Blue Hills Reservation: “An Island in an Urban Community”

By Gaia De Simoni

MILTON — It’s late morning and the sun tries to make its way through the trees dressed in their best colors of the year. The green of pines, the gold-yellow of ginkgo and the bright red of maples surround hikers through their walk into the woods. The rustling sound of boots stepping on the trail is the melody they’ll hear for the day. Their breath is short while climbing up one rock after another. 

“It’s a 7,000-acre island in an urban community,” Ken Cohen, board member of Friends of the Blue Hills, says.

Part of the Skyline Loop Blue Blazes Trail in the Blue Hills Reservation, Milton, Mass., Oct. 26, 2019. Photo by Gaia De Simoni

The Blue Hills Reservation is a fairytale setting that resembles a walk in the woods in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. But for this beauty, Bostonians don’t need to go too far: the Reservation is only a 25-minute drive from Downtown Crossing. 

Every day of the year hikers can walk over the 125 miles of marked trails, from the easy, one-mile Houghton’s Pond Loop, to the most challenging Skyline Trail, which covers nine miles from Quincy to Fowl Meadow in Canton East.

The Skyline Loop Blue Blazes trail is part of the Skyline Trail. Three miles long, it starts from the Blue Hills Headquarters on Hillside Street in Milton and brings hikers to the highest hill of the Reservation: Great Blue Hill at 635 feet above the sea level. 

The walk among the colorful trees of the Blue Hills Reservation in Milton, Oct. 26, 2019. Photo by Gaia De Simoni

Cohen, 71, has hiked this trail as hiking leader of the Appalachian Mountains Club dozens of times and considers it one of the most challenging at Blue Hills. When starting on the North Skyline, hikers walk for 160 feet on the headquarters’ path before encountering 10 granite steps and a sign on a tree indicating: “North Skyline Trail to Great Blue Hills.” 

Soon after the stairs, hikers arrive at Hancock Hill, the first of three hills on the trail. Once owned by John Hancock, the American Revolution leader and signer of the Declaration of Independence, it is the steepest point of the trail, with massive rocks to climb that will test any hiker’s stamina with every step they take. 

A climb of Hancock Hill during the Skyline Loop Blue Blazes Trail in the Blue Hills Reservation, Milton, Mass., Oct. 26, 2019. Photo by Gaia De Simoni

“I remember the first time I ever did that, I said to myself: ‘Oh my gosh if the whole hike is like this I’m gonna be in trouble,’” Cohen says.

After Hancock Hill, the worst is over. The trail is challenging, but as Cohen suggested, with good boots, a map and a lot of water, it’s a great hike for rookies and more experienced hikers alike. 

Robert Reenan, 57, and Jennifer De Leonardis, 46, are two veteran hikers. They hike in the Blue Hills every week, even through winter, and spend most of their time on the Skyline Trail. 

Robert Reenan and Jennifer De Leonardis get some rest on a rock after their climb on the Skyline Loop Blue Blazes Trail in the Blue Hills Reservation, Milton, Mass., Oct. 26, 2019. Photo Gaia De Simoni

Reenan, who is from Providence, usually climbs out in the Colorado Rockies and the White Mountains in New Hampshire. When he first hiked at Blue Hills, he couldn’t believe his eyes. Close to his home in Providence he finally found rugged trails that were good training for hiking on the highest mountains.

“My first impression was: ‘Wow, this is great. It’s like a training facility,’” Reenan, in a black sleeveless shirt and black shorts, says. “This is like my gym because it’s plenty of places to climb and scramble and we do dancing from rock to rock.” 

The habitats the hikers encounter during the trail include marshes, swamps, oaks and forests which are home to white-tailed deers, fisher cats, coyotes, birds and endangered species like the copperhead snake and the timber rattlesnake. The copperhead is one of the most poisonous snakes of New England, a snake that both Reenan and Deleonardis had the pleasure of meeting two weeks ago. 

“We freaked out a little bit,” Reenan says laughing. “It was a pretty close encounter. It was not a huge one. I would say it was a juvenile but it was very angry and very ready to strike. I was like, ‘I’m glad we ran into you as grownups.’”

The blue blazes signs on the trees and on the rocks keep hikers on the trail – and far from snakes. The North Skyline continues with several ups and downs on rocky and rooty paths into the forest, especially when climbing Hemenway and Wolcott Hills. The ups are the easiest parts, as working against gravity one can grip the boots on the rocks. The downs are tricky and caution is the secret. Hikers, especially the inexperienced, should grab on to a tree or watch every stepto avoid slipping on a rock or tripping on a root.  

Wolcott Hill takes hikers to the Eliot Tower on the Great Blue Hill. Granite steps laid out in 1930 by the Civilian Conservation Corps bring hikers up on the heavy breathing climb. The chatter and laughter of the hikers who already reached the summit get closer and louder after every step. A huff and puff pace alternates with short breaks. Then, like a mirage, the Eliot Memorial Bridge Tower and Pavillon appear through the leaves of the trees.  

The Eliot Memorial Bridge Tower appearing like a mirage through the trees at the end of the Skyline Loop Blue Blazes Trail of the Blue Hills Reservation, Milton, Mass., Oct. 26, 2019. Photo by Gaia De Simoni

“It’s nice to have little rewards as you go up to your trail,” Lynne Cerretani-Clarke says about her first time hiking the Skyline North Blue Blaze Trail with her husband, Bruce, her daughter, Jenn, and their dogs Mia and Bentley. 

A well-deserved reward. Ascending the Eliot Tower, hikers can enjoy the stunning view of eastern Massachusetts, with Boston and Massachusetts Bay all covered in red, orange and yellow trees. 

Boston Skyline’s view from the Eliot Memorial Bridge Tower of the Blue Hills Reservation, Milton, Mass., Oct. 26, 2019. Photo by Gaia De Simoni

The Reservation is managed by the Department of Conservation and Recreation and is preserved by the Friends of the Blue Hills, a non-profit organization that helps maintain the trails, control invasive plants and protect the park from inappropriate development. 

The Blue Hills Reservation is a chance for Bostonians to flee the city, disconnect for a day and spend time in nature in their own backyard. 

“Right now, society spends a little bit too much time on their phones, looking down, and then computer screens,” Jennifer De Leonardis says. “It’s an opportunity for people to experience a little bit more of the outdoors without having to travel too far.”

IF YOU GO:
Blue Hills Reservation
Hours: Open every day, dawn to dusk
Area: from Quincy to Dedham, Massachusetts.
Activities
Winter: Skiing at Fowl Meadow or at the Blue Hill Ski Area, located in the western part of the Great Blue Hill in Canton, Massachusetts. Blue Hills has eight trails covering a vertical drop of 309 feet (94 m). The summit is served by a double chairlift, while the start area has three magic carpet lifts. There is a lodge with food service, restrooms, ski patrol and a small equipment shop.
Summer: Hiking in the reservation or swimming at Houghton’s Pond in Milton, fishing at Ponkapoag Pond on the border of Canton and Randolph or steering a canoe on the Neponset River at Fowl Meadow.
Spring & Fall: Hiking on the 125 miles of trails in the reservation, bike Great Blue Hill or rock climbing the vertical walls at Quincy Quarriers in the northernmost part of the park.

  • Dogs are welcomed but must be on a leash and pet waste must be removed from the park
  • Take your trash with you
  • Stay on trails
  • Carry a map
  • Wear hiking boots and dress in layers, bring hiking poles if you have them

Skyline Loop Blue Blazes
Miles: 3 miles
Time: 2 hours
Difficulty: Difficult
Address: Blue Hills Reservation Headquarters – 695, Hillside St. Milton. 
Directions: From Boston, take the I93-S. Follow I-93 S to Ponkapoag Trail in Milton for 13.8 miles. Take exit 3 from I-93 S. Take Blue Hill River Rd and Hillside St to 695 Hillside St in Milton. 
Parking: There’s a parking lot both across the Headquarters at 695, Hillside and another one when you get to Hillside St. from River Rd. at 840 Hillside St. 

The Blue Hills Trailside Museum 
First opened to the public in 1959, the museum features cultural, historical and natural history exhibits with a display of live wildlife, including snowy owls and otters that have been rescued and would not otherwise survive.
Admission fee: members free / Non-members: $5 Adults, $4 Seniors (65+), $3 Children (2-12)
Hours: 
April-November: Tuesday-Sunday & Monday holidays, 10:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.
December-March: Tuesday-Sunday & Monday holidays, 10:00 a.m.- 4:30 p.m.
The outdoor exhibits and grounds are open daily, dawn to dusk.
Directions: Trailside Museum is located at 1904 Canton Avenue (Route 138), 1/2 mile north of route 93 (Exit 2B) in Milton. 

The Blue Hill Meteorological Observatory and Science Center
The observatory has kept the longest continuous daily weather record in the United States dating back to 1885. 
Hours: Open every Saturday of the year from 10:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. Open on Sundays from February to December from 10:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. January by appointment. 
Admission fee: $4 adults, $2 for ages 5-17, free for children under 5. 
In-depth tours: $8 adults, $5 for ages 5-17, members and seniors.
By car:
 The closest parking is at the Blue Hill Ski Area or the adjacent Trailside Museum at 1904 Canton Avenue in Milton, MA. Hiking trails lead to the summit from these parking areas. 

Friends of the Blue Hills
For maps and tours click here.

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