You should hike this: Gulf Hagas

“Why is it called Gulf Hagas?”

This is the question I forgot to ask the range guides when they quietly snuck up behind us as we stood at the 2nd of two water crossings.

I can be forgiven for this oversight, because for the last 5 minutes, I’d been standing at the water’s edge trying to figure out a way to get across that didn’t involve a) completely soaking my feet or b) falling into the rushing water. My hiking partner had already successfully leapt, gazelle-like, across the water to try to set up his camera for a picture. And, he had also already leapt back to my side, but that attempt was not, ahem, as successful as the first. Luckily, he was fine, if a little soggy.

Give that his legs are longer and his courage greater than mine, this wasn’t boding well for my plan to cross without mishap.

Anyway, as I was pondering all of this, the range guides appeared behind us, and began a gentle interrogation to be sure we knew what we were getting into with the Gulf Hagas trail.

  • Did we understand that it had rained recently? Given that it still was raining, this seemed obvious.
  • Did we know that the rocks were going to be slippery? See previous note about the rain; check.
  • Did we know there was a flat way to come back after we’d done the Rim Trail? Yes, and I was delighted about that fact.
  • Did we have headlamps? (It’s worth noting that it was 11am when she asked this.) Yes, of course, we replied, and got an approving nod and a “smart”, which made me feel irrationally superior to pretty much everyone else in the world.

After the interrogation ended, in the way of smart outdoor safety people, one of the guides seemed to clue in that I was struggling to figure out how to get across and offered up a solution that gave me permission to be less gazelle-like than my friend. So I took off my boots, donned my water shoes for the 2nd time in as many miles, headed a few feet upstream, and waded across without incident. And then we set out on the Appalachian Trail, which led us eventually to the Gulf Hagas Rim Trail.

Backing up a bit, here are the basics on the Gulf Hagas hike. This map lays it out nicely, too. We stayed in Greenville, Maine, aka way-the-hell-up-there, and the trailheads (there are two), were about 40 minutes away by long dirt road. The hike can be anywhere from 8.5 to 9 miles roundtrip, depending on where you start (you can also make shorter loops out of the trip, but I won’t be discussing those here). There are two trailheads: East and West. If you start at the East, as we did, you’ll have to ford two water crossings twice (on the way out and the way back). At the biggest crossing, I’m told the water can be waist high at times; for us, it was just over knee-deep at the deepest point. And it was cold and the current was fairly strong. I wore my water shoes and that helped, but even with them, the rocks were slippery. My friend did the crossings barefoot, which I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t recommend if it can be avoided.

However, it felt pretty adventuresome to be “fording” a river, so don’t let the cold and the wet dissuade you. Just bring an extra pair of socks in case, like me, you accidentally drop your first pair into the water. Next, you’ll cross a smaller portion of the river – this is where I took my shoes off for a 2nd time to get across.

After the water crossings, you’ll be on the AT for a little while, then you’ll find yourself on a 2+ mile adventure up and down and over rocks and tree roots. There are quite a few viewpoints to be explored, which adds mileage and time to the hike – for these miles we were averaging about a mile an hour. These diversions are totally worth it, though – the waterfalls come one right after the other and they are wonderful.

Disclaimer from here forward: I may have the names of these falls messed up. Sorry about that. Perhaps you will just have to go hike this yourself and correct me.

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Screw Auger Falls

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Buttermilk Falls

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Billings Falls

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You can see why this is called the Grand Canyon of the East. What’s really wild about this canyon is that it used to be used for logging. It’s hard to see how that could possibly have worked, given the narrowness of the various places we saw.

As you reach the end of the first leg of the hike, you’ll come to the Head of the Gulf, where rivers converge and where you can really feel the power of the water. Then, you’ll make a choice which way to come back; either retracing your steps, or taking the Tote Road back to the AT Junction with the Rim trail. I highly recommend this option (since it’s the one we did), as the footing was easier and after all the up and down and making sure to not fall into the canyon on the slippery rocks, it felt nice to just tramp through the woods.

In our case, it was also getting dark, and so getting back to the car and eventually to dinner was on our minds. I chose to put my water shoes on at the first, smaller river crossing, and then do to next mile or so in them until we reached the bigger crossing. My legs were pretty tired by this point (even in on a rainy day its important to drink enough water so you don’t get muscle cramps, like I did), so I took extra care with the river crossings. We were glad for my trekking poles for this crossing, too.

And we didn’t need the headlamps, but another few moments and we would have!

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As I finish this post, it’s months since we did this hike (it was in late October 2017), but it still stands out as a fun day spent exploring some incredible terrain. I have heard from others that the black flies and bugs can be brutal during the summer months, so there is some advantage to coming in the late fall, though I’d recommend not waiting as long as we did; most of the leaves were gone, and we kept saying “I’ll bet this is pretty when the foliage is at its peak.”

And for the record, I have done everything but ask a librarian and I still don’t know why it’s called Gulf Hagas.

Thanks for coming along! Let me know in the comments if you have done this hike or plan to!

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Sometimes hikes just aren’t awesome: #hike8 of the #52hikechallenge

Hang out on instagram with the hiking community enough, and you might think we all tramp around through pristine nature with artfully mussed ponytails and impeccably coordinated gear and the perfect partner.

I’m here to tell you it just ain’t so, folks.

Sometimes, hikes aren’t awesome. Sometimes, they almost suck. I say almost because even the worst hike is better than a lukewarm day almost anywhere else. But sometimes, all the things we love about hiking seem to abandon us.

#hike8 of my #52hikechallenge fell on my birthday. It was the first sunny, above 45 degree day we’d seen in this long, gray, slog of a New England winter. I was so excited to get outside with my pooch and stretch my legs and lungs.

I wanted distance, not elevation, and I immediately thought of a hike I did back in 2017, one that had me tramping unexpectedly through the woods in the dark. This supposedly 6-mile loop (that wound up being closer to 8) had been pretty at sunset, but I’d been so busy trying not to get lost in the dark that first time that I wanted to try it again. And, I wanted to correct whatever error I’d made that tacked an extra 1.5ish miles onto the hike last time. So off I went to Hopkinton, MA, to hike the Whitehall State Park/Whitehall Reservoir Loop.

I studied the map at the trailhead intently to make sure I wouldn’t go astray this time. Above the map was a wooden sign that read “Reservoir Trail: 6-mile loop.” Excellent.

The first mile passed easily. I noted the dismal state of the trail, with needles and roots and dried leaves making footing uneasy, and evidence of recent nor’easters that had toppled many a large tree onto the path. The lake shimmered with that wonderful sky-reflection shade of blue, and my phone buzzed occasionally with happy birthday messages. I stopped to snap a pic to tell a couple of friends who’d asked what I was up to:

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It felt so odd to be in the sun that I was squinting too. 🙂

Anyway, the trail around Whitehall Reservoir is pretty varied; sometimes it’s a road, sometimes it’s nothing more than a foot of packed dirt hugging a steep slope next to the water. It requires attention even though it’s not particularly hard. I noted right away that this was the kind of trail that would get me and my bum ankle if I wasn’t careful.

At almost exactly the 1.5 mark, I started to feel pretty good, and figured I’d pick up the pace at 2 miles and get my heart rate going a bit more. My legs felt strong and I looked up to check out the view and then rrrrwomp…over went my ankle.

Those who know me know this happens often; the remnants of a high school basketball injury that comes back to haunt me, usually just when I’ve started to get cocky. It’s happened so often that I usually just swear loudly for a few minutes, hobble for a few steps, and then proceed under the assumption that it’ll work itself out. It usually does.

On this day, though, it didn’t. The initial pain subsided, but as I waded through muddy creekbeds and hopped over rocks, things hurt more than they usually did. My stride was off, and I saw each new patch of slippery leaves as another mine to be avoided, as it no doubt was hiding another tree root just waiting to take me down.

Oh, and that mud? It was gross enough to swallow the trail on more than one occasion, which meant getting pricked by spiky branches as we sought alternate routes, and having to yell at Sadie not to drink the stank water.

At 3.5 miles, just past my supposed halfway mark, I’d planned to stop and eat my sandwich. But there was nowhere to sit, the ground still being wet from recent rains, and the gorgeous views I’d been admiring earlier had receded into swampy woodlands. We pressed on, and as I eyed our progress around the reservoir, I started to suspect that my 6-mile loop was once again going to be more like 7.5.

Usually I love hiking alone in the woods with Sadie at my side. But this day, for some reason, I was feeling lonely, not an emotion I let myself experience very often. I was grumpy that it was my birthday and no one was hiking with me. I was pissed that I couldn’t let Sadie off leash because of the park rules. Those fluffy, nasty, gnat-like bugs swarmed along the trail just waiting to be inhaled. And to top it off, I’d worn the wrong socks; they were too thick, which made my boots fit too tightly…yeah, it was all a mess.

Fast forward to 5.5 miles, and everything hurt. I stopped looking at the views because I had to watch my feet and it was just swamp, anyway. (Not true, but by this point I wasn’t exactly feel charitable toward the Reservoir Loop.) My knees and back were most unhappy with me and there were still clearly a couple of miles to go. 6-mile loop, my ass.

I did stop to take in a couple of ducks swimming near a dock, and that was pretty. In fact, looking at it now, it was downright idyllic:

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But by that point, I just wanted to be done. I had plans for the evening, and the extra miles were making it likely that I’d be late. I needed to walk faster, but my legs were not having it. And with every ridge I cleared, there was another one standing between me and taking off my hiking boots and freeing my sore feet.

Finally, at long last, we made it back to the car and headed home; even Sadie sat quietly in the back of the car as if exhausted by a hike that should have been wonderful, but just wasn’t. As I hobbled up the stairs to my apartment and the bliss of a hot shower, I couldn’t help but chuckle that sometimes, no matter how perfect the blue sky might seem, the universe just doesn’t give us what we think we need. Was that rolled ankle a sign that I should have turned back, driven home, and watched some Netflix for my birthday instead of pushing through 7.5 miles of woods?

Maybe. But as I think about it now, I think it’s a good lesson in reality. While hiking may be therapy for many of us, sometimes, therapy just doesn’t work. But hopefully we choose to go back for the next session, because, well, we need it, and the alternative is worse.

So take heart, fellow hikers, if you’ve been feeling like everyone else’s adventures are so much better than yours. I promise, it’s not all as perfect as it seems. There are bugs and mud and fallen trees and rolled ankles. And supposedly 6-mile loops that are clearly longer. I still don’t know why the trail is mis-marked (or where I went wrong in my trail-finding), but it’s a good thing I was so tired, and running so late. Otherwise, I might have taken out my Swiss Army Knife and fixed that damn 6-mile loop sign myself. With my luck I’d have been arrested for defacing state property. 🙂

Location: Whitehall Reservoir, Hopkinton, MA
Date: March 31, 2018
Distance: 7.81 miles
Wildlife: Squirrels, ducks, dogs, and the occasional human
Notes: If you see someone who looks like they know the area, ask about the 6 mile loop. Or prepare for 7.5.

Kilauea Iki Crater Trail: #hike6 of the #52hikechallenge

Let’s talk craters y’all. Like actual real volcanic craters in the earth that still have steam coming out of them. Did you know there are such places that have hiking trails into and around them? I didn’t, but I do now!

Every book or blog about the Big Island says that Kilauea Iki Crater in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is one of its best hikes. I was a little dubious coming in because it was only 4ish miles long and it seemed like much of it was on flat terrain. But I couldn’t deny the coolness of descending into a volcanic crater. It was pouring rain, and it was still awesome. I guess that’s the mark of a great hike.

Speaking of pouring rain, on the east/Hilo side of the Big Island, it apparently rains all. the. time. We were there for 3 full days and it rained steadily. But that didn’t stop us.

The us, in this case, is me and my former college roommate. Since today is International Women’s Day, I feel justified in pausing for a moment to reflect on us two women, and the fact that, on this trip, we realized that we’ve been friends for 23 years. We met when I was a sophomore and she was a freshman in college. We are partners in pale skin and curly hair, though I think she looks more like a greek goddess with her blond curls and great smile. Though we haven’t lived in the same state since a brief NJ stint in 2003, we’ve managed to stay in touch through good times and bad. She’s smart and awesome and beautiful, and I’m grateful for our long friendship.

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This is us at the start of the Crater hike, when the dripping rain was more of a fun challenge than a pain in the butt.

Anyway, the hike began in the pouring rain. We chose the counterclockwise route, which I would highly recommend. The first section is along the Crater Rim Trail, a mostly flat trail that should, per its name, offer amazing views of the Crater and its rim. For us, the views lacked a certain…something.

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As you can see, the rain cloud was basically right on top of us. Eventually, we were able to see a bit more of the crater, and if you look carefully, you can see the trail way down below; that faint white line in the grey.

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The Crater Rim Trail actually goes for about 12 miles around the Crater itself, a hike I’d like to do someday when it’s not raining.

Pretty soon, we left the so-called views behind and found ourselves in what can only be called “lush rainforest”, filled with dripping greenery and huge fern plants.

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The descent through the forest was pretty easy. Eventually, we started clamoring down some steeper, clunkier rocks that likely give this hike it’s “moderate/strenuous” rating. If it’s not raining, there should be no issue, but in the rain, we had to pay close attention to our feet! We also had to go through that process of realizing that yes, our boots would grip the volcanic rock even though it looked black and slick and like it was ready to send us tumbling.

After just a few hundred feet of steep downhill, we emerged from the trees and found ourselves staring out at a vast, grey, steaming wasteland that looked like what I imagine the moon might look like, if it wasn’t white. This was like nothing I’d ever seen before; I stood in the rain and goggled. Because of the rain, I don’t have a lot of pictures of those first moments in the crater, but I did get this one; look at those red flowers springing up out of the rocks!

28423776_10155894307231900_6649769202190451279_oAfter we picked my jaw up from the crater floor, there was nothing for it but to strike out across the lava field, wending our way through craggy mounds of blackness. Ahu is apparently the Hawaiian word for cairn (piles of rocks used to mark trails); following the ahu led us down onto the flat, asphalt-like bottom of the crater, where the trail widens a bit. This terrain is not hard to walk on, but we did it at a snail’s pace because it was just so amazing to look around at the landscape. Parts of the lava looked like it had just broken apart in an earthquake, other parts were smooth and rounded, and steam vents dotted the terrain. For a brief moment, it stopped raining and we were able to get a few good pictures, and we both remarked that we felt like we were about to either win a prize or get eaten by a monster in a Young Adult dystopian novel.

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It started raining again as we neared the end of the lava field, and then it was back into the forest, but this time the trail up was a series of gentle switchbacks rather than steep rocks. From here we got the clearest view of the Crater yet.

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As the switchbacks ended, we found ourselves in a busy parking lot near the Thurston Lava Tube, so we added that the hike.

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This is a short little walk through a dark lava tube, which was fun, but would have been more fun if we’d not gotten caught in the middle of a senior citizen tour group. Several of the group were wearing bike helmets, and it took us a second to realize it was because there was a chance they might bump their heads. This seemed like an overabundance of caution, but it was still pretty cool that they all found their way down the steep and slippery stairs into the tunnel. It was so loud and crowded in there that I was content to zip through pretty quickly. Then, it was back to the Crater Rim Trail for a final flat trek through the woods. There were some pretty cool views of the Crater from this side.

And then, we were done. By this point, we were both pretty soaked, even with raincoats and hats, so drying off in the car felt great. We drove to another lookout at the head of a different trail, where we could look down on what we’d just hiked from a different angle. Can you see the tiny, tiny person in an orange jacket down there?

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The moral of the Kilauea Iki Crater hike? Don’t let rain stop you. Though I would have loved to see this place in the sunshine (you can check out this flickr gallery if you’d like to as well), it was still an astonishing journey through landscape I’d never seen before. I was exhilarated when I was done even though it wasn’t a huge challenge for my legs. I would do it again in a second.

Summary: Hike 6 of the 52 hike challenge (read more about the challenge here)

Location: Volcano National Park, Hawaii.
Date: February 25, 2018
Distance: 4.4 miles
Wildlife: None except for whatever rustled the leaves in the forest part of the hike.
Notes: Do the hike counterclockwise. If it’s sunny, sunscreen, water, and a hat would be a must for the crater floor. And always remember:

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Polulu Valley, Hawaii: #hike7 of the #52hikechallenge

Yes, I know I skipped #6. It was a great hike, in the rain, through a volcanic crater. I’ll get to it later, though, because hike #7 was one of my favorites this year so far. My photos from this hike, taken with my new wide angle prime lens, will tell the story.

First, some background. Polulu Valley Lookout is as far as one can drive on the north shore of Hawai’i, also known as the Big Island. Pololū means long spear, and carves a long cleave on the northern side of Kohala Mountain. The valley is at the head of the Kohala Coast, the oldest part of the island with deep valleys towering over picturesque beaches. Coming from the Kona coast, as I was, it’s a magnificent drive to get there, and the view from the lookout (which has minimal parking and no turnaround and therefore is full of vehicular confusion, to quote my guidebook) is pretty great.

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However, there are wonders to behold if you venture beyond the lookout.

Part 1: Switchbacks to the beach

The necessary disclaimers: this is not a hike for those with balance issues, mobility issues, fear of heights, or those not wearing sturdy/grippy shoes. This hike features steep rocky “trails”, abrupt and railing-less ledges, the potential for rock falls, muddy paths, and dangerous surf.

However, the results are worth it if you can pass up this wall of terror:

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The good news is, if the first 100 feet of steep rockiness freaks you out, you can get a much better view of the beach and the valley by stopping at one of the first overlooks on the trail. Take your picture and go back with no shame in your heart.

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If you continue on, you will switchback down the cliff trail pretty quickly, with incredible views at every turn. As you emerge from the jungle-like greenery, you’ll find yourself with a choice. To your left, a magnificent black sand beach with huge surf (at least it was huge the day I visited). To your right, a peaceful and majestic view up the valley. I was drawn to the valley, for obvious reasons:

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But the beach wasn’t too bad, either:

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A note of caution; don’t swim here. The waves are big, the rocks are substantial, and the current strong.

Just behind the beach is a fairy wonderland of dunes covered in ironwood trees; there are even a few rope swings among them. I have read differing accounts saying that the land behind the beach is private property, but many people seem to take the risk to venture back there. I wandered blissfully up and down the dunes for a while, gazing back down the valley, which seems almost too magical to be real:

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Part 2: Up the cliff to the 2nd lookout

Eventually, I found my way to the beginning of the second part of the trail:

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This section was glorious and far too short: strolling on black sand among lush greens with the sea roaring to the left.

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Abruptly, the trail changed and became dense with greenery, steep, muddy, rocky, and very narrow.

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Here, the sea breeze goes away and the humidity sets in. Basically, you are heading up the steep green “cliff” that you viewed from atop the first overlook. The uphill quotient is fairly significant, but everyone I passed assured me that it was worth it. 600 vertical feet of switchbacks will eventually lead you to the top of the cliff above the second “valley” along the coast, called Honakane Nuie.

My pictures don’t seem to adequately capture the wow factor of emerging, sweaty and panting, from the trees to encounter this view:

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I guess you’ll have to see it for yourself someday. There are two lovely benches at the overlook, which beg the tired hiker to sit and contemplate, but beware of the wind, which could snatch an unwary selfie-taker’s phone right out of her hand.

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I met a couple who went beyond this overlook to the next beach; the continuation of this hike requires ropes and ladders to complete it, which wasn’t on my agenda, especially since I was alone and this trail struck me as relatively poorly maintained.

The return hike was much faster heading down, and emerging from the vegetation onto the beach was breathtaking:

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Speaking of breathtaking, hiking back up the switchbacks to the parking area was pretty tough for me. That final uphill is the 5th mile, so the rocks can seem pretty formidable. Luckily, there are a lots of places to stop and “admire the view” while catching your breath.

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Final thoughts

I’ve seen a lot of beautiful places in the these past years of adventures. Polulu Valley is definitely in my top 5. The variation of landscapes on this hike – steep rocks, beach, peaceful valley, tree-filled glade, messy jungle trail, and sweeping vistas – they made the hike completely engaging and challenging enough to be interesting. Even on a hazy day, the colors and the views were incredible. I had heard that the Big Island was a “hikers paradise”, and I was skeptical, because most of the best hikes I’d read about involved just a mile or two of tramping to a beach and back. But this hike changed my tune. I recommend it unreservedly and only wish that I’d been able to bring some of you along with me to enjoy it. Though you might have had to wait for me at the top a bit as I plodded like molasses up the steep switchbacks. Slow and steady gets the views, right? 🙂

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PS: Thanks to the lovely lady from LA who offered to take my picture in the crazy wind. She got a kick out of my involuntary exclamation of “Ohhhhh, wow” when I came out of the trees onto the overlook. I guess I didn’t know I’d said it aloud until she laughed and said that’s exactly what she and her husband were thinking. 🙂

Summary: Hike 7 of the 52 hike challenge (read more about the challenge here)

Location: Polulu Valley Lookout, Kapaau, Hawaii.
Date: March 1, 2018
Distance: 4.4 miles
Wildlife: Birds
Notes: Parking is free at the Lookout, but crowded

 

 

Rocky Woods, Medfield, MA: #hike5 of the #52hike challenge

It’s tough to find hiking inspiration in Southern New England in February. If inspiration comes in the form of high mountains and grand vistas, that is. No, these months, for the outdoor adventurer not willing to drive 3 hours for an icy/snowy trek in the White Mountains – aka me – are about small hills, mud, and well, small hills and mud.

But the #52 Hike Challenge marches on, and I’m a couple of weeks behind, so I had to get out this weekend. I wanted 5ish miles, and I hoped to be able to let my dog off leash, which definitely limits the options even more. Thankfully, though, in Massachusetts we have a non-profit called the Trustees of Reservations. The best way to describe this org is to think of state parks, but privately managed. Estates and individuals donate their land to the Trustees, and the Trustees preserve and conserve it, with the caveat that it be made available for public use. There are more than 100 Trustees sites in Massachusetts – and I haven’t once visited one that wasn’t well-maintained and lovely.

And many of them allow dogs off leash, which is a wonder in Boston. If you are a bad dog owner, just pretend you didn’t read that last line, ok?

This weekend I tried a new site I hadn’t visited yet, called Rocky Woods, about 30 minutes away. It’s a very active site, with lots of event programming and plenty of family-friendly “hikes” that are little more than ambles around ponds. Still, by tracing my way around pretty much all the trails, I was able to put 6 miles under my legs, which felt marvelous after a week spent behind a desk. The miles were mostly flat, so there were lots of chances to look around and enjoy being in the woods. There was a “vista” atop Cedar Hill at a whopping 435 feet:

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And a frozen pond that was drowning the trail around it and the footbridge across it:

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I met some very nice people and pooches, and yes, there was some mud, but it wasn’t too bad. There was one trail that had a low coverage of pine needles, so there was some green to look at, which made me long all the more for spring and that magical neon green haze of new buds on the trees. The trails were well marked and maintained, and all in all I enjoyed myself, even if the hike wasn’t a great physical challenge. And then there were the the occasional woodland creatures we ran into:

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There were at least three of these reindeer? critters. Sadie ignored most of them, but the final one, which was standing in the ice on the aforementioned drowned trail, definitely got her attention, so much that she barked a few times at it. A thing to note about dogs off leash here; they are allowed, but there are several sections that are posted as on-leash. I actually think that’s a great way to manage it, because a lot of these sites could be full of people, particularly kiddos, on nice days.

Next weekend, my photos will change a bit as I’ll be continuing the 52 Hike Challenge from the island of Hawai’i! See you then.