Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Cumberland Island

Hike: Cumberland Island
Location: Cumberland Island National Seashore
Nearby Town: St Marys, GA
Elevation (Max): Negligible
Elevation Gained: Negligible
Mileage: 16.7
Difficulty: Moderate
Trailhead: Cumberland Island is Georgia's southernmost barrier island and is only accessible by ferry. The ferry departs from St Marys' waterfront. To reach the ferry: Take Exit 3 off I-95, Head E on Hwy 40, Follow Hwy 40 until it ends at the waterfront in downtown St Marys, the National Park Service building and ferry are on the waterfront. Parking is available along the street.
Fees: To preserve the ecosystem of Cumberland Island, the number of daily visitors is limited to 300, so you must make a ferry reservation, and if you plan on camping you have to make a reservation for that, too. The ferry ride costs $17 round trip for an adult, $12 for children, and $15 for seniors. The fee for the developed campground is $4. The fee for backcountry camping is $2. Furthermore, everyone visiting the island must pay a $4 entrance fee (fee waived for those under 16)

Cumberland Island is a truly extraordinary place. Some of the majestic things you can see during your visit include sea turtles, dolphins swimming close to shore, bobcats, pelicans diving into the water, wild horses, and the ruins of a Carnegie mansion. Because there is a lot involved in visiting Cumberland Island, such as the logistics of a daytrip or camping, rules, geography, and things to see, I strongly suggest you do some research before making the trip. A good place to start is the National Park Service website linked above. More information is available on Wikipedia.

E and I made this trip in a 19-hour drive from Connecticut during our senior year spring break. We arrived in St Marys for the 9am ferry and had a few minutes to kill before the ferry departed so we stopped in one of the restaurants on the waterfront and got a couple sandwiches to take with us for lunch. We noticed people milling about by the ferry so we joined them, and a ranger was outlining some of the rules and regulations of the island. While standing there listening to the ranger's talk, we came under attack by a vicious army of no-see-ums, which are tiny, annoying midges. They were so intolerable, I began entertaining the idea of giving up on this whole adventure, and getting right back in my car. Fortunately, once the boat got underway, the no-see-ums ceased their attack, and I am very happy to say that they were nowhere to be found on Cumberland Island. The ferry ride is 45 minutes along a winding river (appropriately named Crooked River) and then up Cumberland Sound. It first made a stop near the Dungeness Ruins (an old Carnegie mansion), which is where many of the daytrippers departed. After, the ferry continued up the coast to the Sea Camp Dock, where we disembarked.

Cumberland Island Ferry

Pelican in St. Marys

From the dock, it is a short walk to the Sea Camp, which is the developed campground on the island with toilets, running water, and showers. Also at the Sea Camp dock is the ranger station where backcountry campers have to check in. There are four backcountry camps, and you must sign up for your desired camp at the check in on a first reserved, first choose basis. Luckily, E and I were one of the first groups to make our reservation so we got our desired campsite, Stafford Beach. Stafford is the closest backcountry camp to the Sea Camp dock (3.5 miles). The other camps, in order from nearest to furthest, are Hickory Hill (5.5 miles), Yankee Paradise (7.5 miles), and Brickhill Bluff (10.5 miles).

Oaks and Spanish Moss at Sea Camp Dock

After checking in and getting our backcountry tag, we set out down the main road, Grand Avenue, which is a crushed stone road that extends from the Dungeness Ruins in the south of the island to the northern terminus. Occasionally, we had to move aside to allow pickup trucks through because, though this is a national seashore, there is an inn on the island (the beautiful Greyfield) and a handful of private residences that were grandfathered into the park boundaries. E and I were very excited at the prospect of seeing wild horses, but the first wildlife we saw (aside from several pelicans on the boat ride over) was an armadillo. E and I being New Englanders, we found the armadillos to be magical, exotic creatures, and a thrilling sight. We took Pratt's Trail as a shortcut to the Stafford Camp, and almost immediately after leaving the main road we came upon two wild horses grazing in the woods. It was pretty awesome--E was particularly excited. Although they were wild, they paid no attention to us and just kept right on chowing down, and we waited for them to move away from the trail before proceeding to our campsite.

On Grand Avenue on the way to Stafford Beach

Armadillo! We would see dozens more before our trip was done

A horse on Pratt's Trail

Another horse on Pratt's

Although the Stafford Beach camp is listed on the park map as backcountry/undeveloped, it is essentially a developed campground like Sea Camp, with the exception that its water is a bit sulfuric (Sea Camp's water is treated), so filtering the water would be a good idea. Other than the water, though, Stafford has about a half dozen tent sites with fire pits for each, men's and women's restrooms, and cold showers. We pitched our tent, dumped all the stuff we wouldn't need for walking around the island into the tent, and then set out exploring. The great advantage of Stafford Beach is, you guessed it, it's next to a beach. It's about a five minute walk from the camp through the pretty impressive dunes to the beach. And my, what a beach. E and I are big beach people, but New England beaches are very different from what we found here. For one, beaches in New England tend to be small, as in there isn't much real estate from dunes to water, but the beach at Cumberland has probably about a football field's length of beach between the dunes and the ocean. Another difference: we are used to going to the beach and sharing it with dozens or even hundreds of other people, but when we emerged from the dunes onto the beach, we looked right, looked left, and didn't see a soul. It doesn't get much better than that.

Our tent site at Stafford Beach with fire ring and makeshift bench

Pitched the tent

Stafford Beach

We decided we would do the 3.2 mile walk on the beach down to the Sea Camp beach access (beach access trails are marked with black and white striped poles on the dunes). Along the way we saw a group of dolphins swimming just off shore, pelicans plummeting into the water for fish, and a very large washed up buoy. When we got to the Sea Camp access, we turned inland, climbed on the most gnarly tree I've ever seen, and walked through Sea Camp until we reached Grand Avenue. We then turned left (south) to walk down to the Dungeness Ruins. About halfway there, the Nightingale Trail breaks off on the left, which we took to do a loop to the Dungeness (we returned via the main road, Grand Avenue). You are not allowed to go into the Dungeness Ruins, but it was not hard to enjoy it from the outside, especially with a couple armadillos chasing each other around the grounds for entertainment.

Some dolphins

Big washed up buoy

Sea Camp beach access with striped pole

Boardwalk over the dunes to Sea Camp

Awesome tree, some of its branches travel underground

Grand Avenue


Dungeness from the main road

We then began the 4.5 mile hike back to our camp at Stafford Beach. We began on Grand Avenue, but decided to take a different route from before so we turned right onto the Parallel Trail which is a smaller hiking trail that basically parallels the main road. At this point, E and I were getting very hungry and tired, and the hike seemed much longer than it felt before, so we felt a thrilling relief when we finally arrived back at camp. We quickly put the rice and beans on the stove (an MSR PocketRocket), built a campfire, and kicked off our boots. I don't know if rice and beans ever tasted so good. Once the sun went down we walked down to the beach to stargaze, but unfortunately, we had a full moon which outshone everything else, but was plenty impressive in itself. When we got back to our tent, we packed everything away and fell asleep almost instantly. I was pretty amazed at how well I slept that night considering I did not have a sleeping pad, but since the ground is a little sandy, I think that made for a comfortable sleep. I did wake up at about 4:30am, though, to the sound of a pack of coyotes yipping and howling, which was a little unsettling, but mostly just a neat experience. In the morning we took very quick cold showers (nothing is better for promoting water conservation than the lack of heat) to make ourselves acceptable for the public since we were leaving the island and driving up to Savannah. Once we packed everything up, we walked back down Grand Avenue to the Sea Camp dock where we waited for our ferry, checked back in with the ranger, and enjoyed granola bars on the deck of the ranger station. The ferry ride back was very relaxing--I fell asleep for some of it--and our last view of Cumberland Island was of a horse walking along the shore on the marsh part of the island. This is a wonderful place.

The Parallel Trail back to Stafford Beach

Horse walking down the road

Making dinner

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Monument Mountain

Hike: Monument Mountain
Location: Monument Mountain
Nearby Town: Great Barrington, MA
Elevation (Max): 1,642'
Elevation Gained: 720'
Mileage: 3
Difficulty: Moderate to Strenuous
Trailhead: From intersection of Rts. 7 and 102 in Stockbridge center (Accessible from either Exit 1 or Exit 2 off I-90, the Massachusetts Turnpike), Take Rte. 7 South and follow for 3 mi, Entrance and parking are on right. From Great Barrington, Take Rte. 7 North and follow for 4 mi. to entrance and parking on left.

This hike is in a different league from any of the previous ones I've done. Not only is it more than 1,000 feet higher in elevation than previous hikes, but it also features several cliffs, which present no danger as long as a little common sense is used (i.e. don't walk off them). E and I did this hike with our good friend Wanda while we were all on our way to the Hudson River Valley to celebrate a friend's birthday. Seeing as her birthday is February 4, and this hike is in the Southern Berkshires, we knew we had some cold to deal with. First, though, a little background.

Monument Mountain is another beautiful area, like Noanet Woodlands, maintained and protected by the Trustees of Reservations. The reservation sees a lot of visitors averaging about 20,000 per year. Since we were hiking in the dead of winter with about ten inches of snow on the ground, though, we only encountered one other person on the hike, a snowshoer (and his dog). Perhaps the most famous visitors to the mountain, though, were Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne who made the trek together in August, 1850. When a thunderstorm struck, they sought refuge in a cave where they had a vigorous discussion that helped inspire ideas for Melville's new book, Moby Dick.

There were no thunderstorms for our hike, but it was awfully cold. My thermometer read 22 at the base, but the stiff wind brought the wind chill down to the single digits (and, of course, less on the summit). The hike, however, was absolutely gorgeous and thoroughly enjoyable. There are basically two ways to ascend Monument Mountain, Indian Monument Trail (the long way) or the Hickey Trail (the short way). The former makes a loop around to the west side of the mountain which is significantly less steep than the almost sheer east side which the Hickey Trail ascends. Whichever trail you choose, you will need to take the Squaw Peak Trail to actually reach the summit.

We decided to do a circuit of all three trails, ascending via the Hickey Trail, taking the Squaw Peak Trail to the summit and Squaw Peak (a rocky outcropping), and descending via the Indian Monument Trail. Therefore, at the trailhead, take a right. The trail, despite what the topographical maps seem to indicate was not overly steep. In fact, we found the trail to be surprisingly easy. This was probably the result of two forces at work. First, the beauty and quiet of a snow covered mountain forest is breathtaking and helps to soften the pain and burning of a strenuous climb. Second, as I mentioned earlier, we were hiking on a thick snow cover, which was somewhat packed down on the trail, but since it was not hard packed, it provided protection from tripping on roots and rocks without the downside of lost traction. It's amazing how much energy you save when you aren't constantly dodging roots and rocks. Also, despite the fact that we could see the very steep sides of the mountain looming above us for almost the entire ascent, we seemed to reached the summit without confronting them--very clever trail placement.

The Hickey Trail is pretty easy to follow; there are no intersecting trails until you reach the junction with Indian Monument and Squaw Peak. Along the way, we enjoyed the beautiful streams running through the snow, caves covered in icicles, and drooping evergreen boughs covered in snow. When you reach the junction with Indian Monument and Squaw Peak, keep left on Squaw Peak which will take you to the true summit (1,642') and beautiful Squaw Peak (1,640'). From Squaw Peak you can see the Catskills to the west, Berkshires all around you, and north to Mount Greylock near the Vermont border. Once you've soaked in all the beauty you can, continue hiking in the same direction as before (south) which will descend pretty steeply for a little bit until you reach Indian Monument Trail at which point you will want to go left to return to the parking lot. Below are a bunch of photos from our hike. Enjoy.

At the start. Brrrrr, handwarmers a must

Beauty along the Hickey Trail

Multicolored icicles and a cave

Nearing the Squaw Peak Trail

Mount Greylock to the north

Officially summitted

Looking west to the Catskills in the distance

Be careful of steep dropoffs

On Squaw Peak

Looking east at the near hills

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Noanet Woodlands

Hike: Noanet Peak
Location: Noanet Woodlands
Nearby Town: Dover, MA
Elevation (Max): 387'
Elevation Gained: 220'
Mileage: 2
Difficulty: Easy
Trailhead: Take Exit 16B off I-95, Head W on High St (Rte 109), R on Summer St, Slight L on Westfield St, Slight L on Dedham St, Park in Caryl Park on the L, Trailhead is at the back of the open field on the left.

The Noanet Woodlands is one of the many natural areas in Massachusetts maintained and protected by The Trustees of Reservations, a large private group of citizens dedicated to a worthy cause. Noanet is a 595 acre park with 17 miles of trails. This hike is a pretty quick out and back to Noanet Peak, which, at 387', would not be very notable if not for its impressive views of the Boston skyline 13 miles away. E and I did this hike in winter with a significant snow cover on the ground which made the hike much more difficult than it would be in warmer weather. If cross-country skiing is your thing, though, we saw several ski tracks in the snow so it appears many people take advantage of Noanet's trails for some winter recreation. The presence of cross-country skiers should provide some indication of how flat most of the trails are in the park. It's not until the final approach to Noanet Peak that the trail steepens (and becomes extremely difficult in a two steps forward one step backward kind of way when hiking in snow).

Our route for this hike was quite simple. We took the Caryl Trail, which brings you most of the way to Noanet Peak. Noanet Woodlands uses a numbered trail junction system so to get to the Peak you want to follow Caryl Trail (yellow blazed) until you get to junction 6 at which point the Caryl Trail turns right. To reach the peak, continue straight ahead. The peak provides nice views to the east including Boston in the distance to the northeast. E and I tried to squeeze this hike in after classes on a winter day which meant we began to run out of daylight so the Boston skyline was difficult to distinguish, but the hike was certainly still worth it. I am very fond of hiking through the snow despite how difficult it was to gain traction near the peak. It is much more scenic to hike and a nice thick snow cover eliminates the need to worry about rocks and roots tripping you up. When you've had your fill of the view, return the way you came. Below are some photos from our hike. Please forgive the poor quality; the light was low, we had a Gorillapod mishap involving my camera plunging lens first into the snow, and my hands were cold. Excuses, excuses.

Boston just barely visible

E fashioned her scarf into a lovely headdress to keep her ears warm

A couple shot featuring a smudge from the camera's snow encounter

Blue Hills (Chickatawbut and Buck Hill)

Hike: Chickatawbut Hill and Buck Hill
Location: Blue Hills Reservation
Nearby Town: Milton, MA
Elevation (Max): 496'
Elevation Gained: 340'
Mileage: 1.5
Difficulty: Easy to Moderate (steep ascent of Buck Hill)
Trailhead: Take Exit 6 off I-93, Head N on Granite St, After 1000' Take L on Chickatawbut Rd, Park at the Chickatawbut Overlook, Trailhead heads up hill opposite the view

This is the final unique hike I did in the Blue Hills, so future posts will have significantly more variety. This post features two quick hikes that can be done easily in succession, or you can choose to just do one for a quick jaunt. I drove between the two hikes because it was getting late, but if you have the time and energy, a nice way to enjoy both of these hikes is to follow the Skyline Trail (I outlined the Western Loop here), which connects them.

After enjoying the lovely view of downtown Boston from the overlook, cross the road and head up the trail. You will quickly come upon a firetower, which was closed when E and I did this hike, but there are better views ahead so we didn't lament the lack of firetower views for too long. The trail splits at the tower, keep left (you can go either way actually since it's a loop, but we kept left). Within no time the views of Boston behind you will start opening up. If it's just the views you're after you can turn back here, but we continued along the trail heading into the woods. At intersection 3090, keep right and soon enough you will be back to the firetower and your car.

To get to Buck Hill, which just might be my favorite hill in the Blue Hills, continue driving in the same direction as before (west) and take a left onto Randolph Ave (Rte 28). After about half a mile, you will see the parking area on the right. If my memory is correct, it's just a wide shoulder, but I believe it is marked. If you get to the Interstate, you've gone too far.

Buck Hill is a quick and straight, up and down trail, but the joy of the hike is in the summit. Unlike the other summits in the Blue Hills I've hiked, Buck Hill's summit is almost completely void of trees, and if you exclude saplings, then it is completely void. I'm not aware of an explanation for this characteristic (fire, perhaps?), but it sure makes for fantastic 360 degree views. Furthermore, despite the fact that Buck Hill is 139' shorter than Great Blue Hill (and more than that when you factor in GBH's firetower), the view of Boston seems more impressive. This is probably partly a consequence of the lack of trees, but I think the greater contributor might be the fact that Buck Hill is a bit closer to downtown Boston than GBH. After taking in the views and placing rocks on the cairn on the summit, we began the steep descent back to our car for a trip to, you guessed it, Minerva Indian Cuisine--I got the chicken vindaloo and E got the chicken tikka masala. Below are some photos from the trip.

The view from Chickatawbut Hill

Placing our rocks on Buck Hill's cairn as the sun sets

E and I taking a breather on Buck Hill

The view of Boston from the relatively naked summit of Buck Hill

Friday, January 22, 2010

Great Blue Hill

Hike: Great Blue Hill (Red Dot Trail)
Location: Blue Hills Reservation
Nearby Town: Milton, MA
Elevation (Max): 635'
Elevation Gained: 395'
Mileage: 1.6
Difficulty: Moderate (steep but short)
Trailhead: Take Exit 3 off I-93, Head N on Blue Hill River Rd, Turn L on Hillside St, Turn R on Rte 138, 2 Parking Lots on R, Trailhead in back of first lot

As I said before, E and I hiked in the Blue Hills many times. This is a quick, but relatively strenuous hike we did a few times (including once when the trail was snow-covered despite the 60 degree temperatures in early spring). This hike follows the red dot trail for a head-on assault of Great Blue Hill. This is a good hike for a picnic as there are a handful of picnic tables on the summit next to the firetower. On busy days, though, you might have some stiff competition for those tables. At the trailhead there is a Trailside Museum with some snacks for sale, and a small wildlife exhibit with otters, birds, deer, etc. Below are some pictures from two different outings on this hike. One was the winter hike mentioned above and another was a nice spring hike.

View from the firetower toward the east

E and I getting our picnic on

Follow the Red Dot Trail

Boston Harbor

Blue Hills Western Skyline Loop

Hike: West Skyline Tail Loop
Location: Blue Hills Reservation
Nearby Town: Milton, MA
Elevation (Max): 635'
Elevation Gained: ~680
Mileage: 2.5 miles
Difficulty: Easy to Moderate (steep climb to Great Blue Hill summit)
Trailhead: Take Exit 3 off I-93, Head N on Blue Hill River Rd, Turn R on Hillside St, 2 Parking Lots on R, Trailhead near Park HQ

I went to college outside Boston, so the Blue Hills Reservation was a go-to hike. This 7,000 acre park, a collection of 22 big hills (up to 635') just outside Boston overlooking the city and the harbor, is a real treasure for the people in the Boston metro area. My hiking partner, E, and I would head out here for a hike whenever we had the time and good weather. There are numerous trails in the park, but the main trail, and most ambitious, is the Skyline Trail. The Skyline Trail traverses the park on an east-west orientation for a distance of 9 miles.

This hike heads up into the woods from Hillside St. near the Reservation HQ. The trail is a 2.5 mile loop on the western section of the Skyline Trail that hits the following hills, in order: Houghton Hill, Great Blue Hill, Wolcott Hill, Hemenway Hill, and Hancock Hill. These trails are very well marked using a numbered intersection system to keep you from getting lost, or, if you do, to set you straight quickly. E and I went on this hike on a warm day in early May. The main drawback of Blue Hills is that, due to its location within the Boston metro area, it can become overcrowded, especially on the first warm days of spring.

We made pretty quick work of the hike with a brief stop on the summit of Great Blue Hill where there is a firetower that provides great panoramic views of Boston to the north, the harbor and islands to the east, and, on a clear day, Mount Monadnock in New Hampshire to the northwest. We also stopped in at the weather observatory where we picked up some granola bars. There are also bathrooms at the observatory. On the summits of each hill we took in the views, and especially enjoyed the dramatic color gradation between the dark green conifers and the light green of the newly sprouting deciduous leaves. After the hike, as was our Blue Hills post-hike tradition, we got Indian take-out from Minerva Indian Cuisine in Norwood. Below are some pictures from the outing.
Boston Skyline from Great Blue Hill firetower

Light/dark green Great Blue Hill from Wolcott Hill

Let's Begin

After reading an article in Backpacker magazine in which people had their lifetime miles listed, I decided I would start keeping track of mine. Instead of just using a boring Excel spreadsheet, though, I decided to blog my hiking log. This way, I can include things like photos, elevation profiles, and maps in my log, which will be helpful to me, and to anyone who is interested in recreating any of my trips. Since I'm starting this blog a couple years after I started my hiking hobby, the first several posts will be about older hikes. So now, let's hit the trail.