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.

boardwalk bridges below the beaver dam at Washington Mtn. Marsh in western MA (photo by Ben Kimball)
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.

Washington Mountain Marsh Trail
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.

Washington Mountain Marsh 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 at Washington Mountain Marsh
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.

trail map for Washington Mountain Marsh in western Massachusetts

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