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Hiking the Trails of Mount Wachusett

On every side, the eye ranged over successive circles of towns, rising one above another, like the terraces of a vineyard, till they were lost in the horizon. Wachusett is, in fact, the observatory of the State. There lay Massachusetts, spread out before us in its length and breadth, like a map. There was the level horizon, which told of the sea on the east and south, the well-known hills of New Hampshire on the north, and the misty summits of the Hoosac and Green Mountains, first made visible to us the evening before, blue and unsubstantial, like some bank of clouds which the morning wind would dissipate, on the northwest and west. These last distant ranges, on which the eye rests unwearied, commence with an abrupt boulder in the north, beyond the Connecticut, and travel southward, with three or four peaks dimly seen. But Monadnock, rearing its masculine front in the northwest, is the grandest feature.

As we beheld it, we knew that it was the height of land between the two rivers, on this side the valley of the Merrimack, or that of the Connecticut, fluctuating with their blue seas of air,—these rival vales, already teeming with Yankee men along their respective streams, born to what destiny who shall tell? Watatic, and the neighboring hills in this State and in New Hampshire, are a continuation of the same elevated range on which we were standing. But that New Hampshire bluff,–that promontory of a State,—lowering day and night on this our State of Massachusetts, will longest haunt our dreams.
” — Henry David Thoreau, A Walk to Wachusett

Mount Wachusett is a glaciated monadnock, standing 2006 feet tall. Like her neighbor to the northwest, Mount Monadnock in New Hampshire, Mount Wachusett stands watch over the landscape that bows before her. You can’t talk about one mountain without mentioning the other, for they are forever kindred spirits in the landscape. Both mountains are uniquely positioned so that their waters flow to the Merrimack River from one side and to the Connecticut River from the other. The waters from each river run in my blood, which made a hike to the summit a sort of homecoming for me. And yet, for all the hikes I’ve done on Monadnock, I’d never hiked Wachusett.

This was a month where the weather continued to disappoint those who dream of deep snow drifts, while thrilling those who pine for a mild winter. Count me in the camp of the former: I wanted nothing more than to fly across snow plains this winter. A heavy snowfall the day before offered one last chance for the month. But it was quickly apparent that this was a micro spike hike, and the snow shoes were left behind yet again.

From the Visitor’s Center, you can easily summit Mount Wachusett in under 30 minutes. But that wasn’t our goal. Instead we took the Bicentennial Trail around the eastern slope to High Meadow Trail, up through a stand of Hemlocks to the Pine Hill Trail. Fluffy snow over ice creates uncertain footing, and we slowed our pace to mitigate the risk of injury. For a time, the only break in the trail ahead was from a porcupine, who’s distinct tail marked the trail in footprints and swirly plows. It seems most people cut to the chase and scramble up the mountain. We were more inclined to linger with it, to get to know it better. To feel what Thoreau felt when he and Richard Fuller hiked here from Concord, set up their tent atop the lonely summit, and had the place to themselves for a night.

Wachusett’s summit has changed since Thoreau’s time. There’s a ski slope on one side, there’s a mountain road you can drive up in the warmer months to see the view without earning it, and there’s ample parking for those cars. A few towers, including an observation tower, complete the scene. I wonder, reading Thoreau’s account, where did they pitch their tent and read Virgil by the light of a summer full moon?

Winter snow obscures much of the impact of man, but you’re still clearly in a manmade world when you’re on the summit of Mount Wachusett. To return to nature you must seek the trails that criss-cross around the reservation. But the views are largely the same as they were for Thoreau’s 180 years ago. Just as it was for him, Monadnock stands prominently as the grandest feature of the 360 degree view.

Inevitably we left with more to see, trails and old growth forest to explore another day. For this day I found what I was looking for. Time with an old friend hiking trails I’d always meant to get to one day. And a glimpse into a world Thoreau would find both foreign yet comfortably familiar. Wachusett is timelessly accessible, but somehow always felt apart from the mountains I sought out. We finally got acquainted with one another.

Summit tower, Mount Wachusett
Distinctive porcupine tracks mark the trail
Plenty of exposed granite despite the snow
Which way do we go? Plenty of choices.

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