Mendon Town Forest
One of the newest trail systems in Blackstone Valley is in the Mendon Town Forest. Before describing the trails (which are awesome) let’s look at how they came to be.
The original inhabitants of what is now the Mendon Town Forest were members of the Nipmuc Nation. The Nipmucs ranged from Northeast Connecticut, throughout northern Rhode Island and up the Blackstone valley into central Massachusetts. Initially these Native Americans coexisted peacefully with the 17th century colonists. However, in 1662 the purchase of 8 square miles of land from the Nipmuc nation for the establishment of Squinshepauke Plantation, and later in 1667 the incorporation of this land as the town of Mendon , accompanied by the subsequent ambitious clearing of forests for roads and fields sparked resentment among the Nipmucs. As a result, on July 14, 1675, multiple residents of Mendon were killed and Albee’s Mill was destroyed in one of the first skirmishes of the King Philip War. These were the first settlers killed in this war in the colony of Massachusetts. The town of Mendon was burnt to the ground later during the winter of 1676. Mendon was resettled and rebuilt in 1680.
The first white settler to live in what is now the Mendon Town Forest is said to have been Woodland Taft (circa 1720) and the land was worked for generations of the Taft family. Today there are many remaining examples of the industriousness and toughness of the Taft family scattered throughout the town forest. The historic remnants from these early settlers are noted on the town forest map and identifying signs are in place at each location. The early stewards of the land also built miles of amazing stone walls that must have required dawn to dusk hard labor for many years to complete!
It was with this colorful and historic past as a motive that the present Mendon Town Forest Committee was created and under the leadership and Yankee persistence of a wonderful octogenarian named Shirley Smith the committee applied for a Recreational Trails Program grant through the Massachusetts DCR. Tragically, Shirley never saw her dream become a reality as she succumbed to cancer before the grant was approved. The remaining committee members picked up the ball from Shirley and, once the grant was approved, started two years of political negotiations, permits and hard work to bring the Mendon Town Forest to where it is today. Thanks to Shirley and the hard-working people of the committee, today there are eight miles of signed multi use trails winding through stone wall gateways and past the remnants 19th century buildings. When you are enjoying your ride or walk along “Shirley’s” trail take a moment smile and think of her.
A map of the trails is available on the “Mendon Town Forest” web site along with a much more detailed history that is very interesting. I will give a brief overview of the trail system layout and degree of difficulty of each loop from a mountain biker’s perspective.
The forest has several double track backbone trails that are marked with rustic signs denoting the trail name. Each of the four single track loops (Blue, Orange, Yellow and White) are blazed with colored triangles that match the corresponding colors on the trail map. The colored single track loops each start and end on one of the backbone trails. If you are entering the forest from the main parking lot on Millville St. in Mendon the first trail that you will encounter is aptly named “Shirley’s” trail. Shirley’s trail immediately crosses a very rocky and seasonally wet area via a 60 ft. long boardwalk constructed by BVNEMBA members. I know we all like rock gardens, but since this trail is the main entrance and deemed to be beginner friendly, a boardwalk was necessary. Following Shirley’s trail will lead you to Tower Rd. which is still considered a town road that was laid out in 1726 but is really a cart path. Tower Rd. is at right angles to Shirley’s trail and runs all the way through the forest roughly south to north. Right before the junction of Shirley’s and Tower Rd. check the ruins of Thompson Taft’s farm out buildings. Shirley’s trail ends here and proceeding straight across will put you onto Taft trail. Taft and Shirley’s trail run roughly East to West and form a cross that more or less divides the forest into quadrants. Check out the foundation of Thompson Taft’s main house immediately on the right after starting onto Taft trail. This was one of the first brick homes built in Mendon circa 1831. There are two other named double track trails that run south off of Taft trail. The first you will encounter heading west on Taft trail is Quarry trail that dead ends shortly after passing a primitive stone quarry where much of the granite for the shingle mill was most likely obtained. (The quarry is actually reached via a section of the Yellow trail). The second double track is Mill trail which leads to a very well preserved shingle mill complete with a dam and foundation. Following Taft trail west will eventually end at private property before reaching Asylum St. However, access to Asylum St. and the connector to Cormier Woods (TTOR property) has been granted by the Brewer family (owners of Southwick Zoo) via the portion of the White trail that bears signage as the Asylum Trail. Near the end of Asylum trail you will be crossing a bridge over a wet spot that was paid for and built by BVNEMBA.
The singletrack loops can each be accessed in several places but I will describe the loops as starting and ending on one of the backbone trails. As you learn the trails they can be ridden in endless combinations and directions. Presently the single track is blazed in one direction only but several forest users have asked for bidirectional markings and we are considering the request. We are also installing numbered signs at intersections that will correspond to numbers on the trail map.
The Blue loop starts and ends on Tower Rd. The beginning is about 30 yards north of the junction of Shirley’s trail and Tower Rd. and is marked with a blue triangle as is the rest of the trail. The portion of the forest that the Blue trail traverses is a maze of historic stone walls; hence the trail twists and winds to find its way through 19th century gateways and other existing wall passages created during a 1980’s logging operation. The trail will take you over Wigwam hill where there is a current day operational fire tower. The tower itself is gated and trespassing is prohibited. Pay attention to the blazes because the trail runs very close to itself in several spots. The trail ends again on Tower Rd. only about a quarter of a mile from where it began. Turn south on Tower Rd. to loop the Blue Trail or access the Orange trail. Although only about 2.7 miles long this trail features a nearly continuous array of natural obstacles and it rides much longer than the mileage may indicate. Advanced intermediate riders and above will enjoy this trail but there is nothing that can’t be walked by riders with less experience.
The Orange loop starts from Tower Rd. about 30 yards south of the end of the Blue Trail. Stop and carefully examine the large piece of exposed ledge right before the trail entrance. The rock hosts several chiseled markings, one of which dates to just two months before Custer’s last stand when U.S. Grant was president of 37 states! The trail winds back and forth as it traverses a basic down hill path to the bottom of a small ridge. At the bottom the trail winds back uphill, basically parallel to the Taft trail, until it crosses Taft and begins a very fun and fast decent through a forest of red pines. At certain times of the day the straight and tall red pine trunks appear to be purple in color. I often stop at such times and look up at the sky through the towering pines. Try it; you will know what I feel. After the decent through the pines it’s up and over a rocky outcropping and down to the finish of the Orange trail at Quarry Trail. Turning right onto the Quarry trail will lead to the start and end of the Yellow trail and also to the junction with the Taft trail. This trail has far less technical features than the Blue trail and will be enjoyed by intermediate level and above riders. Except for a few spots novices will also find this trail to be doable.
The Yellow Loop begins about 20 yards from the end of the Orange trail. Turn right at end of Orange Trail onto Quarry trail and then turn left onto Yellow trail. This loop is the most technically challenging of the town forest trails as it traverses a rocky, off camber route basically down hill towards the Southwick Zoo trail head and then follows Wigwam Brook ravine and proceeds along a tributary up hill towards the shingle mill. After crossing a wet area on a BVNEMBA built bridge and passing the shingle mill the trail again turns uphill and traverses the most demanding portion of trail in the forest where several natural rock formations occur one after the other while going up hill to present even seasoned riders with a challenge to clean the section. Things mellow out as the trail heads over to end on the Quarry trail 20 yards from where it started. Due to the technical nature of the Yellow trail it should be considered as an advanced intermediate loop.
The White Loop starts and ends on Taft trail a short distance from the junction of Quarry trail and Taft trail. Look on the right for the White triangle blaze denoting the start of the White trail. The trail follows the low terrain along a swamp that is the remnants of a mill pond, that provided water to run the water wheel at the shingle mill, before joining with Taft trail going west past the Mill trail on the left and crossing a stone bridge. You should dismount and walk down to the stream bed to your left and view the massive granite slabs that were used to create this bridge. Shortly after the stone bridge Look for the White triangle where the loop leaves the Taft trail and proceed over a series of gently rolling rock ridges through an area known as bedrock. There are a couple of “A” lines in this section but the main loop is marked to exclude them and the result is a fun section traversable by most riders. After bedrock, the trail heads basically down hill to the border of the Southwick easement land which contains the smoothest and most flowy sections in the whole trail system. After a giggle inducing down hill the white trail joins with the Asylum trail. To continue on the White Loop turn left onto Asylum trail. To connect with Cormier Woods turn right onto Asylum trail and follow it to Asylum St., crossing another BVNEMBA bridge, then go straight across the street to the connector. After turning left on Asylum trail from the White trail, proceed up hill to the start of the sidewinder section. I think the name speaks for the nature of this section! After sidewinder the White loop meets again with the Taft trail and ends. The White Loop is the most novice friendly of the four single track loops and really fun for everyone.
From this point you can turn left and follow Taft trail up hill to the junction of Tower Rd, Shirley’s trail and Taft trail. If you parked in the main lot just return via Shirley’s trail. Be sure to take the side spur for Big Wall Trail off of Shirley’s trail to see the “mystery wall”.
There are four access points to the Town Forest Trails and each has a kiosk that displays a trail map and other trail related information. The trail heads at the end of Tower Rd. and off of Asylum St. provide very limited parking (maybe 3 vehicles). If you park at the end of Tower Rd. do not block access to the fire tower. The trail head at Southwick Zoo is best for larger groups since it has ample room for parking in the field across from the zoo entrance near the large kiosk at the lower end of the field. Please note that the Brewer family has graciously allowed us to use their field but it is imperative that our parking does not interfere with the parking for paying patrons of the zoo or the newly opened restaurant and bar. The newly completed parking lot that was built with RTP grant funds is located on Millville St. in Mendon. This is considered the main entrance to the trails and will hold up to 20 vehicles tightly parked. Three Boy Scouts from the local troops completed their Eagle Scout requirement by constructing the kiosks at the Zoo, Tower Rd. and Asylum St. trail heads. The kiosk at the main lot was constructed by members of the town forest committee and other trail users including several from BVNEMBA.
When visiting the Mendon Town Forest we ask you to remember that you are enjoying the trails as a guest of the town of Mendon. Many people volunteered endless hours to make this project a reality. We had to work with many user groups and make several concessions so that the majority of users would eventually agree to the opening up of the town lands to public use. Therefore all the trails are designated as multi use for passive recreation. (No motorized vehicles are allowed except for on Tower Rd. that is still considered a public road.). A friendly hello and the occasional yielding of the trail to other outdoor enthusiasts goes a long way in promoting community acceptance. Hunting is allowed within the forest and the wearing of hunter orange clothing is strongly recommended. Dog walkers should also assure that their pets are sporting the orange and that they are leashed to prevent them from being involved in a hunting accident. During the period where shotguns and primitive firearms are permitted for hunting we recommend that bikers refrain from riding except for Sundays when hunting is not permitted. Hunters have only a short time to enjoy their sport and they were there long before mountain biking was even conceived so let’s be thoughtful co users of the forest and let them enjoy their sport.
Also be advised that no unauthorized trail modifications or marking is permitted. We will be hosting a trail work day after the spring mud subsides to get the trails ready for next year.
By Bill Dakai