Home / Trip Reports / Bay Circuit Trail Section 2: Rowley to Boxford

Bay Circuit Trail Section 2: Rowley to Boxford

Bay Circuit Trail, Section Two, Rowley to Boxford
Bay Circuit Trail, Section Two, Rowley to Boxford (link to PDF at BayCircuit.org)

After many fits and starts and dead-ends trying to hike Section 3 from south to north, I decided to turn things around and hike Section 2 from north to south because I hoped the blazing would be more “obvious” for a southbounder. This strategy helped immensely. in so small part because most of the trail mileage in this section is managed by ECTA (Essex County Trail Association), a well-funded and professional trail maintenance organization. I first became aware of ECTA a few years ago when I was the guest speaker at their annual member’s kick-off meeting. They manage trails in Hamilton, Wenham, Ipswich, Topsfield, Essex and West Newbury and do a first-rate job.

Section 2 of the Bay Circuit Trail is a bit confusing because it splits off in two directions at point ‘C’ in Willowdale State Park (see above), with one section heading east toward the Ocean (N) and the other heading west toward Boxford (M).

The section heading east has not been finished yet and will eventually connect the BCT to Crane Beach. I walked it as part of my section hike, even though it doesn’t really go anywhere except Appleton Farms (which is fabulous place to visit and one I plan to take my wife to visit when the weather warms up.) The other branch of the BCT trail heading west and south towards Boxford, is also in a state of flux, and has been temporarily rerouted due to an unbridged water crossing.

The Prospect Hill Trailhead is a little hard to see from the road. Look for this sign next to a light blue warehouse structure set back from the road.
The Prospect Hill Trailhead is a little hard to see from the road. Look for this sign next to a light blue warehouse structure set back from the road. Park in front of the sign, not in front of the gates behind it.

Prospect Hill

  • Date: 1-6-15
  • Starting Location: Prospect Hill (Rt 133)
  • Destination: Section 2: “D” (Rt 1)  and “C” (Ipswich Road/Topsfield Road)
  • BCT Map: Section 2, “A” to “D” and “D” to “S”
  • Distance: 6.2 miles, 12.4 miles RT back to car

Prospect Hill is a small parking area on Rt 133 about 0.5 miles west of its intersection with Rt 1A and it took me a few passes to see it. The best place to park is right in front of the sign.

There are two gates behind the Prospect Hill sign. Take the big brown one to the left which travels down a short dirt road to a small open field. Turn right and climb steeply, what I assume is Prospect Hill. There’s a big metal water reservoir at the top of the hill.

The day I hiked this part of Section 2, the temperature started at 27 degrees, but slowly fell during the course of the day. I’d dressed warmly wearing long underwear under Montane shell pants, with many additional layers in my pack. I also carried a thermos of hot tea sweetened with honey to drink, which is a little luxury I’ve continued since.

Water Reservoir on top of Prospect Hill
Water Reservoir on top of Prospect Hill

While I’ve hiked quite extensively in mountainous winter terrain in New Hampshire, I’ve done comparatively little forest walking in winter, and it is very different so far. I’m not sure how long I’ll be able to avoid hiking in snow, but so far I’ve encountered very little of it.

Due to the cold weather, I was wearing my extra insulated single layer boots to stay warm, and because my lighter weight Vasque boots were still drying from my plunge into a beaver pond a few days prior. These warmer heavier boots didn’t slow me down – I’m averaging about 2-2.5 mile per hour on my hikes, but they did hurt the backs of my calves a bit after 13 miles of walking.

Like my other BCT section hikes so far, this was an out and back hike, since camping is not permitted in most of the areas that the BCT passes through. Frankly I’m not sure I would want to camp in them since they are so urban. That may still change when I get sick of driving multiple times to finish each of the 14 Sections of the BCT, especially the sections far south of my home.

Please don't build a bridge here. It will encourage beavers to build a dam and make a big mess.
Please don’t build a bridge here. It will encourage beavers to build a dam and make a big mess.

After climbing Prospect Hill, which at some four hundred feet is not a hard climb at all, I descended into a surprisingly large stretch of old forest mixed with frozen bogs and beaver dams. The beaver dams are magnificent, but obviously a nuisance for local trail maintainers. But without the beavers, we wouldn’t have conservation land because it would have all be turned into golf courses.

After a short spell I ran into a couple walking through the woods and we had a pleasant conversation. They turned out to be Ed and Faith. Ed is a trail maintainer for ECTA and Faith is an AMC hiking leader. When they learned I was hiking the BCT, the first question Ed asked me was “how do you like the blazing.” I let loose about the blazing south of ECTA’s patch in Section 3, which has been so frustrating. Ed was amused and told me a bit about the new bridges and work that had been done to bring the ECTA sections ‘up-to-code.’

New ECTA Bridgework
New ECTA Bridgework

This included three new bridges which he’d been responsible for building. Each has a bronze plaque, he explained, with the name of the person each bridge was dedicated to. I made a point to seek out these plaques on each of the bridges I encountered.

Faith was less enthusiastic about the BCT and admitted that she couldn’t really get excited about it. I can see her point of view. The BCT is still under development and has a long way to go before it becomes a cohesive trail rather than a collection of conservation areas linked by road walks and odd lot paths. But I do think that the BCT provides a committed walker with an adventure, even in its nascent state. Seeing new ground. Being outside. Learning the history of the towns linked by the trail. There is more here than meets the eye if you get off the couch and experience the fullness of the trail. That’s my hope, at least.

After speaking with them, we headed in different directions and I picked up my pace to get warm again. After passing by several palatial modern homes surrounding a putting green, the woods opened up and I entered the Linebrook Conservation Area, which consists of mixed forest and farmland. The wind kicked up some, but the wind chill was still under control and I strolled through the open fields towards Willowdale State Forest.

Agricultural Conservation Land
Agricultural Conservation Land

Faith had warned me about Willowdale, saying it was a confusing space full of unmarked trails and easy to get turned around in. It is obviously heavily used by walkers and mountain bikers, and while many of the paths are numbered, many aren’t, and one could get dreadfully lost if you don’t pay attention and carry a compass. The BCT blazing was good though and the tread fairly obvious.

Older Forest and Bigger Trees
Older Forest and Bigger Trees

I soon came to the big intersections at point ‘C’, a big crossroads where the BCT splits into east and west running sections. There is a wooden sign nailed to the tree here, already out of date, but still useful for orientation since the BCT map set has so little information on it.

Outdated BCT Map nailed to Tree in Willowdale State Forest
Outdated BCT Map nailed to Tree in Willowdale State Forest

The BCT maps available on the BCT web site lack all topographic information and if not for the blazing, you’d have a devil of a time trying to use the maps to navigate the trail end-to-end. I have to contact the AMC to see if there is a way to get an up to date GPX file of the BCT route that I can load into Caltopo in order to get some decent section maps.

Frozen Beaver Pond
Frozen Beaver Pond just before “D”

My goal for the day was to hike to point D, before hiking back to C, and out to S, to position myself at an easy to find trailhead, in preparation for my next hike in Section 2. Being able to see the trailhead in advance by walking to it makes it much easier to recognize it from the road.

Boardwalk and Beaver Dam
Boardwalk and Beaver Dam

The C-D section ends at an enormous beaver bond that has a boardwalk at one end, next to a beaver dam, which threatens to subsume it. Sponsored by REI and built by ECTA, this boardwalk was easier to cross than that bridge I fell off in the last section. I hiked beyond it to the edge of the Willowdale State Forest and turned around and retraced my steps to the big intersection at ‘C.’

Willowdale State Forest Trailhead at 'D'
Willowdale State Forest Trailhead at ‘D’

Arriving back at “C”, I drank several mug fulls of hot tea and then hiked the short segment from C to S, which terminates on Ipswich Road.

Trailhead Parking at S, Section Two, BCT
Trailhead Parking at S, Section Two, BCT

Despite the cold, I was moving at a fast clip, covering over 12 miles in under 6 hours. I think I’ve got my trail legs back again, which is good, because at this rate I’ll be hiking the BCT twice, instead of just once.

Appleton Farms

  • Date: 1-9-15
  • Starting Location: Ipswich Road or Topsfield Rd, depending on your direction
  • Destination: Section 2: “N” (Rt 1A)  on the eastern end of Appleton Farms
  • BCT Map: Section 2, “S” to “N”
  • Distance: 7 miles, 14 miles RT back to car

I took two days off during a wicked cold spell with high wind chill values. While much of the BCT is forested, there are plenty of open spaces and road walks to traverse and the cold wind can be dangerously fierce along them.

When temperatures had warmed up back into the 20’s, I set off to hike to the eastern side of BCT ending at Appleton Farms, without the slightest idea of what I’d find. It turned out that Appleton Farms is a real gem and I was blown away by my visit there.

Ipswich River
Ipswich River

This segment of Section 2 started with a river crossing over the Ipswich River, which was still flowing despite the cold snap.

Hiking Trails in Bradley Palmer Forest
Hiking Trails in Bradley Palmer Forest

I entered Bradley Palmer Forest which is one of the nicest parks I’ve encountered so far, with wide and sunny, tree-lined trails. Bradley Palmer was a noted attorney of the early 1900s, who represented President Wilson at the Versailles Peace Conference after the First World War.

Multi-way trail intersection in a big open field
Multi-way trail intersection in a big open field

I soon came to a huge open field that is crisscrossed by different trails, like a wagon wheel. I picked one in the middle that looked like it might be a continuation of the BCT and walked down it, only to have it dead-end in the woods. I backtracked to the outer “rim” of the wheel and saw a blaze to my right which I then followed into the woods.

Greenbelt Trails
Greenbelt Trails

This led to a series of wide tree-lined trails, complete with horse jumps, that are part of a Greenbelt system that runs through the area. I don’t know much about it, but I could tell that I was in horse country and the land of big money, judging by the number of horse barns and paddocks I soon encountered.

We're in horse country now
We’re in horse country now

In this neighborhood, the “riders” aren’t mountain bikers, and dogs are leashed to prevent them from scaring horses.

Appleton Farms Grass Rides
Appleton Farms “Grass Rides”, another term for Carriageway

I passed through a short section of forest managed by Harvard University before entering Appleton Farms, which is the United States’ oldest continuously operating farm. Calling the place “grand” would be an understatement, with its wide trails laid out like boulevards.

The Appleton Farm trail system was originally developed for equestrian activities including riding, hunting, carriage riding, and steeple chasing, and many of the walking trails are called “grass rides”, which is a british term for a carriageway. Ironically, the property is also bisected by an iron horse, the Commuter Rail, which runs discretely across the eastern side of the estate.

Tree-lined Appleton Farm Roads
Tree-lined Appleton Farm Roads

In addition to its obvious opulence, Appleton is a working farm with its own herd of cows, chickens, fields of vegetables. The site of a CSA (community supported farm), it produces milk, cheese, yogurt, eggs, vegetables, and grass-fed beef for its members.

Bull in Pasture
Bull in Pasture

The day I visited Appleton Farms the temperature was still pretty frisky, although the sun shone brightly and the sky was an azure blue. I was bundled up wearing my heavy long underwear and a pair of shell pants, along with multiple layers under a down hooded jacket. Even then, I had to cower behind plastic wrapped bales of hay to get out of the wind in order to eat a snack.

End to end, my walk across Appleton Farms was 2.7 miles one way, or double that in and back. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a slog toward the end, but crossing into Appleton Farms coming from the west had been an exciting and beautiful section and one I hope to come pack to again in somewhat warmer weather.

Cleveland Farm State Forest

  • Date: 1-15-15
  • Starting Location: Rt 1
  • Designation: Rt 97
  • BCT Map: Section 2, D to H
  • Distance: 3 miles; 6 miles RT back to car
Snow Covered Trail
Snow Covered Trail

There’s a certain irony to the fact that I need to drive in commuter traffic every weekday that I want to hike a section of the Bay Circuit Trail. If I wasn’t hiking the BCT, I’d stay at home until after rush “hour” (which really lasts from 6am – 10am  in Boston) before venturing anywhere, because I hate wasting any time in traffic. Quitting my last corporate job gave me back 10 hours of cummute time each week, which I still guard jealously.

Luckily these northern sections of the BCT are a reverse commute, but soon, I’ll have to fight through normal traffic en route to my hikes, or just get out the door by 5am on hiking days, which is what I’ll have to do to avoid sitting in the endless traffic jam known as Metro-Boston.

Frozen Wetland
Frozen Wetland

I started this final segment of section 2 at the edge of Willowdale State Forest off Rt 1 and entered woodland. It was a grey day and freezing rain had started to fall.

From reading the BCT trail description, I knew that this final segment of Section 2 had been rerouted around a washed out section of trail, but I was still interested to see the wash out to determine whether I could make it across.

Washed out section of the BCT
Washed out section of the BCT

Beavers had built a dam across a low point in the trail, flooding it, and while I would have probably walked across the damn to the other side in warmer weather, I decided not to risk it. The consequences of getting my boots wet were just too high.

Trail Reroute
Trail Reroute

Instead I backtracked to the trail reroute, or what I thought was the reroute because it wasn’t blazed. Grrr! I happen to be very good at finding poorly blazed or overgrown trails in the backcountry, but I’d never have expected to need those same skills in a more urban setting.

I found a blaze and re-entered the woods, emerging on a side street near interstate 95. The bridge over the highway here reminded me of the Appalachian Trail Bridge over Interstate 90 in Western Massachusetts that inspired me to start section hiking the Appalachian Trail nearly a decade ago.

Approaching the Interstate
Approaching the Interstate

But walking across a bridge over an interstate highway in the freezing rain was not one of the high points of my day. Still, any day hiking is better than a lot other things one might do with one’s time.

I'd rather be any place but here
I’d rather be any place but here

Once past the bridge, I walked down the road to the Kelsey Road intersection, where I’d hiked to from the opposite direction on 1-5-15, 10 days earlier. This makes it two sections of the BCT that I’ve completed and connected so far. This section hike is rolling ahead.

Kelsey Road Intersection
Kelsey Road Intersection

After making the connection, I turned and walked back to my car with a spring to my step, even though the day’s hike has been a bit lackluster and deary. Linking two contiguous sections together is always a thrill and cause for celebration, perhaps even more than completing the trail itself, when a void replaces the anticipation of future hikes.

Most Popular Searches

  • baycircuit trails hamilton

4 comments

  1. When’s your next BCT hike? Planning any trail-breaking in the next couple of days? :-)

    • Seriously. I’m trying to finish the southern half of Section 1, but since it’s mostly a road walk, I may wait a few weeks…..until we can see pavement again.

      Afraid my BCT hike is on hold for a bit. But the cross-country skiiing up in Bartlett, NH has definitely improved. :-)

  2. I’ve only hiked on the BCT between the months of April and October so I really enjoyed your photos painting a winter scene.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *