Saturday, April 2, 2016

Dry Hill Hike

Trying to take it easy on a (hopefully) recovering achilles that I've been going to physical therapy for, I haven't been running for the past few months. Which sucks. But I've been doing a lot of stretching and strengthening, especially core stuff, and doing a fair bit of cycling as cross-training (the mild winter has been a blessing that way). And some hiking, which arguably isn't great for the achilles but I just can't help myself. I do baby it as much as I can, and try to not do too many miles. And I ice it a lot afterwards.

Anyway, this afternoon I ventured out onto a nearby section of the Robert Frost Trail that I've never done before: south from its northern terminus at Wendell State Forest (site #32 in Trail Running Western Massachusetts) up and over Dry Hill to Chestnut Hill in Montague.

Robert Frost Trail sign in Wendell

I parked at the Wendell State Forest headquarters building, noting that the road into the forest was still closed for the season, and remembering that fun time I got locked in behind the gate at 4 p.m. one fine weekday afternoon in June a few years ago. The orange-blazed Robert Frost Trail (RFT), which ends about 47 miles to the south at The Notch in the Holyoke Range, starts heading south from the parking lot up E Chestnut Hill Rd (paved). About a quarter of a mile along, it bears right onto a rough jeep road called Cross Road, which it ascends to a powerline swath. At first, the land on either side of this road is heavily posted with yellow No Trespassing signs, but the road itself is a public right-of-way so it's OK as long as you stick to the road. About a tenth of a mile beyond the powerlines, the trail turns left off the road onto a singletrack path and climbs the northern slope of Dry Hill at an easy grade. At 1,289 feet, the forested summit of this mountain is the highest point along the entire RFT. This part of the trail is in Montague State Forest.

Robert Frost Trail on the north side of Dry Hill
climbing along the Robert Frost Trail on the north side of Dry Hill

Continuing south from Dry Hill, the RFT meanders gently downslope, passing by a few impressive boulders but otherwise no other particularly notable features. About 0.75 miles south of the top, the trail, now entering the Montague Wildlife Management Area, turns sharply right and crosses the slope heading east and even slightly north for a bit, passing over the upper reaches of two branches of Chestnut Hill Brook. Then it swings left and heads south again along a mostly flat, narrow, steep-sided ridge called Chestnut Hill. I trekked on to the southernmost tip of this ridge, where I secretly hoped to find some kind of view (there wasn't one; I don't know why I expected otherwise). From the there, the trail swings right and begins dropping down the west side of the ridge. I turned around soon after this, about 3.5 miles from where I'd started. 

Robert Frost Trail on Chestnut Hill
a nice section of the RFT along Chestnut Hill

It had been cloudy and cool when I started, but then had warmed up considerably by the time I got to Chestnut Hill. The sun even broke out briefly and I was able to hike comfortably in a long-sleeve T-shirt. By the time I got back to Dry Hill, however, a strong line of thunderstorms had hit, and I needed my full rain jacket and a hat. Hoping to shave a few tenths of a mile off since I was starting to get wet and chilled, I popped down a short spur path to the powerlines and followed the access road below them back down to Cross Road. Somewhere along this stretch was when the hail began to pelt and the rain came at me sideways. My pants got soaked all the way through, and for some reason the tops of my hands were really cold. I made it back to the car just as the storm abated, naturally. 

powerline swath with access road
descending along the powerlines just before the storm really hit

In general, the actual trail portion of this section of the RFT is very pleasant and in good shape. The blazes are fresh and plentiful. I did stop quite a few times to clear smaller fallen logs and branches out of the way (because I think I might be a bit obsessive about trail maintenance, especially on ones I like), but I didn't encounter any big blowdowns. There aren't any connecting trails, so it wouldn't make a very good site for a trail run loop, but it would make an OK out-and-back run, and certainly would be great if you could spot a car to the south at North Leverett Road, Mt. Toby, or even Bull Hill Road or beyond. One other thing this section of the RFT has going for it? Solitude. I hiked about 7 miles total, on a Saturday afternoon, and never once saw another person.