on this hike, especially if you see a pair of eyes staring back at you.
One of the best ways to see Old Route 128 is by parking at a lot that is familiar to many—the Houghton’s Pond parking lot on Hillside Street in Milton—though the more geeky history buffs might be more interested in parking at the lot around the corner where the ball fields and picnic sites are, since the access road off the Ponkapoag Trail just north of present-day Route 128 is—wait for it—part of Old Route 128! If you park at this latter lot, you are basically right at the start of the section of Old Route 128 that is off-limits to cars, but if you park at the Houghton’s Pond lot, you get to enjoy a hike along a short, scenic trail that skirts the northern and eastern edges of the pond before reaching this other lot. Finding the start of this part of Old Route 128 may seem confusing at first as it starts off as a narrow trail before quickly opening up to a paved road, but all you need to do is go to the end of the loop where the parking lot is and find the fire lane gate; this marks the start of the route.
Old Route 128 initially cuts through a heavily wooded part of the Blue Hills, with various trails leading left up into the reservation while parts of the present-day Route 128 can be heard (and occasionally seen) to the right. Speaking of which, this part of the “new” Route 128 is technically no longer Route 128, as the section between where Route 95 and 93 meet in Canton and the Braintree Split is now simply considered Route 93 and Route 1 (by the way, Route 1 North joins the highway on the Dedham/Westwood line and follows Route 95 South then Route 93 North before joining Routes 93 and 3 North at the split and please don’t ask about this). But even though there is an “End Route 128” sign just before the Route 95/93 intersection in Canton, traffic reporters and lifelong Bostonians still call the stretch of highway east of there “Route 128” in order to gleefully confuse tourists and newcomers even more than they already are, so yes, this part of Old Route 128 now follows Routes 93 and 1 for those of you trying (and failing) to take notes.
Getting back to Old Route 128, walking east along this serene little paved road is fascinating in an odd sort of way, as you will occasionally see a double yellow line down the middle and symbols painted on the pavement that indicate there may have been railroad tracks and a school here long ago, though neither of these appear to be true and it’s basically in keeping with the theme of Route 128 (both old and new) making absolutely no sense whatsoever. Much of the road feels like it is slowly being swallowed up by the Blue Hills and, for hikers, it is often used as a way to get to other parts of the reservation very quickly since it is basically wide, flat, and easy to walk on.
As you continue farther east, the road gets closer and closer to the present-day highway and you’ll see some wetlands, especially to the right, while hills form the landscape to the left. After a bit more than a mile of walking—and going through parts of Milton, Quincy, and Randolph—the road abruptly ends, and at this point you can either continue straight along a dirt path to Route 28 or take a left up a steep pipeline trail. At this point you can simply turn around and return to the parking lot, but if you’re into the outdoors, you can get ready to do some really fun exploring instead.
As mentioned earlier, a number of trails veer off Old Route 128 away from the current highway, and two particularly interesting points of interest can be found by taking any of these. If you find yourself at the end of the paved road, take the aforementioned pipeline trail (and be sure to have a map of the reservation as it’s easy to get lost), continuing on this path until you get to a parking area on Route 28. Cross the street and continue on for a bit, then take a right at marker #3005 and you will soon find yourself going up a winding trail. After a few minutes of climbing, look closely for an easy-to-miss little spur path to the right that goes up to a rocky outcropping where you’ll be rewarded with remarkable views of the forest and the hills in the background, making you forget that you’re only a few miles from the Boston line.
If you’re into serious hiking, return to the trail and continue on for a minute or two before looking for a narrow path on the left that seems to go straight up; this is the trail up Hawk Hill, one of many peaks in the Blue Hills and one of the only ones not on the Skyline Trail to the north. Going up and over Hawk Hill will give you more views, and if you’re daring, you can continue down to the valley below, but be forewarned—this is one of the steepest trails in the Blue Hills and when it’s wet, it’s downright dangerous. If you do try it, take a left when you reach the bottom and use your map to get you back to the pipeline and Old Route 128.
A second option to do off Old Route 128 is to get to the Oblique Path or the Beech Hollow Path at marker #2150, #2146, or #2123, all of which are only a few minutes from the pipeline trail and which will now be on your right. Whichever path you take, you’ll start climbing almost immediately, and your goal is to get to a minor trail between markers #2140 and #2155, which does a steep climb then a steep dropoff to marker #2154 where it starts climbing again and reaches the ledges of the south shoulder of Buck Hill, with gorgeous views of the wilderness to the south and west.
At marker #2162, the trail splits left and right around a sheer rock face (left is easy, right is more difficult) and soon emerges from the trees onto the huge bare summit of Buck Hill, which is one of the only places in the Boston area where you can get 360-degree views that include the Boston skyline, the ocean, hills in most directions, and on a very clear day, the mountains of Central Massachusetts and Southern New Hampshire. From here you can retrace your steps or (if you have good map skills) head west along the Skyline Trail and then work your way south on any number of paths that will eventually get you back to Old Route 128.
You may remember that parts of Old Route 128 in Canton and Braintree were also mentioned, and while these sections are perhaps not as interesting as the stretch just covered, it’s certainly worth pointing them out. The Braintree section is basically a continuation of the road through Milton, Quincy, and Randolph, but on the other side of the highway—and it can’t be accessed unless a) you have wings, or b) you have a death wish and think it would be fun running across the highway (don’t do that). To get to this part of Old Route 128 in a more traditional way where you won’t be killed instantly, walk back to whichever lot you parked at, take a left down the Ponkapoag Trail, and drive on Route 128/93/1/whatever toward the Braintree Split, getting off at Route 28 South in Randolph.
Less than a mile down at a light, take a left on Pond Street, which becomes West Street when you enter Braintree and which goes by a large reservoir on the right. Shortly after the end of the reservoir, look for a parking lot on the left, which marks the beginning of this other part of Old Route 128, though this section is very short and simply ends just before the highway (and yes, this is also part of the Blue Hills, though it is cut off from the rest of the reservation).
When you’re walking along this section, if you have a good sense of direction you will probably see that you’re heading toward the part you were just at, and it is basically cut into two pieces by the existing highway. Oh, and the Canton section of Old Route 128? Get back on Route 128 North and get off once again at the Ponkapoag Trail, but instead of taking a right onto the access road to the ball fields and picnic sites, take a left and you’ll find yourself on a ramp that takes you right back onto Route 128 North.
And why, pray tell, are you doing this? Well, the on-ramp is actually part of the Old Route 128 as well, and it will lead you to the new Route 128 where you can get off at the next exit (Route 138 North), take a quick left off that road, pull into the parking lot for the Hillside Pub, order a pint of Guinness and a shot of Jameson and ask yourself just before signaling for another pint of Guinness and a shot of Jameson, “What exactly did I just do again?”
A map of the Blue Hills Reservation, which includes Old Route 128, can be found at mass.gov/files/2017-08/blue-hills-trail-map-2016.pdf. The Braintree section is not listed as Old Route 128, but can be easily found by looking for marker #5620.
Marc is the founder of @hiddenboston, a textbook editor, a hike leader for @AppMtnClub, and a food and travel writer and commenter for DigBoston, NBC/NECN, WBZ, WMFO and indie617.