Five snowshoe hikes and walks inside Route 128
It wasn’t much of a winter last year, as snow was on the ground for, oh, a few hours or so, but this year has already seen its share of the white stuff, and there’s a lot more of the winter to get through. So what is one to do? You could certainly spend the next couple of months eating pizza and watching mindless shows on TV, and while this actually sounds really good, why not get out and enjoy the scenic beauty that snow brings to the region? The Boston area has many places to get out and about, and one of the best ways to do so is by snowshoe, which costs very little (many outdoors stores rent them) and is extremely easy to do. Below are five particularly good local options for snowshoeing, all inside Route 128 and all but one easily accessible by public transportation (see note about Breakheart below).
Blue Hills (Skyline Trail), Quincy
If you want to feel like you’re in the deep woods of Northern New England but don’t have the desire (or wheels) to travel, the Eastern Blue Hills area is one of the most wild and rugged places that you’ll find in Eastern Massachusetts. This part of the reservation has many trails, but one of the most interesting—and most difficult—is the Skyline Trail, which starts at the Shea Rink and actually goes a whopping 9 miles westward over countless hilltops; it really can’t be snowshoed in its entirety in one day unless you spot cars at each end. The section of the trail in the Eastern Blue Hills has enough highlights to satisfy most hikers, however, going over such windswept “peaks” as Rattlesnake Hill, Wampatuck Hill, Nahanton Hill, and Chickatawbut Hill before dropping dramatically down to Route 28 where you can either turn around and retrace your steps or choose an easier valley route (which could include the very mellow Bouncing Brook Path). If you choose the latter option, bring a map because this is a vast wilderness area consisting of approximately 7,000 acres, which is a whole lot of open space considering how close it is to Boston.
- Skill level: Difficult. Length: Approximately 7 miles.
- [651 Willard St., Quincy. Directions using public transportation: Red Line to Quincy Adams, then bus #238 to Shea Rink (where trailhead is) on Willard Street. Map: mass.gov/eea/docs/dcr/parks/trails/blue-hills-trail-map-2016.pdf]
Arnold Arboretum (Paved Walkways), Jamaica Plain
The only option listed here that is within the Boston city limits, this 275-acre outdoor area is very popular in the spring, summer, and fall for its blooming plants and trees along with its overall greenery, but during the winter, this Jamaica Plain gem is perfect for a relatively simple snowshoe hike that can be as short or as long as you want. Because it’s not as busy during the winter, the paved roads (which are off-limits to cars) aren’t usually crowded, which makes them a terrific option for snowshoeing, and they hit some of the best parts of the Arboretum, including a winding route up Bussey Hill and a loop up Peters Hill, both of which have views of the Boston skyline. Because of the twists and turns that the paved walkways take, it is best to bring a map, but because of its relatively compact size in a mostly residential part of Boston, you’d have to try really hard to get lost here.
- Skill level: Moderate. Length: Approximately 4 miles.
- [125 Arborway, Jamaica Plain. Directions using public transportation: Orange Line to Forest Hills, then walk up the Arborway to the main entrance on the left. Map: arboretum.harvard.edu/wp-content/uploads/basic-map-b+w.pdf]
Breakheart Reservation (Paved Walkways), Saugus
Route 1 in Saugus isn’t exactly a scenic road, and while it can be charming in some ways for its “old Americana” feel, it can certainly be stressful as well, depending what time of day you’re on it. There is a real oasis just off this highway, though, and the approach to Breakheart on Forest Street brings about a remarkable change from the craziness of Route 1 to deep woods and a rustic visitor center (complete with working fireplace) that looks like it was brought in from the Adirondack Mountains in New York. Much like the Arnold Arboretum, the popular route to take is the series of paved roads through snowy forests that are off-limits to cars, but unlike that area, the paved walkways through Breakheart take you through very remote-feeling lands, and they can be steep in parts. And while the outer and inner loops go past some great spots such as the hillside beach at Pearce Lake, some of the most interesting snowshoeing can be found just off the road, with Eagle Rock, Breakheart Hill, and Castle Rock being three of the best because of their spectacular views. If you leave the road, make sure you have a map because although the reservation is relatively small at only 650 acres, it is pretty easy to get lost if you don’t know the trails.
- Skill level: Moderate. Length: Approximately 5 miles.
- [Forest St., Saugus. Directions using public transportation: No buses go directly to Breakheart, but one option is to take the Newburyport/Rockport commuter rail line to Lynn, then bus #429 to the Saugus Plaza, then a mostly unpleasant—but doable—one-mile walk down Route 1 south to Lynn Fells Parkway and Forest Street. Map: saugus.com/images/stories/parks_recreation/breakheartmap.pdf]
Middlesex Fells (Rock Circuit Trail), Malden / Medford / Stoneham / Melrose
The Middlesex Fells is a large wilderness area that straddles Route 93 a few miles north of Boston, and the west side of the reservation is the flatter and more serene side, which makes it great for an easy to moderate snowshoe hike. One problem, however, is that it isn’t exactly simple to get to by public transportation; sure, you could take the commuter rail to Winchester Center and walk the mile or so along main roads, but it’s much easier to take the Orange Line to Oak Grove on the east side and do a much shorter walk to the entrance. And this part of the Fells is a great option for snowshoers who want a real challenge, as the Rock Circuit Trail is every bit as steep and rugged as the Skyline Trail is in the Eastern Blue Hills on the other side of Boston (Melrose Rock, Black Rock, and Pinnacle Rock aren’t for the faint of heart). One advantage that the Rock Circuit has over the Skyline is that it is a loop trail, so you can snowshoe nearly the entire route without having to backtrack. One note—the entrance off Elliot Street isn’t part of the Rock Circuit Trail but it does quickly lead to it via other trails; a map is a good idea here so you don’t get lost, though some maps do not show the entrance trail, so you may need to “blindly” take that trail until you reach the Rock Circuit, which has white blazes on the trees.
- Skill level: Difficult. Length: Approximately 5 miles.
- [Elliott St., Malden. Directions using public transportation: Orange Line to Oak Grove, then walk up Washington Street two blocks north, then left on Glen Rock Avenue for two blocks, then right on Elliot Street to trailhead on left. Maps: friendsofthefells.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Fells_Reservation_Map.pdf and mass.gov/eea/docs/dcr/parks/trails/fells.pdf]
Horn Pond (Paved and Unpaved Walkways), Woburn
For those of you who are looking for an easy and mostly flat snowshoe walk, this deceptively large conservation area is a great place to go if you want to get a feel for snowshoeing, or if you simply wish to enjoy the great outdoors without having to put much effort into it. Horn Pond, like the Arnold Arboretum, is a busy place during the warmer months, but during the winter, you may just have it to yourself except for dog walkers here and there, which makes the paved and unpaved main walkways rather pleasant routes to take. A few options are available from the main parking lot, including simply going up and over the little hill by the lot to the walkway, taking a right and following the pond, then once you cross the causeway by the far end of the pond, you can take a left along the lagoon and, eventually, various wetlands where you may see a swan or two (they can be found in the lagoon as well). From there, you can loop around the south end of the wetlands and lagoon, and if you feel adventurous, wander through some of the trails in a beautiful pine forest or continue on to the causeway, where you can return to the parking lot. (Another more difficult option is to climb Horn Pond Mountain/Mount Towanda via a heart-pumping path that goes up, up, up to a stunning overlook where the Boston skyline can be seen.)
- Skill level: Easy. Length: Approximately 3 miles.
- [85 Lake Ave., Woburn. Directions using public transportation: Orange Line to Wellington, then bus #134 to Main Street and Lake Avenue/Cranes Court. Walk down Lake Avenue for three blocks to parking lot on right. Map:woburnrec.com/forms/6048_walking_woburn_horn_pond_map_final.pdf]
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.