Home / Trip Reports / Bay Circuit Trail Section 1: Plum Island to Rowley

Bay Circuit Trail Section 1: Plum Island to Rowley

Bay Circuit Trail, Section One, Plum Island to Rowley
Bay Circuit Trail, Section One, Plum Island to Rowley

Plum Island

  • Date: 1-21-15
  • Starting Location: Joppa Flats Wildlife Refuge
  • Destination: Newbury Lower Green
  • BCT Map: Section 1, A to D
  • Distance: 6.6 miles; 14.2 miles RT back to car

When I got to the beach and stood on the sand, I was filled with a feeling of contentment. I’d picked a good winter day to hike to the Northern Terminus of the Bay Circuit Trail on Plum Island. The sun was warm and the wind still, although temperatures were still only in the high 20’s.

The Northern Terminus of the Bay Circuit Trail, at The Atlantic Ocean
The Northern Terminus of the Bay Circuit Trail, at The Atlantic Ocean

Standing on the beach, I remembered doing the same at the start of my cross-country hike across Scotland with Martin Rye in the 2013 TGO Challenge. I’d recall other similarities between my BCT route and that hike later in the day, as well.

I started this segment of Section One a few miles west at the Audubon Bird Sanctuary headquarters at Joppa Flats Wildlife Refuge because the route from there to the ocean and back is a road walk and I wanted to hike it early in the day when drivers could see me, rather than near dusk when I could easily become road kill.

Plum Island Airfield
Plum Island Airfield

Traffic had been a bit heavier than expected that morning on my reverse commute to the trail head, so I only got started by 9:30 am. Section One of the BCT is about a 45 minute drive north of my home, depending on the route you take. I also got a late start because I had trouble figuring out where the BCT started after leaving the Audubon center, since the road walk is not blazed.

Part of my confusion was due to disbelief frankly, that the first two miles of the BCT are routed over roads, when the surrounding area is full of open fields and salt marsh. It’s good that I didn’t start section hiking the BCT in Section 1, because I never would have come back. The start of a long distance route should fill its pilgrims with inspiration, not the deflating grind of a road walk.

Salt Marsh north of the Plum Island Turnpike
Salt Marsh north of the Plum Island Turnpike

It was then that I resolved to treat this section of road walking like a section of coastal road that Martin and I had to walk in Scotland back in 2013. I would look beyond the road and focus my mind on the surrounding landscape, to find beauty in it, rather than the litter and grit beneath my feet. That shift in attitude succeeded in quelling my anger and I was able to get on with my walk.

I crossed the road from the Audubon Center and walked beside the grass landing strip of the Plum Island Airfield, which is mainly used for small private airplanes and flight instruction, turning down a grassy corridor, like Alice plunging through the rabbit hole.

The path at the end of the airfield
The path at the end of the airfield

This tiny wooded pathway buoyed my spirits and I hoped it would last for a spell. The path led to a field at the Spencer-Peirce-Little Manor House, a historic house, that’s open to visitors in the summer.

Please visit me!
Please visit me!

Adjacent to the house is a shelter for rescued farm animals including a really big pig and a donkey who came to the fence and brayed as I walked past. It wasn’t a territorial kind of braying, more like he was begging for companionship, and I felt my heart soften towards him.

Your generous donations help us care for our rescued farm animals.
Your generous donations help us care for our rescued farm animals.

Passing through the manor house’s ground, the trail winds its way past an Alpaca Farm, before continuing south on Rt 1A and more road walking. After about 1.5 miles, it turns west off the highway and plunges back into an adjacent neighborhood, before passing through a wooded corridor, where I stopped and cooked a hot lunch on a portable camping stove.

Emerging from the woods again, I came to a large salt flat and turned onto the causeway that crosses it, only to run into water covering the road. The tide was in! I was devastated because I wanted to keep walking south, but there was no way to continue until the tide went back out.

Salt flats under water at high tide
Salt flats under water at high tide

Then I had an idea. I’d walk back to my car and drive back to this spot to see if the tide had receded in the interim. It did, so I was able to continue my southward progress, finishing the day at Newbury Lower Green, about halfway through Section 1.

Two hours later, the tide had receded and I could continue the section
Two hours later, the tide had receded and I could continue the section

Prospect Hill Trailhead

  • Date: 3-25-15
  • Starting Location: Prospect Hill Trailhead
  • Destination: Newbury Lower Green
  • BCT Map: Section 1, D to G
  • Distance: 5.5 miles; 11.0 miles RT back to car

Road walks are a mind-killer and a hamstring killer too.

Picked up a branch after a tiny bushwhack into the woods
Picked up a branch after a tiny bushwhack into the woods

After 2 months of winter and over 100 inches of snow, I got back on the trail again in order to finish Section 1 of the BCT. There’s still deep snow in the forest and on the trails, but I knew this stretch was a road walk and that I could finish it relatively quickly. I did have to walk 11 miles, in another out and back.

It’s hard to find a silver lining in road walks. The weather was nice today, at least, and  I felt very visible walking along the state highway (Rt 1A) wearing an orange Zpacks.com ArcBlast Backpack that I’m reviewing at the moment. No one shot at me either. :-)

Road Walks are Mind the Mind-Killer
Road Walks are the Mind-Killer

I’ve resigned myself to learn as much roadside history on this section of the BCT as possible, since there’s not much else to gain from walking down a highway with cars rushing past you. The views of the surrounding forests and salt marshes were nice, but I couldn’t help wonder why I was stuck on the road and not walking across them….

March is a good time to sugar the maples
March is a good time to sugar the maples

This section of the BCT passes through the towns of Rowley and Newbury, which were settled over 100 years before the United States Constitution was written. Situated along the ocean, the local economy was based on cod fishing and farming. I can’t imagine what it was like to live here 400 years ago though.

The town of Rowley was founded in 1639
The town of Rowley was founded in 1639

As I walked north up Rt 1A, I couldn’t help noticing what a nice town Rowley was, with a host of big churches and old colonial style homes. You can tell that a town is old when all of the buildings have plaques on them denoting their age and historical significance. Rowley’s like that.

There were another dozen old cars and boats behind the house, too!
There were another dozen old cars and boats behind the house, too!

Once you leave the historic district, the homes are much newer, posh even. But you also get the sense that Rowley has its share of long-time working class residents, what you might call “Yankee Trash,” judging by the front yards and barns that are filled with dead VW vans, boats, and cars, in various states of decomposition. I don’t mean to pick on these folks, but you notice these things when you walk down the highway, instead of zipping past them at 55 miles per hour.

The history of the town of Newbury
The history of the town of Newbury

Leaving Rowley, I came to a vast stretch of open salt marsh and pretty forest, and then more history. Newbury was settled in 1635 under the leadership of the Puritan clergy man Thomas Parker, in an Indian region called Quascacunquen. Googling (History of Essex County, Massachusetts: With Biographical Sketches …, Volume 2), we learn that the original settlement was called Quascacunquen and then later renamed Newbury. But the nearby Quascacunquen River was renamed the Parker River as a compliment to clergy man Parker.

The Parker River
The Parker River

Continuing northward on Rt 1A, I passed a big boatyard and crossed the Parker River over the state highway bridge. Boats follow the Parker River to head out to sea, after rounding Plum Island. I once paddled a sea kayak down this river, many years ago now, before I switched from kayaking to hiking.

Newbury Lower Green
Newbury Lower Green

I came to the end of my walk north shortly after, reaching the Newbury Lower Green, where I’d ended another section hike almost two months earlier. This was the site of the original settlement and the first meeting-house. I turned around and walked back south to Prospect Hill and my car.

Section 1 of the BCT is mostly road walking today, which seems to be the natural course of new trail development wherever you are. When you walk this trail, I hope your route will be off-pavement. Be patient, it’s bound to happen as the trail is developed further.

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7 comments

  1. Excellent report, Philip. Your internal pilgrimage I found more compelling than your route sightings and turning points. What I find so memorable in Colin Fletcher’s writing, for example, are his musings about why he’s out there as much as the grand journeys that he’s reporting. And your writing took on aspects of that internal dialogue in this piece.
    Congrats on a considered life, one much richer than lived by those whizzing by you on the highway while perilously punching away at their data phones.

    • Dan – thanks for this insightful comment. Writing a readable trip report is a journey unto itself with many false starts and wrong turns. Adding in one’s inner journey gives them a greater depth and helps make them relevant long into the future. It’s a unique form of literature…always learning.

  2. “Part of my confusion was due to disbelief frankly, that the first two miles of the BCT are routed over roads”

    I felt the same way, but like you I did my best to focus on the beauty of the salt marsh. Nice view of the ocean from the draw bridge too!. I found some of the quieter road sections pleasant to hike but there are certainly others that are very noisy and potentially dangerous. I hope the AMC is able to move some of these road sections to the proposed off-road routes. They’ve been in the proposed stage for a number of years.

    Glad to see you are sticking with it. Overall the BCT is a gem.

    Happy hiking!
    Dan

  3. I wonder if the reason the BCT isn’t in the salt marshes is that the marshes are difficult to build trails in. I suppose they could build a boardwalk or something, but they probably don’t want people tramping around in the actual marsh. And it might be really muddy/quicksand-like, which would make it more important to build a boardwalk or something similar rather than allow people to get sucked into a quagmire.

    This is just supposition on my part; I really have no idea. Dan, do you know what the delay is on the proposed sections of the trail and why it has been a “number of years” that they have been in the proposed stage?

    • Lizz

      I suspect it’s a matter of working out agreements with the current landowners, whether public or private, were the proposed trail will pass and committing the resources to get this done. Prior to AMC’s involvement with the trail, the Bay Circuit Alliance was a small “grassroots” organization with limited resources. I’m sure this has something to do with the amount of time it takes to see these things through. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not criticizing the BCA. Al French and everyone involved with the BCT have done a remarkable job making this trail a reality.

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