Sunday, August 30, 2015

Trail Running Acadia

Mount Desert Island in Maine is a true runner’s paradise. With all the carriage trails and hiking trails of Acadia National Park, the many adjacent town trails that connect to them, and miles of less-travelled back roads and side paths, there really is something for everyone, with all kinds of scenery types and at every skill level.

I was lucky enough to grow up on the island, where I developed lasting loves both of the trails and of running. By the time I graduated from high school, I had run or hiked every existing mile of trail or carriage trail that I knew of (I had an AMC map with every last trail line colored orange). My mother still lives there and I try to get back once or twice a year, though often those visits are far too short. 

This summer, Jen and I set aside a full week and made a legitimate vacation out of it. Our visit came on the heels of several very exhausting (yet excellent) days in the White Mountains (see separate post here), and also it was the hottest week of the summer, so our outdoor adventure days were interspersed with low-key rest and relaxation days.

lounging at the Blagden Preserve on the island's quiet side

After spending a day basking by the shore far away from the crowds at The Nature Conservancy’s Blagden Preserve in Somesville, we dipped our toes in the carriage trail waters by running the 4-mile Witch Hole Pond / Paradise Hill loop from Duck Brook Bridge. As always on the carriage trails, the running was fairly mellow despite the rolling hills. The soft dirt roadbed is easy on the body, and the occasional scenic views are definitely easy on the soul. We ran slow and steady, shaking some of the White-Mountains-induced soreness out of our legs. Then we soaked our feet in the amazingly warm stream below the bridge afterwards, and were amazed that there wasn’t a single mosquito or blackfly to tarnish the moment.

The first classic singletrack trail run we did was a short 4-mile loop up and over Cedar Swamp Mountain. Starting at the Gate House parking area just up the hill from Northeast Harbor, we followed the Upper Hadlock Carriage Road north to the waterfall bridge, where we then started hiking up the rooty Hadlock Brook Trail. I was very pleased to see that the rootiest section of trail I know of anywhere is currently receiving a much-needed makeover. Trail crews are hard at work creating a new switchback near the junction with the trail (that we took) leading south up to Birch Spring. At Birch Spring we took a right and climbed the last little steep pitch to the summit of Cedar Swamp Mtn. After enjoying the late afternoon views, we headed off for the very fun mile and a half or so descent down the south ridge. The footing alternates between bony granite ledge and soft, conifer needle coated forest duff, and we couldn’t keep ourselves from letting out little whoops and whees as we darted down the mountain and enjoyed occasional unnecessary springs off of boulders. At the bottom, we closed the loop with a short jog back along the Amphitheater Carriage Trail to the Gate House. This run was of course followed up by a refreshing swim in Echo Lake.

Trail running Cedar Swamp Mountain 

The next classic trail run involved the Cadillac South Ridge Trail. The day was warm and sunny to start, but we could tell that a persistent sea breeze was beginning to bring in some fog from over the ocean. Copying a really fun route my brother and I had devised a few years earlier, we left a car along Rte. 3 near Blackwoods Campground and had my mother shuttle us north up the road a few miles to just south of the Tarn. From the trailhead, the trail drops gently down the slope for a few tenths of a mile to a set of wooden bridges along a beaver dam and then connects with the Tarn Trail. Taking a left at that junction, we followed the flat (and recently well-renovated) Tarn Trail south for a mile or so. After beginning to climb, then curving right and passing junctions with the Dorr South Ridge and Canon Brook Trails, we started north up the mostly runnable A. Murray Young Path, which offers an excellent example of the frequently magnificent stonework along trails in Acadia. Well-placed rocks guide the way and provide amazingly flat footing as you slowly rise up the slope of the gorge between Cadillac and Dorr. Eventually you need to climb a short open talus section just south of the top of the saddle between the two mountains, but it’s always easily navigable (though it does help to use your hands in a few places). At the open area, we could see the fog beginning to surge in fast from the south.

fog rolling in

From the saddle, it’s a very strenuous 4-mile ascent up to the summit of Cadillac Mountain and all of its hoards of people. I wanted to buy a Snickers bar or something in the gift shop, but I swear the product selection in there is just about the worst I’ve ever seen. And no Snickers bars. Don’t tell me this was some attempt to offer healthy snacks to visitors, because I saw a lot of garbage for sale in there. Just… ugh. I started to get antsy in there right away and we just left and hit the trail again. 

surging over the summit

To reach the South Ridge Trail, and the highlight of the run, we followed the trail across the forested part of the summit to the open section near the Beech Hill overlook and the West Face Trail. From there, the next mile is simply glorious. Heading due south, the trail gently descends the wide-open granite ridgeline, offering a sort of natural pavement that feels like a real runner’s playground. It’s impossible to not catch yourself grinning and feeling extra bursts of energy. The fog had begun to sweep in over us, but on a clear day there are views far out to sea over the outer islands. After a steep drop down to a small saddle with a wetland called The Featherbed, the trail briefly rises again over a section of rugged ledge and then continues descending gently again, this time along the now slightly more vegetated but still semi-open ridge. If anything, this section is even more runnable than the previous one. Parts of it feel like a roller coaster and others remind me of carving soft turns while downhill skiing. After passing the Eagles Crag spur trail, it becomes fully forested and there are some rocks and roots to contend with, but time passed quickly and before we knew it we’d arrived back at our car.

running down the Cadillac South Ridge Trail

Our final trail run was a complex loop at Beech Cliffs and Beech Mountain that included running south along the Valley Trail and north up the well-switchbacked South Ridge Trail. The final push to the summit is steep and demanding, but the views northwest out over Long Pond near the end of this run are always breathtaking.

Beech Mountain vista panorama

We were very pleased with the routes we ran, but there are many other great ones out there (see map of the island here). Some fun routes to consider for trail running adventures on the island include: Pemetic Mountain (especially the south ridge), all trails on Sargent Mtn. (especially the South Ridge Trail and the one that passes by the swimmable Sargent Mtn. Pond), Penobscot Mountain, the North Ridge of Dorr Mtn., Champlain to the Beehive and Gorham, Western Mountain, the Asticou Trail, and the Around Mountain Carriage Trail, among others. You see the pattern here. Basically, any trail that trends north-south along a ridge on the island is fantastic for running (the ones through gorges and ravines are very scenic but not always as runnable so you need to choose wisely there).

a foggy carriage trail along Bubble Pond

Numerous guidebooks and websites have been written about the trails; two of my favorites are Tom St. Germain’s A Walk in the Park (Tom is an avid trail runner and skilled old trail finder) and Joe’s Guide to Acadia National Park by Joe Braun (he has some really fantastic photos too). The island is also home to a host of fantastic annual races, including the Northeast Harbor 5-Mile Road Race, the Bar Harbor Half-Marathon, and the Mount Desert Island Marathon.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Two White Mountain Treks

It feels like the White Mountains are constantly calling me back. Since I've lived in western Massachusetts, various circumstances have kept from from making the trip up (plus I've just genuinely enjoyed exploring and writing about new places around here), but this past week Jen and I got up there for two excellent days of mountain trekking as an active prelude at the start of a vacation that consisted mostly of a trip home to Mount Desert Island.

On the first day we hiked the classic 9-mile Franconia Ridge loop. We did it clockwise to give ourselves the hut on the way up and to give me a chance to soak my aching achilles in Dry Brook along the Falling Waters Trail on the way down. The weather generally cooperated, though the ridge was frequently in-and-out of the clouds every few minutes, and it did rain on us briefly somewhere just before the summit of Mt. Lincoln. Some photos from that day: 

On the second day we took advantage of stellar weather and headed for the Presidential Range. Back in 2006 I'd really enjoyed a hike with Pete and Doug going up Mt. Jefferson via the very remote, scenic, and challenging Castle Ravine Trail, and wanted to show Jen some of that coolness. We set out in running shoes with as minimal an amount of gear as we thought was safe, and headed up. There are about a dozen mandatory stream crossings on the route, and we chose to just splash right on through each one. This saved us time and allowed us to cool off each time. I even began to take my time at each crossing to enjoy the cold water even more. The ravine gets wilder and wilder as you go, eventually culminating in a brief foray through a mossy cold-air talus forest at the base of the headwall, where refrigerated air whooshes up out of dark spaces in the boulders below. That's followed by a very demanding climb up an occasionally loose open talus slope to Edmands Col between Mt. Jefferson and Mt. Adams. After that we descended via the Israel Ridge Path, grabbed a sunset dinner at a brewery tavern near Sunday River, then drove east to Mount Desert Island. Some photos from that day: 

 idyllic cascades along Castle Brook

 deep in Castle Ravine

climbing Castle Ravine

 at Edmands Col


Bonus Site: Kennedy Park to Yokun Ridge Connector

Two fantastic sites profiled in Trail Running Western Massachusetts, Kennedy Park (site #13) and Yokun Ridge (site #14), are actually linked by a network of unofficial trails. The trails cross private land, and as a result this area could not be described or mapped in the book. They are clearly well-maintained and regularly used, however, and make for very pleasant if somewhat challenging running. To stay clear of any potential trespass issues, it is probably safest to stick to the northernmost trails of the network. These trails can be run on their own, as extensions of the sites on either side, or as a link between the two sites as part of a very fun and varied long run.

site map

stunning eastward view from an unnamed ledge on the eastern side of Yokun Ridge

Trail tidbits: 
-Most of the trails are pretty easy to follow (though it can be somewhat hard to initially find them, especially on the eastern Kennedy Park side)
-These trails meander and switchback around a LOT, and it can take longer to get from point A to point B than you might expect
-Always obey any posted signs you many encounter

Friday, August 7, 2015

Bonus Site: Mormon Hollow at Wendell State Forest

My new guidebook Trail Running Western Massachusetts (click here to view the book's page on Amazon) profiles 51 of the best trail running sites in the region. It was a challenge to whittle the final list to be included in the book down to just 51 sites, and some sites that I really like or that would have been nice to include had to be cut for space. I occasionally post profiles of some of those "bonus sites" here and link to them from the book's Facebook page. (see the Chapel Brook to D.A.R. Trail post for a previous example).

In this case, the bonus site is a second sweet loop option at Wendell State Forest. The one profiled in the book, as Site #32, is a fantastic run that begins and ends in the Ruggles Pond / Park HQ area of the property. This loop is located just to the northeast, and can be accessed either from below at a small, very inconspicuous parking spot near the east end of Davis Road off of Farley Road, or from a more prominent (though not much larger) parking area by the boat launch at the north end of Wickett Pond. Beware that Wickett Pond Road can be extremely muddy in spring. 

The loop combines portions of four trails: the Mormon Hollow Trail, the Nipmuck Trail (not to be confused with the one in northeastern CT where the Nipmuck Trail Marathon takes place), the Maple Leaf Trail, and the Hannah Swarton Trail. The running is really good on all of them. There's a lot of swooping and curving and climbing/descending on switchbacks. The loop can be run just as easily in either direction and from either end, though the Nipmuck Trail portion is probably more fun to descend. There is one section of the Nipmuck Trail, just north of Baker Road, that can be a bit challenging to follow in late fall or early spring when the leaves are down, but it's much easier in summer. While there are no scenic vistas along the completely forested route, short side trips can take you to Wickett Pond and Whale's Head, a large boulder just uphill from the trail.

site map

(photo by Ben Kimball; copyright 2015)
Hannah Swarton Trail at Davis Road
(photo by Ben Kimball; copyright 2015)
Whale's Head at Wendell State Forest
(photo by Ben Kimball; copyright 2015)
Maple Leaf Trail along the edge of a wetland at Wendell State Forest

Monday, July 27, 2015

Vermont 100 photos

Early on the misty morning of July 18, hundreds of badass runners and riders (the horseback kind) set out to race a hundred miles, or in some cases a hundred kilometers (you know, just a mere 62 miles), in central Vermont, at one of New England's premier ultrarunning events, the Vermont 100 endurance race. It's one of the four "Grand Slam" ultra events in the U.S., and based on the number and steepness of the hills I saw just trying to photograph it, it's REALLY HARD!

The light was dim at 6 a.m. when I arrived at the Taftsville covered bridge at mile 15 of the hundred-mile race, which makes race photos tough since the shutter speed needs to be set so slow and the ISO set so high, but I still managed to eke out some fun shots like this one:

mile 15 of the VT 100 ultramarathon

volunteers from western MA's BURCS running club at the mile-16 aid station

Later, after a botched but enjoyable attempt to hike out to "Sound of Music Hill" (to protect private landowner privacy, there are no course maps for this race), I headed over to mile 49 just past Camp 10-Bear aid station and caught this shot of Scott Traer, the eventual winner of the men's full hundred race: 

Scott Traer, overall winner of the 2015 VT 100 ultramarathon

Soon after, the sky darkened, lightning flashed, and thunder boomed. For a good ten to fifteen minutes, it poured hard and ensured that the dirt road would be full of mud puddles for passing pickup trucks to veer towards, hit, and splash me with for the next few hours (thanks for being so considerate, guys!). To protect the camera from the deluge, this shot was taken from inside my car: 

Late in the day, after spending over 6 hours taking shots of runners passing the mile 49 spot (and/or whatever mile that was for the 100K runners; I'm not sure!), I headed over to a site high on the hill above Brownsville / West Windsor, and got this shot of the women's 100-mile race winner with Mt. Ascutney rising majestically in the background before the sky got too dark for more photos: 

Ashley Lister, female winner of the 2015 VT 100 ultramarathon

In the 100K race, the women runners triumphed spectacularly. The ladies took the top two spots overall, and the first 3 women all went under the previous course record. Impressive stuff! Here's a shot of first and second place winners, Emily LeVan (first place, #445) and Neela D'Souza (second place, #426):

second- and first-place winners of the 2015 Vermont 100K race

L: Men's 100K winner, Brian Marshburn
R: Running along the Ottauquechee River near mile 16

a reasonably iconic image of rider, runner, and verdantly pastoral scenery at the 2015 Vermont 100 race

My full photo galleries for each race can be seen at Northeast Race Photo:
Vermont 100 full hundred race100K race

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Bonus Site: Whiting Street Reservoir

My new guidebook Trail Running Western Massachusetts (click here to view the book's page on Amazon) profiles 51 of the best trail running sites in the region. It was a challenge to whittle the final list to be included in the book down to just 51 sites, and some sites that I really like or that would have been nice to include had to be cut for space. I occasionally post profiles of some of those "bonus sites" here and link to them from the book's Facebook page. (see the Chapel Brook to D.A.R. Trail post for a previous example).

In this case, the trail profiled is about as easy as a trail run can get. It's really just a dirt road around a lake and would serve as an excellent introduction to anyone looking to take their first venture off of running on pavement. Motorized vehicles are prohibited, though mountain bikes are allowed. Located at the southeast base of Mt. Tom in Holyoke, it is a pleasant run with nice views and is somewhat reminiscent of the carriage trails in Acadia National Park. 

the road around Whiting Street Reservoir below Mt. Tom

Whiting Street Reservoir Trail
Distance: 3.8 miles
Difficulty rating: Moderate
Trail style: Lollipop Loop
Trail type: Dirt Road
Towns: Holyoke

Directions: From Rte. 5 on the north side of Holyoke, take Moutain Park Rd about 0.5 miles west up to the bridge over I-91. Just past the bridge the roads are gated in all directions. There may be parking for a few vehicles on the right side of the road just past the bridge, but take care to not block the gate. The area is fairly popular, however, and more likely you will need to park along the side of the road on the east side of the bridge. Do not park on the bridge. 

An alternate approach to the site is from the Whiting Street Reservoir trailhead along Rte. 141 south of the lake. If you choose this option, be very careful crossing the road from the parking area as traffic moves fast along the road and there is a curve in the road just uphill. 

Trail: From Mtn. Park Rd, go left (south) just past the bridge and pass through a gate. The paved road descends parallel to the highway for about 0.2 miles and then curves right at a small pumphouse building and turns to dirt. In 0.2 miles the road arrives at a T-junction just below a wide dike on the east side of the reservoir. 

Go right and rise gradually to the height of the dam and then continue around the northern edge of the lake. The wide dirt road runs right along the edge of the water with nice view of Mt. Tom on the other side. Entering the woods near the north end, it begins to curve left towards the mountain. Right at the northern end you will pass a short singletrack spur path that leads up to the upper part of Mtn. Park Road and the base of the steep, mile-long B-17 road to the summit. In spring there is a gorgeous waterfall just off the left side of this path. 

From the B-17 spur trail, the road begins heading south along the west shore of the reservoir. It alternates between being in the shady woods and being out in the open right along the water. In about 0.3 miles, just past a stream bridge (stream may be dry in summer), an unmarked and rough (but blazed) singletrack trail branches off to the right and rises southwest at a gentle grade to a junction with the M-M Trail. In another 0.5 miles, a fainter trail leads straight up the steep slope to the M-M Trail (this junction is very easy to miss). 0.3 miles from this junction, a wider doubletrack trail leads right at a set of old stone gates where there is sometimes a pile of gravel. This trail also leads uphill to the M-M Trail, very near where it comes out on Rte. 141. 

Continuing around the south end of the reservoir in the woods, the road rises slightly to a junction with the spur road that leads 0.4 miles up to the Whiting Street Reservoir trailhead along Rte. 141. Go left at the junction and descend back to the level of the lake. In just under a mile you will arrive back at the spur road below the dam.

Nearby: A similar easy / introductory trail running experience can be found at Ashley Reservoir a few miles to the south, where dirt roads encircle several reservoirs and small ponds, sometimes following along scenic narrow dikes with water on both sides. 

Saturday, July 4, 2015

36-Mile Ride in the Valley

Following up on my last blog post, I upped my cycling mileage by what I hope is an appropriate amount this week, and did a 36-mile ride up and down the western side of the Pioneer Valley. It came 2 days after a hard hill climb up Chesterfield Road (Northampton to Chesterfield, MA), and one day after an easy trail run with Jen on Yokun Ridge in Lenox. The very scenic route was much easier than the hilltown ride, with plenty of long, straight flats, fewer big climbs, and a lot less elevation gain all around. As a result, my legs felt fantastic when I finished, humming with that happy-to-have-been-exercised buzz rather than a holy-crap-I-feel-overworked ache. Here's the map and elevation for this one:

(map rotated so north is to the left)

Saturday, June 13, 2015

27-Mile Ride in the Hilltowns

In an effort to stay off my aching Achilles for a bit, I've jumped back on the bike and started riding for fitness (and enjoyment) again. Since we moved to Williamsburg nearly two years ago, I've mostly focused on running. At first this was because I was training for my first ultra when we moved, and then because the ultra bug had bit me and my running was going well. Then it was due to the need to be out on trails to research Trail Running Western Massachusetts. But I was pretty heavily into triathlons a few years back, and I like the full-body fitness that comes with the swim/bike/run combo. I've been aware that there's some pretty sweet biking to be had just out the back door, and now I'm finally savoring it.

Today I left home near the center of Williamsburg and climbed steadily up North Road for about 7 miles. It was sunny and 80 degrees out, but the humidity had dropped and there was a nice breeze so it actually felt quite comfortable. The crest is at Ludwig Rd, which leads left into DAR State Forest and other adventures. I continued straight and descended past Chapel Falls, then climbed a bit more on the other side. Then there's a steep mile drop down towards the lower end of Ashfield. 

Turning right on Rte. 116, the road got a bit rough in places, and at one point it's closed down to one lane for some major construction just above the South River, but in general the ride is fun as you gradually descend the curves toward Conway. 

Just past the covered bridge, I turned right and crossed the river, then climbed Academy Hill on Hill View Rd. As I descended the other side, a bee or wasp flew into my open jersey and stung me. Ouch! Fortunately, the pain quickly subsided as I attacked the last significant climb of the day up Field Hill on Whately Road. Along the recently-paved rolling section between there and the Northampton Reservoirs I tucked down into the aerobars and cruised as much as my not-quite-bike-fit muscles allowed. It got a bit warm as I traversed the open flats approaching Haydenville, and my energy flagged as I made the final gentle climb up Rte. 9 back into Williamsburg, but in general I fared well and it was an all-around very satisfying workout. I know that the Northampton Cycling Club does regular rides more or less along this route, and I'd have to recommend it to anyone else looking for a good hilltown ride on the west side of the valley. 

the route

elevation chart

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Washington Mountain Marsh Trail

In Trail Running Western Massachusetts, I profiled 51 of the best sites for trail running in the region, but had to leave out all sorts of other good sites just for space and cost reasons. Sometimes other sites/trails got mentioned in the "nearby" section at the end of each profile, as was the case with Washington Mountain Marsh, which was included in the nearby text at the end of Site 15: Finerty Pond in October Mountain State Forest. This post describes the 3-mile loop at the marsh. While in my opinion it is not one of the "best" trail running routes, for reasons explained below, it is certainly an interesting one.

crossing boardwalk bridges below the beaver dam at Washington Mtn. Marsh

Washington Mountain Marsh was originally intended to be a lake. In the 1980s, a dam was built to create a reservoir, but the dam leaked and the project was abandoned (an extraordinary wasteful expenditure of resources that kind of boggles my mind). Now, beavers have taken over and a large dam impounds a western arm of the basin, creating a lake about half the size of the one intended, along with a wetland that curiously shows ecological characteristics of both a marsh and a peatland. A trail encircles the marsh, utilizing an ever-deteriorating series of wooden boardwalks whenever it crosses open wet areas. The sorry state of the boardwalks is the reason why this route can't be considered a great run, or even a "bonus site" profile, because you really have to slow down and check each plank before walking on it to make sure it won't break, or worse, fly up at one end and smash the friend following you in the face!

The trail starts on the north side of West Branch Rd, more or less right smack in the middle of October Mountain State Forest. We drove in on County Rd from Becket, MA, then veered right at a gate on Lenox-Whitney Place Rd. There is a small parking area with space for about 4-5 vehicles, though overflow parking would be possible in an open field just uphill to the east.

At first, the trail surface is a fine crushed gravel, making it somewhat universally accessible for about a quarter of a mile. Numbered posts match the Interpretive Trail points of interest mapped here. Just past post #3, the trail splits and the surface becomes rougher.

start of the Washington Mountain Marsh trail

Bearing left at the split, the trail quickly descends to the edge of a cove of the open marsh and heads out into it on a long series of boardwalks. The boards are generally in pretty good shape here, but you can see the first hints of the deterioration to come. At the far end, the trail veers right and climbs to a junction with the (former) Knob Loop trail.

boardwalks leading west across the marsh towards Knob Hill

Rant Interlude: The Knob Loop Trail. Perhaps MA DCR will get around to doing trail maintenance at some point, but at the moment the Knob Loop should be avoided at all costs. It is NOT currently maintained, and you will almost certainly lose your way should you try to follow it. I have never seen a worse case of poor trail maintenance, ever, on a trail that is officially still considered open. They really need to get in there and do some work, or close it off. Trout lily leaves and hobblebush branches grow in the trail bed to en extent that suggests the route has not been maintained in well over a decade. Also, many of the trees that blue markers had been nailed to have fallen down and are rotting away on the ground. I realize that DCR is underfunded (which is why they significantly raised fees starting last week), but give me a break. I wish they would stop spending resources on mowing picnic area lawns and put more effort into ensuring basic standards of safety on the trails of state parks and forests.

Anyway. Skipping the Knob Loop, the trail continues west and then north through forest. At marker post #8, a worthwhile spur trail leads a few tenths of a mile right over to a rocky ledge overlooking the middle of the wetland. Originally, a boardwalk path led east from here and formed a shorter route called the Inner Loop, but the water levels have since risen (due to the beavers) and all traces of this former path appear to have been obliterated. Back at post #8, a large sign still indicates that you are starting out on the Outer Loop, which really is now just the outer portion of THE loop.

beaver dam (and several mid-lake lodges in the background)

Heading north, a series of boardwalks and a bridge cross a very wet area and stream below an impressive beaver dam. On the other side, the trail re-enters forest and continues north. As it circles clockwise around the outer perimeter of the marsh, the trail crosses a number of wetland coves on boardwalks in between drier patches of forest. Some of the boardwalks in this section are disintegrating badly, and are definitely in need of repair or replacement soon if the trail is to remain usable. Conditions were dry at the time we visited in late May 2015, but during wetter periods some of the lower boardwalk sections may be wet or inundated.

Overall, the route is very scenic, and makes a great hike or nature walk. It would also make a fantastic 3-mile trail run under the right conditions and if the trail is properly maintained. Hopefully this will be the case again in the near future. At present, however, it cannot really be recommended for running until some of the boardwalk bridges are replaced, especially in the back portion near the northern end of the marsh. Or rather, it can be run, and the woodland portions are in good condition (except for the Knob Loop), but runners in particular should take extreme care to slow down and check the condition of any wooden bog bridge planks before bounding out onto them.